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Woman Standing on Dock
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Connecting at the Family Table

Children learn about connection from the day they are born. The first connections are most likely with mom and dad. The child is held close, and the very first connection is born shortly after birth. They observe and they grow and in that process, they learn.

Each member of the family has place at the table. Whether the seats are assigned, or taken randomly, the important thing is that there are chairs for everyone.

Developing minds and connection

Children might discover that it is okay to express their opinions, or they might find that only parents, or certain family members, can safely talk about their feelings and ideas.

At first the way things happen in the home seems normal and certainly all homes are similar, as was mine. However, this will change with exposure to a wider variety of people in the child’s environment.

When they enter school, they bring friends home and visit friends’ homes where they are exposed to new family experiences. Some homes might feel warm and embracing, and others might feel not so friendly.

Ultimately, it is about individual connections in each family and connecting each individual and family to the larger society. It begins, as so much does, in the home.

I know many people who stand, or exist, on the fringes of their families, and society. I hear many times that these people felt that they were not heard or were not allowed to express themselves freely. In some cases they were not even free to think for themselves, but were forced to accept others’ thoughts, needs, wants and desires.

Families develop their own cultures. They do this by becoming a group with its own identity. This can be as a musical family, a sports family, a nautical family, an academically oriented family, or a nomadic family. The family identity might not have always been positive: The family everyone avoided, the dysfunctional family, the poor family, the “those people just don’t fit in family.” These cultures are unique to each and every family unit. These descriptions can define our connection to each other whether we like it or not. They might be looked at as how a family views itself and how others outside of the family view the family as a whole.

Inside each of these family groups there are codes of behavior which can be either healthy, or unhealthy. For instance, “In this family we honor all feelings and emotions.” “You will always be heard.” or the opposite might apply. “We don’t speak anger or depression in this house.” “You will be shut down for expressing what we don’t agree with.” There is also a middle ground that can create mixed messaging. This can be very confusing for children.

While the positive side of this culture promotes healthy emotional development, the negative version places the child who gets angry in a place where there is no outlet to express this very vital feeling. If you can’t express your anger, how can you possibly explore the deeper emotion triggering the anger? Creating a culture, or a rule, that does not allow for the expression of an emotion, can create a void in a person’s ability to understand themselves. This negative rule and restriction will hurt the child and cause even greater pain as the child ages. Here’s how it potentially looks in action.

Connection begins to develop as the family listens to each person. As parents reach out to comfort the crying child, heal the “boo-boo”, or wipe the tears, bonds are created. As children are told that it is okay to express emotion and learn that errors will be dealt with fairly and judiciously, they come to understand that there is a safe place to exist in. Giving loads of age-appropriate feedback is a good thing. When they are teased or bullied outside but know at home they can express themselves honestly and receive compassionate reinforcement, they will share and connect.

Trust and connection in tiny ways means that when the huge stuff happens there is a solid foundation in place. One of the most wonderful examples of this type of beginning foundation I know was in the relationship I was told existed between my mother and one of her granddaughters.

My brother and his family were visiting for dinner. My mother was busy in the kitchen trying to get the meal prepared. My parents have enjoyed each one of the grandchildren and tried to develop relationships early on. My niece came into the kitchen to share something with her grandmother and stopped two or three sentences in saying, “Grandma you aren’t listening to me.” My mother stopped what she was doing and acknowledged that she wasn’t fully listening. Then she really listened. There was room in that budding relationship for truth to be told on all levels. In telling me about this later my mother commented on how the incident really made her stop and think about being called out by a three-year-old. It worked because both felt safe in expressing emotion due to their developed love and connection.

I’m using a simple example to explain a complex dynamic. Families that thrive do so because they are open, respectful and communicate effectively about things that really matter. They engage in respectful cross-talk with each other. Thoughts and feelings are honored and when something is wrong, siblings can negotiate with each other and learn to understand the deeper feelings and the hurt that might have been caused. Children begin to positively monitor themselves because boundaries are clear.

What grows from this is a culture of love and acceptance. Siblings stand up for each other and feel proud to do so. The family pulls together in hard times. They talk, seek outside help when needed, and each member is included in the process. Family members support each other and look for ways to connect and create positive results. Rather than a culture of exclusion, each member is sensitive to the need for including everyone in the process. This might be as simple as an older brother getting up from the sofa to get a drink and asking his sister “do you want anything?” It’s the little stuff that builds to the big stuff. The tiny heartfelt gestures that place another positive action in the “connection pot” go a long way towards the accumulation times.

What does all of this really look like in action? Where the rubber meets the road and both the good stuff and the bad stuff happens?

 

The musical family

I was raised in a large family of five siblings. My parents loved music and they wanted each of us to love music just as much as they did.

Things were going really well with this plan until my younger sister came along. She could not hear pitch. She just couldn’t hold a tune. In a family that was singing together this was an issue, but not one that we stopped singing over. There were solutions. I was singing on pitch before I could talk. The fact that she sang off tune constantly was hard on me as a young child. I loved her and I didn’t belittle or harass her about it. So when she was old enough, and had the desire to learn, my father worked with her even though this took the better part of a year. He taught her the fundamentals and she began to sing and play the flute. In our family this was a huge accomplishment and she felt safe to accept the help when my father saw that she was ready to learn the skill. She knew we loved her and she felt that love. I have happy memories of being able to sing in four part harmony around the piano. She was a part of the singing from day one.

Connection in the hard times

I’m going to revisit my younger sister. One of the things that our family did together was wash the pots and pans by hand. We’d be in twos when we did this. One evening as my younger sister and I were washing the dishes she turned to me and asked me what she should do about a neighbor who she felt might be crossing a physical boundary. The tip-off was that she said, “he creeps me out.” We talked about the situation but I didn’t know then what I learned later. Fortunately, in a time when she was scared and not sure what to do, she felt safe and turned to her older sister because there was trust and connection.

She also knew, because my parents had done age-appropriate explaining when we were younger, that her boundaries were in jeopardy of being violated. She talked to me and it felt good.

If that “connection currency” has not been deposited in that pot before the crisis, it is not going to magically appear when it is needed most. I’m not saying that these deposits must be perfect; they just need to be good enough. If you have made time for listening and given positive feedback during the good times, the foundations for the bad times, when the really huge issues need to be talked about, will be solid enough to discuss the hard stuff.

If the “connection currency” is present in the pot, you won’t have to hear from your son’s teacher that he is having trouble reading the words on the board at the front of the classroom before he comes to you with his concerns. He will feel safe in discussing his worries with you first. Your loving response to this issue, and the positive response he gets (I’m so glad that you came to me about this. We can get help for you.) because he is praised honestly, will determine his feelings about coming to you as an adolescent when the really heavy stuff is happening.

This brings up the issue of offering false praise. Kids are intelligent. They pick up on cues that we miss because we, as adults, don’t speak down to them. Children in healthy environments can sense when they’ve done well and deserve praise. This can backfire on parents and other adults if they offer false or meaningless praise. Rather than increase the “connection currency” it will decrease such currency because the recipient of the false praise will be left wondering why it was given. It confuses rather than confirms ones worth in the system.

Be flexible

Most everyone needs some wiggle room. If the connection during the formative years of childhood has been good enough, and if the family has modeled healthy boundaries for each member, then amazing things can happen during the most trying time. Adolescents! What a rocky road it can be to live in that period of life. Do you remember your time spent here with fondness, or does something else come to mind? This is when the “connection pot of savings and deposits” really kicks in.

I think that most parents hope that their children will trust them with the big stuff of working out identity and the questions that are often asked in this period of life. There’s a catch: Some children need to find those answers in places outside of the home. If this option has been made acceptable within the home and is done through the healthy process of building the relationship the entire village can become a part of the process.

While young children need to see the village and begin to learn about its resources, an adolescent needs to have full access to the resources in the village. Make it okay to enter the village. Parents might serve as a resource for another family’s children and their children might find that same type of mentoring in other areas of the village. This is a success! In my family and village I was taught early on the value of our home and the extended family. I was also exposed to other adults outside the home where I could learn. One of these women became a mentor and to this day we are connected.

One of the reasons for this greater village is that not all personalities mesh. While you might love each of your children deeply, your interests and personalities might not be well balanced. This doesn’t mean that you’ve failed. It means that for this particular time in their life they need something different. Aren’t you glad that by depositing in the “connection pot” you have made it safe for them to find it? Don’t worry when they are out of the rocky road zone they will connect with you in new and better ways.

Seriously, this could save a child’s life

During adolescence things get turned upside down and inside out. Kids think in new ways, discover things about themselves that they like, things that they don’t like, that shock them, that scare them, and generally cause them to question themselves in ways that they have not done before. They are beginning to explore new ways of being in the world, new ways of thinking, and they are discovering that the secure world they once knew is not so secure.

There are so many new things that can arise during this time in the life of an adolescent. Mental stressors, depression, anxiety, the discovery and confirmation of one’s sexual identity, and often, medical issues that were dormant. There is so much that can surface during this time. This is where the greater villages kicks in. This is where you as a parent must hang tight and love, accept and support whatever needs to happen so that your child is safe, healthy and feels loved and heard. This is why when that tiny bundle is placed in your arms you connect. This is why you have kissed the “boo- boos” and wiped the tears. This is why you have created a relationship built on love, honesty and trust. This is why you have praised work, rewarded accomplishments and set limits and boundaries that are healthy.

This is why every person at the family table must feel that connection so that when the going gets really rough the table filled with family connects to support.

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