As a parent, I want the very best for my children. I want them to feel safe and loved. I want them to know that they are precious, that they matter, and that they have a voice. I want them to develop healthy social, emotional, and relational skills for their relationships throughout their lives. I want them to develop self-regulation tools to support them when things are challenging. I want them to know that they can count on me no matter what.
Whew! Sometimes, creating this type of connection and nurturing care for our children can feel daunting, particularly when we have so much happening in our lives. Thankfully, Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI®) gives us tangible, in the moment connection tools to communicate to our children: I see you. I hear you. You are not alone. I’ve “got you.” You are a great kid. You are precious to me. I love being with you. You are worthy of love and care. You matter. Your needs are important to me. I am here for you. The reality is that ALL of us need other people in our lives that “have us”, no matter what; people that we can safely turn to for anything and everything. Investing even just a small amount of time each day with each of our children can create healthy relational skills for their lifetime, and a true knowing that we “have them”, no matter what.
“So, what are these magical tools?”, you ask. Please allow me to introduce you to, or remind you of the TBRI® Connection Principles.
Nurturing touch is essential to our overall health and wellbeing. All humans are biologically wired to require nurturing touch to survive and thrive. Having safe, nurturing physical contact with others helps us build a sense of “felt safety” within our relationships and within the world through our bodies. Nurturing touch is a non-verbal way to communicate that “we are connected, you matter, you are safe, you can trust me and you can rely on me.” It is also a key component of how caregivers teach children self-regulation tools when they are offering soothing and meeting needs through touch.
Nurturing touch can communicate care and emotional connection. It can be comforting through a hug, hand on the shoulder, or pat on the back. It can be playful, like a fist bump, high five or mirroring game. We can use touch to get our child’s attention, like asking them to place their hands in ours or touching their arm. Physical connection can also happen as a part of collaborative activities like gardening, cooking, or crafts.
We must be attuned to our child’s verbal and non-verbal cues around touch. Some children who have experienced physical harm within relationships, may feel fearful of touch. However, these children desperately need to experience touch in a safe, nurturing way. In these situations, caregivers may use “symbolic touch” while they are still building trust within the relationship. Symbolic touch is when you hold your hand near the person, do an “air” high five, etc. without actually touching them. Symbolic touch can have just as many benefits for both people as actual touch.
Another way we can provide our children with nurturing touch as trust is being established is to engage them in activities where they are in control of the touch. For example, ask your child to paint your nails, brush your hair, put face paint or make up on you, or lead you on a walk where you are blindfolded (your hands on their shoulders).
Warm Eye Contact
Eye contact and facial expression are big pieces of our non-verbal communication. They communicate a large amount about our emotional state and the meaning behind our words. The way we look at others can result in an emotional, cognitive, or behavioral response in them, regardless of the actual words we are saying.
Using warm eye contact with our children on purpose is a great way to build connection, trust and felt safety. What is reflected back to us through our caregivers’ eyes is one of the ways we begin to create our own internal story of who we are, our sense of safety, and our ability to trust. When children have had stressful experiences, eye contact may be hard for them. So, have fun, be playful! Maybe you look at each other through a mirror versus face to face. Ask what color their eyes are. Play a game.
Some ways to engage our children in warm eye contact:
- Copy-my-moves mirroring game
- Request eye contact on purpose when you have something exciting to tell them or when you are offering praise
- Ask to see their beautiful eyes
- Make silly faces at each other
- Play peek-a-boo
- Have a staring contest
Similar to eye contact and facial expression, our voice quality is another key piece of non-verbal communication. How loudly or softly or quickly or slowly we speak as well as the tone we use (playful and higher pitched vs. serious and lower pitched) when we speak can heavily influence the way others receive our communication. Just like eye contact and facial expression, our voice quality influences the emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses in others, regardless of the words we are saying. When we are attuned to the situation and the needs of our child, we naturally adjust our voice accordingly in tone, volume and cadence. For example, if our child has had a stressful day at school and comes in the door with their head down, withdrawn, and quiet, you can attune to their body language and adjust your voice quality when greeting them, using a soft, gentle and slower voice. This will show them that you recognize their feelings, meeting them where they are in the moment, and ready to support them.
Voice quality is also a way to engage children in connection. For example, we often use a higher pitch, sing-song-like, or silly voice when we are playing with an infant. With young children, we use various tones of silliness in our play. With older children and teenagers, we can change our voice quality in similar ways, but it may not be as obvious. For example, being silly may take a more sarcastic tone.
Another way to create connection is through behavior matching. When we match the behavior of others we communicate connection, likeness, togetherness, safety, and a sense of “I’ve got you.” Many times, we do this naturally (sometimes without even knowing it) when we are in trusting relationships with others where we feel safe. We may sit in the same position, lean on the table the same way as if to reflect each other, or match each other’s facial expressions and voice quality. When we are working to build connection, trust, and felt safety with our child, we can behavior match “on purpose.” Here are some ideas:
- Sitting the same way
- Choosing the same color, toy, sticker, or flavor of food
- Engage in our child’s favorite activity with them (e.g., video games, basketball, watching their favorite show together)
- Mirroring games, making faces at each other, or mimicking different expressions or feelings to one another
- Honoring where they are emotionally in any given moment without trying to fix it or correct them. This communicates that they are seen, heard, and valued even when they are having big feelings
Playing with one another is a key piece to building connection and trust in any relationship. When we can laugh and have fun together, we deepen our sense of belonging and safety within that relationship. For children, play is one of the primary ways that relationships develop. Play is a great opportunity to build in all of the other engagement strategies: nurturing touch, eye contact, voice quality, and behavior matching. When we play, get silly and have fun with our children, we are able to “get into their world” and speak with them in their own “language.” Play humanizes adults, disarms fear, and creates a deeper sense of connection and felt safety.
Sometimes, even the briefest moments can bring the greatest connection to our relationships. Think about the last time you truly were present and engaged in the moment with someone you care about. You may have been having a heartfelt conversation, laughing, playing together, or just looking into each other’s eyes. Even if these experiences of deep connectedness may have only lasted a few minutes, they often overflow our cup within that relationship. The same is true when we deeply connect with our children. Even just a few minutes a day of intentional connection can create pure gold!
Jill Crewes, MSW
Families Are Forever Advisory Board Member