Chances are if you’ve interacted with children from any walk of life you’ve experienced the short answer responses to your questions. How was school? Good. What did you learn? Nothing. Did you have fun? Sure. It sounds like they just don’t want to talk, and maybe they don’t, but maybe there’s a better way.
Instead of giving up a few questions in, try a different approach. It can be hard to build a connection but don’t give up too quickly. Remember to be patient and let the child open up to you in his own time.
Here are a few tips to help build a connection:
Connect at eye level
This tip is especially true for younger kids because they are much smaller than adults. Having an adult towering over them can feel scary and trigger a fight, flight or freeze response. To help a kid feel comfortable with you try squatting down to his level. This reduces the chance of a fear-based reaction and shows you care.
Use safe touches
Safe and affectionate touch is important in a parent-child relationship. Unfortunately, many kids in foster care have experienced negative touch. Because of a child’s history, it’s important to ask permission before touching her, even if you are just resting your hand on a shoulder. This simple act helps to fully engage a child’s brain and build a connection. If your child says no, try using symbolic touch. This means you mime the touches without actually making contact to help a child understand that you are a safe person.
Ask the right questions
Closed ended questions, like the ones mentioned above, have easy answers and don’t open up conversation. Work on asking open-ended questions to start a conversation and show a child you want to learn more about them. Here are a few examples:
In healthy families, matching behavior is naturally occurs between kids and parents. hen a baby coos, a parent coos back. When playing “so big” baby throws her hands in the air and daddy does the same. Kids from hard places may have missed out on this matching, a critical part of building connection with a kid. You can do this with older kids by matching their body position. If a boy sits at the table and leans on his elbows, you do the same. If a girl on the floor sits cross-legged, get down on the floor and sit cross-legged. These small moments help build trust between you and the child.
Have kind eyes
A critical part of connection is eye contact, but not the kind you might remember from your childhood when your parents ordered, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!”. With kids from hard places, you need to be intentional about making eye contact with kind eyes. Your warm eyes will help tell him that he is beautiful and precious. Kind eyes also convey love and empathy. These are all feelings kids from hard places need to experience.
In case you’ve forgotten, kids love to play. You know what that means? To help build a connection you need to engage with them while they play. Get down and build Legos, dress dolls or play Old Maid. Playful interaction helps kids let go of fear and open up. Additionally, letting kids lead play time encourages leadership and imagination. Remember the rule of improv acting and just say yes (unless someone is likely to get hurt). Have fun.
As you build relationships with kids keep these basic principles in mind. All of the tips in this article are based on Trust Based Relational Intervention training (TBRI). Learn more about TBRI’s connecting principles here.