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Bids For Attention

So much has been learned about brain functions and interpersonal attachment systems over the last several decades. A pioneer in this field (and personal favorite), Bessel van der Kolk, explains: "Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives."

How we as parents build connections with our children, how we deepen them, or even repair them when they break can be as simple as a warm smile, a particularly empathetic moment, or just a moment of sitting and listening.

The process is often 'felt' more than understood. John Gottman, who wrote Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, says that the building blocks of connection are the small overtures we make to each other every day, and the way our loved ones respond. Gottman calls these “bids,” as in “bids for attention," and their hidden message is "I want to connect with you, so please give me your attention." How to Address It? There are basically three responses to a bid for attention:

  1. Turn towards by acknowledging

  2. Turn away by missing it entirely or ignoring it

  3. Turn against by rejecting in an argumentative or belligerent way

Since you are a crazy busy parent, it's possible you are thinking, "Are you crazy? I'm supposed to lovingly connect every time my child wants my attention? Help!". No, let's start with simply acknowledging. Your Script in Action Child: Mom, could you review my math problems with me? Turn Away Parent: Without looking at or acknowledging the child, distractedly, "I'm in the middle of something...maybe later." Turn Against Parent: Exasperated, "Can't you see I'm busy? Why can't you ever just do your work on your own? Why can't you let me know ahead of time? Turn Towards Parent WITH the time and inclination in the moment: stop whatever you are doing, turn towards her and look right at her and say you'd love to...and do it. Parent WITHOUT the time or inclination: stop whatever you are doing, turn towards her and look right at her, and say something like "you know, I would love to but now is really not a good time for me as I am in the middle of something important." And just follow up with a plan: "Could we do it in an hour?" or "I know Dad will be home soon - could he help?". (If last minute requests bother you, we just need to set up some boudaries and plans ahead of time.) GOT A MINUTE? Remember, it's about lots of opportunities to do little things: this is NOT a 20 minute special time. Look for one opportunity in the next few days to turn towards when your chid throws out a a bid for attention. Notice how it makes YOU feel or watch your child's face. Set the bar low and the habit will form faster because you’re setting yourself up to feel successful, and that’s the feeling that wires in the habit.


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