Before having kids, many people imagine falling head over heels for their sons and daughters the instant they meet. Unfortunately, it's not always that simple. Building a strong bond with your children and maintaining it as they grow up takes intentional effort.
Luckily, fostering a positive bond with your children can be lots of fun.
"The parent who sincerely wants to 'see the world' through the child's eyes, and share in both the joys and heartaches, will have no trouble bonding," says clinical psychologist Forrest Talley.
Child and adolescent therapist Lauren Mosback says no matter what you're doing, keeping open communication with your children is the most important thing you can do to encourage a healthy bond as they grow.
"My clients who have the closest bonds with [their] parents have parents who keep the doors of communication open," she says. "These kids feel they can openly discuss almost anything with their parents, and while these parents also create healthy boundaries and expectations, they respect their kids' thoughts, validate their emotions, and value their honesty."
Engaging in special activities and knowing how to connect with your children at certain ages and stages can be helpful, especially when you can't face one more game of "My Little Pony" or aren't ready for another conversation about middle-school drama.
Here, Talley and Mosback share how to bond with your children at every age:
At this age, tapping into your child's sense of wonder at everyday occurrences can help you bond. "Everything is new, so just about any activity is a winner," Talley says.
Take time to enjoy simple things your child finds fascinating, like throwing rocks into sewers, playing with bubbles in the bath, or stomping in puddles. Tapping into their interests—even around mundane things—will show them you care.
Kindergarten Through 3rd Grade
Once children start school, they're developing greater cognitive function and more physical abilities. Bond with them over activities that let them show mastery of new skills, like baking, balancing at the park and, of course, reading.
Mosback stresses the importance of reading books to your children that incorporate themes of kindness, friendship, self-esteem, and identifying and expressing feelings. "This helps children develop an understanding about healthy relationships and creates healthy parent-child bonds," she says.
Grades 4th Through 5th
At this age, children are beginning to develop a greater sense of independence and autonomy. They may experiment with new hobbies, like music lessons or sports teams, and parents should follow their lead. Show up to games or take your kid on special outings to professional events (like concerts) that align with their interests.
This is also a great time to start normalizing tough conversations in anticipation of the tween and teen years.
"Because junior high school and early adolescence is on the horizon, it's good to sprinkle into these times together some conversations about the challenges that await," says Talley. This includes topics like peer pressure and self-love.
Middle-school-age—with its big emotions and big hormonal changes—is tough on the parent-child bond. During this time it's best to let your kid choose the setting and activity, while still insisting that you spend time together.
"I encourage parents to carve out at least 2 or 3 hours of 'special' time with their child each weekend, and have the child decide (within reason) how they will spend this time," says Talley. "The time together is non-negotiable, but the child takes the lead in determining how that time will be spent."
And don't take your child's outbursts or attitude personally.
"Kids often take out their emotions on those they feel closest with, so a parent can help a child through this stage by remaining a calm presence and a rational voice, and remembering that this is a difficult stage for their child," Mosback says.
In high school, your child is practicing to be an adult and is likely more interested in bonding with friends than with mom and dad. That's why it's important to take advantage of the built-in time together, like when you're driving. Talley also recommends making a fun weekly breakfast with your child on "Freshman Fridays," "Sophomore Saturdays," and so on.
Keep these times fun and only use your precious time together to lecture or discuss problems when it's necessary.
"If there is pressure or punishment when our children honestly communicate with us, kids can turn the other way," Mosback says.
Mosback, who is a mom as well as a therapist, says bonding at any age can seem daunting. But just making an effort to facilitate bonding is an important step toward fostering a healthy relationship, she says. "When our actions are motivated by love, they can't be too far off base. Our kids need to know that we're there for them and love them, no matter what."