Every parent wants their child to flourish. But how does that really happen? Healthy eating? Exercise habits? Strong education? There's no doubt all of these things play a factor in helping children thrive and grow! But there’s compelling data that one thing in particular may matter most of all…
Many studies have looked at the negative consequences children face as a result of challenging family environments, neglect, and or abuse. It's not surprising that these terrible things leave severe and long term impacts on a child's future well being.
But here’s what, until recently, we haven’t understood as well: Do strong family connections actually create measurably lasting positive impacts?
According to the data, the answer is YES!
The Power of Family Connections
Last year, the journal Pediatrics published a study in which 37,000 children across 26 countries were surveyed. Children ages 11-13 were surveyed from 2016 through 2019 with a tool called the International Survey of Child Well-Being. Over time, children were asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I feel safe at home”. Statements considered the categories of care, support, safety, respect, and participation.
Researchers also controlled for important environmental factors like economic circumstances, food insecurity, etc.
Across the years, countries, and cultures, the consistent findings were compelling.
"Children with the greatest level of family connection were over 49% more likely to flourish compared with those with the lowest level of family connection, according to the study," CNN noted in a story on the report.
Parenting Stress? You’re Not Alone
It's powerful to pause on this data. Because let's be honest: being a parent is a constant game of prioritization, feeling pulled in a million directions at the same time. Between sports, school, extra curricular activities, not to mention meals, (god forbid) actual work, and so much more, always prioritizing the "right" things can often feel impossible.
Parents often feel overwhelmed and like they’re “doing it wrong”, parenting experts say. The New York Times explored this rising changing in parenting philosophy in a 2018 article titled The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting:
“In a new paper, Patrick Ishizuka surveyed a nationally representative group of 3,642 parents about parenting. Regardless of their education, income or race, they said the most hands-on and expensive choices were best. For example, they said children who were bored after school should be enrolled in extracurricular activities, and that parents who were busy should stop their task and draw with their children if asked.
“Intensive parenting has really become the dominant cultural model for how children should be raised,” said Mr. Ishizuka, a postdoctoral fellow studying gender and inequality at Cornell.”
Fell familiar? If enough never seems like enough when it comes to kids, you’re in good company.
Connection is What Counts
So why should parents be encouraged? The beauty of the message in this new data is its simplicity. Just showing up, being present, building closer connections, and letting children know you’re there for them - these are the superpowers parents have that make such a powerful difference!
“Adults have a very powerful influence on the emotional climate in the home, so it’s important to create a space where children feel seen and heard,” says the Pediatrics lead study author, Dr. Robert Whitaker, according to CNN.
It’s not about specifics or benchmarks. What quality connection looks like may be different for each family. The study authors note that time around the dinner table can be a particularly powerful. Here are a few other ideas:
- Time around the table together
- Going for walks
- Playing games
- Bedtime stories
- Check-in texts or calls during the day
Practical Ways to Build Family Connection
So, how can we strengthen family connections in the context of parenting? Here are four keys that any parent can practice (emphasize practice) starting today.
- Prioritize family time: There isn’t a replacement for time. And while it may seem obvious, in our busy modern lives, it's easy to let family time fall by the wayside. Make an effort to prioritize family time one-on-one and all together on a regular basis, whether it's a weekly dinner together or a weekend outing.
- Explore various pathways: All kids are different and what means positive connection to them may be as well. Maybe it’s being physically active together, maybe it’s snuggling and reading a book, or maybe its working on a family project or playing games around the table. Keep an open and curious mind to different pathways that might form the strongest connections for your child.
- Find simple channels: Kids want - kids need - to feel seen and connected. Finding small ways to stay connected throughout the day with small touchpoints with kid-safe devices can be powerful.
- Model positive behaviors: Children learn by example. If positive, intentional connection is something they get to observe regularly, their own inclinations will mold to those patterns. Consider things like being respectful and kind to family members, practicing good communication skills, and prioritizing self-care.
It's worth noting that strengthening family connections isn't just beneficial for children – it’s for parents too, and can (maybe will) have positive effects on our mental health and well-being more broadly. Research has shown that people who have strong social connections are less likely to experience depression and anxiety, and may even live longer.
While there are certainly other factors that influence parenting strategies and outcomes for children, it's clear that strengthening family connections can be a powerful strategy for helping children flourish. By prioritizing family time, exploring pathways, building useful channels, and modeling positive behaviors, we can create a more supportive and nurturing environment for ourselves and our children.