NATHAN WALLIS provides a ‘cheat sheet’ for connecting with your child and improving that vital attachment – with profound benefits for your relationship and for their brain. By KATE BARBER.
The message from the experts is consistent and clear: loving, empathic, responsive relationships grow our children’s brains. Not only will our kids trust in their connection with us and look to us for love and guidance when they need it, but they will also have more complex brains on the strength of our relationships with them.
Nathan explains that the left hemisphere of the brain is procedural, and the right is emotional. “We live in a left-brain world,” he says. This is a world dictated by daily routines and demands. “Our right brains are about the big picture, our gut feelings, our relationships,” he says. “For a child to have a sense of belonging and a strong attachment to us, it’s about connecting with their right brain.”
We know that connecting with our little ones is the key to healthy brain development. We also know that there are kids out there who’re missing out on the benefits of a secure attachment, which is contributing to higher-than-ever rates of anxiety and depression.
However, it is not always easy to find time and energy to hang out and play with our kids. Simply, to be with them. This is where Nathan’s ‘cheat sheet’ for improving your attachment comes in.
Psychologist Oliver James came up with the concept of ‘love bombing’ your children as a means of “resetting their emotional thermostats” and strengthening the parent-child relationship. It corresponds with Nathan’s idea of having ‘right-brain dates’ with your child or children – as an achievable way of nurturing their right (emotional) brains and, essentially, improving your relationships with them.
Love bombing involves spending 10-15 minutes each week with each of your children – just you and them. Simple. The key, says Nathan, is that it must be predictable; it occurs at the same time each week and isn’t postponed or cancelled.
Vital for calming the brain stem, “predictability goes to the heart of the human brain,” he says, “creating a condition where parents are most connected to their child’s emotional brain.” By having this special time every Thursday afternoon, for instance, you’re making this time meaningful for your child – something they can look forward to and plan for, that they enjoy and trust in.
Nathan says it’s about throwing off your parenting hat and “be[ing] the fun uncle or auntie! Stop parenting in the traditional sense of telling them what to do,” he says, “and do whatever they want to do. Of course, there are limits – like if it’s potentially dangerous or harmful. But if it’s not hurting you, then do it,” he urges. “If your kid wants you to lie back and pretend to be a baby and let them feed you,” he says, “then do it.”
But what if they want to play on their Playstation or phone? Perhaps surprisingly, Nathan tells parents to, “Let them. Sit with them and watch, and learn about the characters and game, and don’t check your phone.”
“The point is that they’re in charge,” he stresses, adding that kids tend to request time on their Playstation or phone for the first couple of weeks, “to test you”: will they really let me do what I want to do? By the third week, he says, they’ll likely want to do something that reverses the power dynamic, like making you pretend to be a baby, he says. By the fourth week, they’ll be starting to trust in (and enjoy) this time with you and will think about what you can do together.
“Many parents think quality time is the same as teaching your child,” says Nathan. “But, if you want to strengthen your attachment, then the opposite is true.” It’s not about optimising what your child learns when you are together, he says; it’s about giving your child the reins and being fully present.
We would all agree that our kids are the most important things in our lives, but our actions don’t always reflect that, says Nathan. So often our cell phones seem to be the most important thing. “It’s about showing our kids that they are most important, and leaving our partner to deal with distractions.”
“During this time, you’re getting into their world, and focusing on the relationship, and not on control,” says Nathan, adding that “it takes discipline” to ignore distractions and to refrain from trying to teach them anything.
How it works
Nathan says that love bombing works well with three-year-olds and older, and is extraordinarily powerful with teenagers. Younger than three, children tend to need more grown-up input into their play options and supporting them as they play.
For parents with a young child who is having massive tantrums or who is particularly whiney or clingy, an older child who is having anger outbursts at home or school, or a teenager who’s withdrawing, Nathan’s advice is to work on your attachment. It’s a simple message, yet for many of us, it conflicts with deeply ingrained, traditional (punitive) approaches to dealing with challenging behaviour.
As Nathan says, this “intense love period” creates a closer relationship between child and parent, and makes the child want to connect – during this time and, importantly, at other times. Equally, he says, parents love the feeling of closeness they get, as their children start to open up about their lives. “Parents think that their kids will tell them stuff, but they won’t,” says Nathan.
“They need a safe space where they feel listened to,” he adds. When his own kids were young, Nathan allowed them to speak freely with him when he was working in the garage. While these chats lacked the element of predictability (same time each week), and his kids weren’t in charge of what went on, the arrangement offered his kids a space for being totally open and honest – outside the usual parent-child (power) dynamic.
The point is that, as kids begin to trust this special time they share with Mum or Dad each week, they start to open up more and more.
Nathan urges parents to get their heads around the fact that, as your connection improves, your child will be less likely to have tantrums or to act out – because they will want to connect with you.
Parenting in this busy, often stressful “left-brain world”, Nathan says “we need to target this more”. That’s because, by regularly, meaningfully connecting with our kids’ emotional brains, by giving them our undivided attention for as little as ten minutes a week, they will feel safe and secure, valued and important – with profound benefits for their developing brains and for our relationship with them.
Nathan urges parents to get their heads around the fact that, as your connection improves, your child will be less likely to have tantrums or to act out.
Love bombing basics
- It must be predictable – at the same time each week.
- The child is in charge: get into their world and don’t use this time to direct or correct them.
- It takes discipline: let your partner deal with distractions and do not check your phone.
In presentations across the country and overseas, neuroscience presenter Nathan Wallis provides an informative narrative on the different stages of children’s neurological development and offers valuable advice for parents and educators.