Seven Simple Ways to Really Connect with Your Kids (and give yourself the greatest Mother’s Day gift of all)

Flowers and cards are great—but what if you could have a great relationship with your kids every single day? Author and parenting expert Kimberley Clayton Blaine offers seven simple steps for having an awesome connection with your kids right now.

It’s right around the corner: that special day once a year when we celebrate moms. And if you’re scrambling for some last-minute gift ideas, or just holding out hope that your husband actually remembers this year, consider this: Perhaps the best gift you’ll receive this year isn’t going to come in a package, and it may just come from the person you least expect—yourself.

“Flowers, cards, and breakfast in bed are great, but at the end of the day, what mothers really want is to feel a real, deep, and lasting emotional bond with their kids,” says Blaine, licensed family and child therapist, mother of two boys, and author of The Go-To Mom’s Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-58497-2, $16.95, “They want the great relationship every single (ordinary) day, not the big show of affection that comes around only once a year.”

Blaine goes on to say that while the concept of having a deep, emotional connection may seem like a daunting task, it’s not only possible for moms to make that crucial connection with their kids, it’s actually not as complicated as you may think. “There are simple changes that any parent can make that will work wonders for creating the bond with her child that she desires. And once those small changes become habits, they will come naturally to her, all the time.”

Blaine says that there are seven simple ways that you can work toward building a deep, emotional bond with your kids, so that every day can feel like Mother’s Day. From playtime to down time, read on for how YOU can get connected right now:

Make time for playtime. Blaine says that one of the best ways that parents can connect with their children is through play. Not only does play release energy and provide opportunities to be involved in a child’s world, it is also how children process their inner feelings and work out their little-kid real-life issues. Parents who take the time to play with their children strengthen their understanding of their children’s emotional world. And while you may feel like you are being present for playtime while your toddler plays at your feet (and you do the dishes), Blaine says that in order to make a real and lasting connection, you have to (literally) get down on his level.

“True emotional connections are made when parents get down on the floor and play with their kids,” she explains. “Drink imaginary tea, build the Lego castle, and piece together those puzzles. Your bond with your child will be all the better for it.”

Plug in…emotionally. Children can experience a wide range of emotions each day (or even each hour, for that matter!), from happy to sad, frustrated to triumphant—what may seem to us a trivial moment can be a big deal for them. Blaine says that parents have to make the effort to “plug in” to what their children are feeling, and that understanding what they are feeling and why can create a bond between you that is unparalleled.

“Plugging in to the emotions that your child is experiencing and being present with her through each new feeling can help the two of you to deepen your emotional bond with one another,” explains Blaine. “It takes patience, time, and, at times, a lot of effort, but the bond you build is totally worth it.”

Build in a few extra minutes to your day. Whether you are rushing out the door for school in the morning, loading up for big brother’s baseball practice, or just heading out to run errands with kids in tow, building in a few minutes can make transitions much less painful for both you and your children and can provide crucial opportunities for bonding.

“If you can make it into the car without a screaming fight, then you have a great opportunity to spend those extra 10 or 15 minutes really talking with your kids,” Blaine explains. “Dissect their days, talk through any emotions or feelings they may be experiencing—like the way they felt when they accomplished something super fun at preschool, or if they are sad because their goldfish died. Or use the time as an opportunity to turn up some tunes and sing out loud together—letting go and being silly with your kids is a great way to bond emotionally.”

Fess up when you slip up. Nobody’s perfect—and as parents it’s a given that we will make mistakes as we learn and grow alongside of our kids. But Blaine says it’s important to remember that in addition to teaching our children, we are also serving as their constant role models. By labeling and talking about emotions, she says, your child learns that emotions are manageable, and he will feel comfortable expressing them in an appropriate manner. And that includes admitting when you’re wrong and saying that you’re sorry.

“When ‘fessing up,’ be specific, identify the behaviors for which you are apologizing, and share the feelings you were experiencing at the time and how you felt afterwards,” instructs Blaine. “Your mistakes and shortcomings can serve as a wonderful opportunity for you to be a good role model. Fessing up means that you genuinely apologize to your child for making a mistake—the goal is to catch yourself and repair the connection with your child. And in the end, you’ll teach him the valuable lesson that it’s all right not to be perfect.”

Let your kids be themselves. Loving your children’s individuality isn’t hard—you appreciate and adore the quirks and habits that make them who they are. But have you ever stopped to consider how their individual temperaments affect the way you connect with one another? When it comes to kids, parenting and discipline are not a one-size-fits-all bargain. You have to respect your children for who they are—and that includes honoring the ways they are different from one another and different from you. If you are a social butterfly with a son who is painfully shy, you have to respect that in him and not try to force your own behaviors and habits on him.

“As hard as it can sometimes be to let go, giving your children the freedom to be themselves can help them to grow and develop as people,” says Blaine, “and it will also strengthen the connection and bond between you. When we honor our children, they in turn honor us. Children who are respected and emotion coached can be incredibly resourceful.”

Replace your anger with empathy. Make no mistake, kids can test the tempers of even the most mild-mannered mothers. When tantrums take over and tempers flare, it can be a constant challenge to keep your cool. But Blaine says to pick your battles and know that nothing is so important that it warrants extreme anger and coerciveness with your child. If you need to, walk away and take a deep breath, then return to your child to start over. And if you do lash out, don’t avoid the issue or act as if it never happened—this only teaches children to deny their own poor behavior.

“Being honest with your child is more effective than hauling off on her,” she continues. “Children who are raised in homes where empathy is the norm are usually empathetic to their parents, and this creates a happier environment for everyone.”

Take time for yourself on a regular basis. On special holidays like Mother’s Day, moms will often be treated to breakfast in bed, a day at the spa, or maybe even a little “free” time to do something for themselves. However, most mothers get caught up in the hectic schedule of everyday life and neglect to take time out for themselves on a regular basis, which Blaine says can be a big parenting no-no. It doesn’t always have to be a big event—tacking on 30 extra minutes to an errand to grab a latte or flip through magazines at the bookstore can work wonders for restoring your sanity and recharging your batteries.

“Stressed out parents are not fully present with their children,” warns Blaine. “Simplify your life by doing less or cutting out what’s not necessary. NEVER underestimate the power of decompression time for Mommy. If we don’t take time for ourselves, we will eventually lash out at our loved ones, and that will prevent you from having the connection and bond with your children that you long for.”

“As a mom, the emotional connection I share with my kids is irreplaceable,” says Blaine. “And no amount of flowers or gifts on Mother’s Day would ever compare. Instead of putting all your energy into one day, make small, gradual changes over time. It’s the very best gift you can give to yourself and your children—and it will make every day feel like the celebration of motherhood you deserve.”

Kimberley Clayton Blaine, MA, MFT, is the executive producer of the online parenting show www.TheGoToMom.TV and author of The Go-To Mom’s Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children and The Internet Mommy.

Kimberley is a national child development expert and a licensed family and child therapist specializing in working with children newborn to six years old. Her webshow, TheGoToMom.TV, has captured one of the largest growing niche audiences—parents who have children birth to seven—through professionally produced yet authentic and real educational videos.