Author Jessica Speer On How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected
Model positive behavior yourself — My phone habits are an important model for my daughters. If I’m texting and the person I’m in the room with asks me a question, I put my phone down, look them in the eye and respond. If I hear my phone bing, I try not to immediately check it. I try not to look at my phone in the car. (I enabled a feature to hold calls and texts while I’m driving) All of these habits model behaviors I would like my kids to learn.
Parenting is challenging. We all try so hard to give our all to our children. We desperately want them to feel loved and connected. But somehow there is often a disconnect. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, or that we don’t seem to speak the same language as our children, or just all of the “disconnection” that our kids are dealing with in today’s frenetic world. What are steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? As a part of our series about “How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected” we had the pleasure to interview Jessica Speer.
Jessica Speer is the award-winning author of BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends), Middle School — Safety Goggles Advised and The Phone Book. She has a master’s degree in social sciences and focuses on social-emotional topics in ways that connect with kids and families. For more information, visit www.JessicaSpeer.com
Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know a bit about you. Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
Sure. Like many kids, I grew up in a family that did not navigate emotions or communicate well. Conflict and difficult conversations were avoided or explosive instead of handled in healthy ways. Moments of connection were rare, which left a longing in my heart. As an adult, I studied the elements of healthy relationships and communication, emotional intelligence, mindfulness and more. What I learned and practiced had such a positive impact on my life and family, that it inspired me to write about these topics. My hope with my work is to help kids and families better connect with each other and develop strong relationships.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
Yes, absolutely. To start, it’s important to know that we all learn relationship skills over the course of our lives. Our early years are especially filled with learning, yet many kids do not have steady models in their lives to guide their development. Also, kids learn social-emotional skills at different paces and mistakes are common. This explains why many kids experience friendship struggles. This piqued my curiosity and inspired me to research and start a friendship program for elementary school kids. This program shares basic relationship and communication skills through fun activities. I find that kids appreciate knowing that strong relationships require skills that take practice, that friendships change over time and that everyone has different skills, interests and needs. This work grew into my first book, BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships. I also regularly write articles and share resources on ways families can connect with each other. Strong, supportive relationships are so important to our well being at all stages of life.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you explain to us why it is so important to forge a strong connection with our children?
Yes, of course. Humans share the fundamental need to feel acceptance and belonging, especially with our caregivers when we are young. When children feel seen, heard, understood, and loved at home, it builds a foundation of self-worth. They know they matter. This foundation of self-worth ripples into other areas of their lives, like school, friendships, and more. The good news is that parents can work to build a strong connection with their children if it is missing or weak. It is never too late.
What happens when children do not have that connection, or only have a weak connection?
It is so important for every child to have a strong connection with an adult. Someone who lights up when they enter the room and feels deep love for them. Someone who lets them know that they matter. For some kids, this may not be a parent but a teacher, other relative or counselor. Children that do not experience a strong connection with an adult may struggle with their self-worth and are more likely to engage in risky behaviors at a younger age.
Do you think children in this generation are less likely to feel loved and connected? Why do you feel the way you do?
This generation of kids has been through a lot with the pandemic, changes in daily life due to screens, gun violence, and global unrest. Rates of preteen and teen anxiety and depression have jumped over the last decade. Many kids are struggling. This environment makes it even more important for kids to feel loved and connected at home.
We live in a world with incessant demands for our time and attention. There is so much distraction and disconnection. Can you share with our readers 5 steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.
You are so right, life today is filled with distractions from screens, busy schedules, etc. These distractions contribute to missed opportunities to connect with our kids. Here are five steps parents can take to build connection with their kids:
1. Notice the best time to connect
This is usually not first thing in the morning or right after school. School days are exhausting, so most kids need downtime before they are ready to share. Possibly it is when you are walking the dog together, driving or right before bed. Notice when your kids are most interested in connecting and make sure you are available then.
2. When they share with you, listen deeply
Listen, ask questions, and empathize when your kids share with you. There is no better way to connect than making sure someone feels heard and understood. And there is no better way to break a connection than by giving unsolicited advice. Giving kids the chance to process their thoughts, experiences, and emotions out loud in a safe space is healing and helps them feel loved and understood. As parents, we often think our advice will help our kids and make them feel better, but this is usually not the case. More often, kids are looking to share and be heard. They are not looking for advice. Preteens and teens may even stop sharing with parents because they do not want unsolicited advice. After you listen and validate their feelings, thank them for opening up. As appropriate, ask them if they just want you to listen or if they would like feedback or advice. Then honor that request.
3. Share your love and support often
Kids long for acceptance and belonging. They need to feel like they matter and that they are an important part of your family. Regular reminders of your love and support are a great way to kindle connection. Send loving text messages, tell them how proud you are to be their parent, and give them warm welcomes when they arrive home. Showing your interest in their well-being is important too. For instance, instead of “Are you OK?,” say “It seems like something is on your mind today. Let’s find time to talk.”
4. Show interest in their life and activities
Ask open-ended questions about their world, such as, “What was the best part of your day?” and “What was the most difficult part of your day?” Allow kids to share without giving advice or passing judgment. When parents stay grounded and listen deeply to their children, they create a safe space for kids to come back to again and again.
5. Make time to hang out one-on-one
In today’s busy world, it’s important to make time to connect. Visit a coffee shop or another favorite spot a couple times a month simply to spend some time together. Schedule these activities on your family calendar so they become something to look forward to. Be sure to give your kids your undivided attention when hanging out. Put your phone away and focus only on enjoying this one-on-one time.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
There are many ways to be a “good parent,” and of course, there is no perfect parent. We are all doing our best and learning as we go, so go easy on yourself. One skill that contributes to good parenting is emotional regulation. When parents recognize their own reactions and uncomfortable emotions and regulate them in healthy ways, they are more likely to stay grounded when their child acts out. Emotionally regulated adults know that all emotions are okay, even the uncomfortable ones. These parents avoid shaming or getting angry at their kids when their kids express certain emotions, like anger.
Empathy in difficult moments can open the door to what is going on underneath your child’s outbursts. Usually, sadness or fear is hidden beneath anger. When we empathize and listen deeply, we have a chance to truly connect with our kids.
This doesn’t mean parents condone inappropriate behavior or do not set limits. It means we recognize our kids’ discomfort and make sure they feel heard. Emotionally regulated parents are also modeling for kids how to manage uncomfortable emotions in healthy ways.
This is a huge topic in itself, but it would be worthwhile to touch upon it here. What are some ideal social media and digital habits that you think parents should teach to their children?
Great question. I know many families are struggling to manage screen time and help their kids develop healthy digital habits. This topic actually inspired my third kids’ book, The Phone Book-Stay Safe, Be Smart and Make the World Better with That Powerful Device in Your Pocket, which releases August 2023. Here are a few tips to help families find balance with screen time and to support healthy digital habits:
1. Establish a phone contract with your child
There are a lot of great contracts available online. (search “phone contract for kids”). Look for one that is respectful and encourages kids to make smart choices. Once you find a contract you like, go over it with your child and gather their input. Most contracts include information about how to stay safe online and how to be a good digital citizen, guiding family conversations on important topics.
2. No phones in bedrooms or at mealtimes
These habits encourage families to hang out together and help parents better monitor online activity. It also makes sure kids are not on their phones when they should be sleeping.
3. Have a charging space where devices stay at night
It’s widely known that screen time before bed is disruptive to sleep. Before everyone heads off to read before bed, devices land on the charging station in our living room.
4. Use social media and devices as a force for good
Starting social media is another big decision that requires family discussion and an understanding of each social media platform. If your family allows social media, be sure to keep the focus on using social apps in ways that make us happier and the world a better place.
5. Model positive behavior yourself
My phone habits are an important model for my daughters. If I’m texting and the person I’m in the room with asks me a question, I put my phone down, look them in the eye and respond. If I hear my phone bing, I try not to immediately check it. I try not to look at my phone in the car. (I enabled a feature to hold calls and texts while I’m driving) All of these habits model behaviors I would like my kids to learn.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
I’m a huge fan of author and child psychologist, Dr. Lisa Damour. Her books and Ask Lisa podcast about parenting are filled with helpful information and insights. I also love the book, Good Inside — A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Dr. Becky Kennedy. Both Dr. Damour and Dr. Kennedy emphasize connection first, sharing clear advice and examples for connecting, communicating and setting boundaries with love and compassion.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
As I mentioned earlier, emotional regulation is foundational to well-being and connection. Emotional regulation is the ability to notice our emotions and manage them in healthy ways so we can respond with intention instead of reacting. Possibly we take deep breaths, go for a walk, or pause and take a break when we feel overwhelmed. By practicing self-care, we can get back to a regulated state.
When we are dysregulated, we are not our best selves. A dysregulated adult cannot help a child regulate their emotions. So my movement would start there, helping adults learn to navigate and regulate their uncomfortable emotions. I’d help adults learn to ground themselves so they respond with intention instead of simply reacting to those around them. This would have a huge impact on the lives of children as well as our communities.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!
About The Interviewer: Pirie is a TedX speaker, author and a Life Empowerment Coach. She is a co-host of Own your Throne podcast, inspiring women in the 2nd chapter of their lives. With over 20 years in front of the camera, Pirie Grossman understands the power of storytelling. After success in commercials and acting. She spent 10 years reporting for E! Entertainment Television, Entertainment Tonight, also hosted ABC’s “Every Woman”. Her work off-camera capitalizes on her strength, producing, bringing people together for unique experiences. She produced a Children’s Day of Compassion during the Dalai Lama’s visit here in 2005. 10,000 children attended, sharing ideas about compassion with His Holiness. From 2006–2009, Pirie Co-chaired the Special Olympics World Winter Games, in Idaho, welcoming 3,000 athletes from over 150 countries. She founded Destiny Productions to create Wellness Festivals and is an Advisory Board member of the Sun Valley Wellness Board.In February 2017, Pirie produced, “Love is Louder”, a Brain Health Summit, bringing in Kevin Hines, noted suicide survivor to Sun Valley who spoke to school kids about suicide. Sun Valley is in the top 5% highest suicide rate per capita in the Northwest, prompting a community initiative with St. Luke’s and other stake holders, to begin healing. She lives in Sun Valley with her two children, serves on the Board of Community School. She has her Master’s degree in Spiritual Psychology from the University of Santa Monica and is an Executive Life Empowerment Coach, where she helps people meet their dreams and goals! The difference between a dream and a goal is that a goal is a dream with a date on it!