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Staying Connected

Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD
Brookline MA USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 19 No. 6, November-December 2002, pp. 204

Babies need responsiveness to be securely attached, and so do older children. Play is one way to meet children's needs for parental contact.

This article is excerpted from Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD. Copyright © 2001 by Lawrence J. Cohen. PhD. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, A Division of Random House, Inc. Author Lawrence Cohen will be a featured speaker at the LLL International Conference, to be held in July 2003 in San Francisco, California, USA.

In Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, young Max's mother sends him to bed without his supper for "making mischief of one kind and another" and behaving like a "wild thing." Max imagines his bedroom as a fantasyland of wild things that make him their king. After a while, though, Max becomes lonely and wants to return to the place "where someone loved him best of all." Sailing home, he finds himself back in his room where a warm supper is waiting for him—the sign that all his mischief is forgiven and the connection with his mother is reestablished.

This story has endured for two generations because children and parents alike are moved by the full circle of human connection: the child violates the parent's rules, is punished, then uses fantasy to play out his feelings—confident in the knowledge that he can return home to his mother's love. In Where the Wild Things Are, we don't actually see the reunion of Max and his mother; we just see the warm supper and imagine the rest. That's fine for a children's book, but I think adults need a bit more concrete explanation of how actually to go about this complicated business of connecting and reconnecting.

Connection, Disconnection, and Reconnection

The drama of connection, disconnection, and reconnection is repeated constantly throughout infancy and childhood. We spend the first nine months directly connected to our mother, sharing her blood and oxygen supply. Then we have to give up all that warm connection so we can have a life of our own. As soon as we come out into the cold air and bright lights, we immediately try to reconnect with our mother for warmth and touch and food. After that, we're looking around again, checking out what else there is in the world.

Connection is easy to recognize but hard to define—perhaps because we experience it in so many different forms at different stages of our lives. Between infants and their primary attachment figures, this bond is sometimes called eye-love (Sutton-Smith & Sutton-Smith 1974), that deep gaze into each other's eyes, that free flow of emotions, that profound sense of belonging here and belonging together, almost melting into one being. Throughout childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, we are continually connecting, disconnecting, and reconnecting with parents, siblings, friends, and spouses. Later we follow this same pattern with our own children. In between is the famous stage of "leave me alone but first drive me to my friend's house."

If all goes well, the eye-love between infants and parents is replaced by a less blissful, but still solid, connection. You and your child are able to talk or play or hang out easily together, enjoying each other, relatively in tune. These moments can be quiet times, like just before falling asleep, or active playtimes. The next level is a more casual connection; an unspoken bond that may be noticed only when it's gone, replaced by conflict or distance.

At the extreme are the most alienated types of disconnection. Disconnection can be a nightmare of painful isolation, withdrawal, and lashing out. I learned the most about disconnection when I worked with men in and out of prison for violent crimes, but even normal, healthy children have moments when they lose that thread of connection. They retreat into towers of isolation when they feel lonely, afraid, or overwhelmed. We may not even know that they feel disconnected, since children rarely come up to us and say, "I feel isolated." When we ask why they are bouncing off the walls, they don't say, "Because I'm lonely."

When everything is going smoothly, Playful Parenting is about having fun together. The rest of the time, Playful Parenting is all about drawing children out of their isolation. Play is children's natural way of recovering from their daily emotional upheavals, so the more fluent we can become in the language of our children's play, the better we can help them complete the circle of reconnection. Reconnecting can be as simple as a baby and mother looking fondly at each other after an outburst of tears has subsided, or a hug after a long day of school, or shaking hands to seal the deal after tough negotiations over a new bedtime. Reconnection might require a bit of rough and tumble, or getting on the floor at children's level, or spending time doing what they most like to do. In some cases, family therapy or play therapy may be needed, if the obstacles to connecting as a family are too big.

Filling My Cup: Attachment and the Drive to Reconnect

Child psychologists talk about attachment theory all the time, but it still isn't well understood by parents (Bowlby 1990; Lieberman 1993). To help explain attachment, I like to use the metaphor of filling and refilling a cup. The primary caregiver is a child's reservoir, a place to start from and return to, in between explorations. The child's need for attachment with them is like a cup that is emptied by being hungry, tired, lonely, or hurt. The cup is refilled by being loved, fed, comforted, and nurtured. Besides food, warmth, and loving physical contact, a caregiver's refilling includes soothing when the child is upset, and playing and talking when he or she is happy. Mirroring is a simple game in which the baby's cup is filled by reflecting back his facial expressions, smiles, noises, and feelings. As babies grow, their explorations take them further and further afield, but those whose cups have been consistently filled always carry a strong sense of security within them. They are securely attached.

Children who are not securely attached, on the other hand, tend to be either anxious and clingy, or withdrawn and shut down. They may not feel safe, even with the people closest to them, or they may be unable to venture out confidently. They might appear adventurous, but insecurely attached children are more likely to be reckless than truly adventurous. Their cup is empty, or nearly empty.

Between return visits for refills, children with a secure attachment can soothe themselves, can handle their emotions, pay attention, connect well with peers, and feel good about themselves and the world. Parents are often quite confused when their toddler bursts into tears at pick-up time, and the day-care provider says, "She's been great all day; I don't know why she's crying." Yet this behavior is actually a sign of secure attachment. When they are with strangers or day-care providers, securely attached children "save up" their bad feelings for when they reunite with their primary attachment figure. (Gee, thanks!)

The infant whose cup is filled to overflowing with affection, security, and attention is lucky indeed. Little upsets may spill some out, a long hard day may drain the cup nearly empty, but the caregiver is always there for a refill. As children get older, just thinking about the caregiver can refill the cup. In fact, securely attached children can get their cup refilled from friendships, from having fun, or from learning something new and interesting in school.

Of course, no one escapes childhood with a perfect attachment history. We all had moments, or even long periods, of frustration and unmet needs. We sometimes wondered where our next refill might be coming from. Our cups stayed empty, or nearly empty for too long, and we weren't always sure how to get them filled again.

I find it very helpful to look at children's behavior in terms of how they deal with their cups, especially when they are approaching empty. When children are bouncing off the walls, I think of them as racing around trying desperately to get a refill. Instead, they end up sloshing out the little they have left in their cups. Other children demand constant topping off, coming to adults for the tiniest thing—to repeatedly tattle on their playmates, for example. If their cups aren't totally full, they go into a panic. Occasionally, children will clearly need a refill but won't be able to get it. They lock the cap on their cups so they won't lose the little that is left, but then they can't get a refill very easily. Lacking confidence in the refilling process, they might refuse a hug, or refuse to go to bed, or refuse to sit and eat dinner. Another group is not able to sit still for a refill, being near empty makes them antsy, but being antsy makes getting a refill even less likely.

One behavior that aggravates adults is when children steal (by force or by wits) from other people's cups. They might do this by actually stealing another child's belongings, by hitting, by bossing others around, or by conning a less-powerful child into letting them have the first turn with the best toy. Lately, I have seen more powerful boys pressure less powerful boys into unfair trades of Pokemon cards, and I think of it as a primitive version of accumulation of wealth. Acting up and getting punished can be a way of getting a bit of a refill when it seems that a free fill-up is unavailable. I think this illustrates the cliché that bad attention is better than no attention. A nasty refill is better than none at all. Unfortunately, the usual response, to ignore these children, makes them only more desperate for a refill.

Children who seem to have leaky cups are annoying to adults, especially to teachers, who have 20 or 30 other children to care for. The more you cuddle them, the more they cling to you; the more you give, the more they seem to need. They never get a full refill because their leaky cup can't contain everything they get and store it up for later. The metaphor of the leaky cup also helps explain children who try to punch you when you try to give them a hug. Like drowning swimmers who fight off the lifeguard, they are so disoriented by being left empty that they react aggressively when you try to give them a refill. Meanwhile, children with a secure attachment usually seem to have a full cup. They know how to get a refill, sometimes by simply asking, "Can I have an apple?" or "Can I have a hug?" The children also tend to share freely from their own cups instead of competing for every drop. They take care of younger children and help out their friends.

For infants and their mother, attachment—the original filling of the cup—is created inside the intimate space of gazing into each other's eyes, cradling, rocking to sleep, and bouncing on the knee. Attachment also includes exploring the world, first by looking around, then on hands and knees, then on foot, on a bicycle, in a car. Most of this exploration takes place through play. A scraped knee or an altercation with another child may send a young person to the safety of the parent or teacher, but if they manage to get their cup refilled, they are back at play, often with renewed energy and enthusiasm. If the caregiver is not available, or their own reservoir is empty (or stingily guarded), these children won't get their needed refill. Then they may not feel safe enough to play. Or, burying those scared, insecure feelings inside, they might strike out recklessly or aggressively, becoming the terror of the playground.

Through the daily upsets and frustrations of life, as well as through major illnesses, traumas, and losses, young people's cups get depleted. Their cups empty faster when they are yelled at, hit, neglected, or harshly punished. Children count on us for refills, and they feel hurt and betrayed when we knock their cups over instead. This betrayal is even worse when an adult actually cracks a child's cup, through abuse or neglect. A cup with deep cracks in it is hard to ever refill. This child may need a full repair, which takes a concerted effort by parents and/or good therapy. Children whose cups can't hold a refill are so used to being on empty that they actually look empty—that cold hard look of "nobody home," which signals that they may be either deeply depressed or dangerous.

But even the most loved and well-cared-for child, with no major losses or traumas, whose cup is in good shape, seems to have a bottomless need for love. His or her cup may be intact, but it still needs almost constant refilling. Therefore, the most important thing we have to offer to our children is our ability to make them feel loved, respected, wanted, and welcome.

Filling and refilling the child's cup is the basis of heartfelt parent-child connections. It isn't something that happens once, but over and over again, in countless mini-interactions over a span of years. I agree with Stanley Greenspan that attachment isn't just about being connected, it's about getting a big kick out of being alive and out of interacting with other human beings (Greenspan 1997). So a real refill can occur only between humans—not between a child and a television set or computer, no matter how "interactive" it may be. Years of research have shown that the key to secure attachment is responsiveness—a sensitive response to the child's needs by the caregiver. Video screens can offer many useful things: entertainment, information, and even distraction from stress. But they can't make goofy faces, give hugs, or provide a deep sense of safety and security.

Playing Toward Connection

Research into primates shows that our closest biological kin play for many of the same reasons we do. Bonobo chimps, for example, tickle and chase one another, tease one another, and have even been seen to play a game that looks exactly like blindman's bluff. Even more significantly, like humans, they play to reconnect after connection has been severed. Some psychologists believe that many expressions of affection evolved from the message "I could hurt you, but I am not." Kissing means "I could be biting you, but I am not"; caressing means "I could be hitting you, but I am not." Waving and shaking hands both say, "Hey, look, I don't have a weapon." In other words, pretend playing at aggression is a very real way to reconnect or show affection.

For very young children, mirroring is a perfect connection game: just do exactly what the baby or toddler does. My favorite way to get a smile from a serious-looking baby is to match their serious expression exactly. One toddler, the baby brother of my daughter's classmate, would sometimes shake his leg as he sat in his stroller outside the classroom. One time I started shaking my leg the same way, and he cracked up. He started going faster, and I went faster. More laughing. After that, every time he saw me he'd start shaking his leg. His mother would say, "Hey, Larry, he's doing that leg thing again," and I'd look over and he'd be shaking his leg like crazy, trying to get my attention. Older children love this game, too—in the nature of Simon Says or Follow the Leader—as long as you are careful that they don't feel teased. Mirroring can create a fun moment of closeness or a deeply felt connection.

Mirroring does not have to stop when children get older. I will often try to stand or walk exactly like an older child, both as a way to connect with them and as a way to "get into their shoes," especially if they don't talk much. It's important to make sure the child does not feel mocked, but most of the time they are amused or even proud, like one boy I once saw at a concert. He started out too timid to dance, but with a little mirroring ended up leading the dance rather than feeling too shy to jump in.

Even abstract concepts like cause and effect are learned by babies through play and close relationships. There's a game in which the baby gurgles, the parent repeats the noise, and the baby smiles. In the "advanced gurgle" stage, the baby gurgles, the parent gurgles, the baby gurgles, everybody smiles. Before a baby can pull the string on a toy in his crib, he pulls at his mother and father's heartstrings—the first building block of play (Greenspan & Simons 1998).

The ultimate connecting game for babies is peek-a-boo. Peek-a-boo not only builds closeness, it plays with the very idea of closeness in a dramatic way—now you see me, now you don't, now I'm back. Peek-a-boo reflects the delicate balance of connections and loss of connection, presence and absence. If you're old enough to remember the guy with all the spinning plates on "The Ed Sullivan Show," you know that a precarious balance can be immensely entertaining. It's not quite so much fun for us as for our baby, because we know that we are still there, even when we're hiding behind the blanket. But baby is just figuring that out. We know that baby is there even though we ask, over and over again, "Where's baby? Where did baby go?" And we're not really surprised when we exclaim, "There she is! There's baby!" But baby is surprised, at least a little, each time. Eventually, the surprise gives way to delighted collusion, like six-year-olds who like to sustain the idea of the tooth fairy even if they know it's their mother or dad fiddling around under the pillow with the loose change.

In peek-a-boo, the baby can symbolically lose the connection and then quickly regain it. If you experiment with the time it takes to say peek-a-boo, from half a second, say, to two or three seconds, you can find exactly the length of time that brings the most giggles. Too short and there's no mystery; too long and it's too scary; and there you have the essence of the human romance with connection and disconnection and reconnection.

The End of Blissful Eye Gazing

Mirroring, cuddling, talking, and singing to babies, showing them the world in child-size pieces—these are the prototypes of play, the forerunners of all the fun times that children and parents will have together, from hide-and-seek to late-night talks to hikes in the woods. Luckily, babies can get us to smile just by lying there. As psychologist John Briere says: "Babies emit cuteness so that adults will emit smoochums." In fact, babies who won't or can't connect on this level are generally identified early and perhaps diagnosed as having autism or a related disorder.

Sadly, when older children don't connect, it often goes unnoticed. For some reason, after the initial bonding stage between infant and parents, distance and awkwardness set in. Adults seldom play with older children with as much freedom and ease as they did during those early games of peek-a-boo. Not many parents have experienced that profound bliss of deep, loving eye gazing with a child over age two. Not many even know it's possible to regain. It's as if we don't really expect those close connections to last. When I encourage parents to engage their children age three, or six, or even older, with the soulful eye contact, they usually start out quite skeptical but if they persist through the initial rejections, and get to that deeper level of closeness, they find it to be one of the most rewarding exercises.

Fortunately, when the disconnection is not severe, children give us many opportunities to reestablish the connection. The problem is, we often misread these invitations. I blush to think of all the times I have pushed my daughter away when she wanted to cuddle, because I was busy, or I thought she should be doing her homework, or I felt annoyed by her demand for attention. Then other times I ask her how school is, and it's like pulling teeth. I don't always put two and two together. If I don't connect on her terms, why should she connect on mine?

Sometimes the adult and the child figure out the connection business together, by trial and error. My nine-year-old nephew doesn't talk a lot, especially about what is on his mind or what may be bothering him. I always used to try to cajole him into talking, by begging and pleading or by joking with him about it. That was fun, but it didn't get him to say much. Then one time on a family vacation I just sat with him. It was early in the morning, and we were the only ones up. I held out my arms and he climbed onto my lap and sat there. Neither of us said a word for more than half an hour. I usually hate long silences and hate sitting around "doing nothing," but this wasn't boring. We were truly close. When everyone else came down for breakfast, I said, "Great talking to you." We both laughed, but I meant it. With no pressure to communicate my way—using words—we were able to connect just fine.


Bowlby, J. A Secure Base. New York: Basic Books, 1990.
Greenspan, S. The Growth of the Mind. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1997.
Greenspan, S. and Simons, R. The Child with Special Needs. Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1998.
Lieberman, A. The Emotional Life of the Toddler. New York: Free Press, 1993.
Sutton-Smith, B. and Sutton-Smith, S. How To Play with Your Child. New York: Hawthorne Press, 1974.

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