Most of us who work with children, whether as a mental health professional, teacher, volunteer, etc., have worked with, or heard of that “one kid” who cannot control their anger, whines all the time, cannot sit still, runs around knocking things over. Or maybe it is the one child who does not speak much, sits quietly, does not disturb anyone, but also does not participate at school, and refuses to connect with other children their age. Then after a while of trying your best to help, that thought of “I’ve tried everything, and nothing has worked” kicks in.
Now, this is the exact moment where it is most important for us professionals working with young children to begin to remember why we chose this career, to remember that we cannot “fix” people, but that our job is to plant seeds, whether small or large. How you react, how well you attempt to bond and keep that bond, how you choose to teach and provide wisdom will be implanted, somehow, in these young children for ages to come.
It is easy to start to worry about a bond you have created breaking right in front of your eyes, or about the constant pressure of building a bond to begin with. Maybe you begin to feel helpless that what you are doing to “help” or “teach” is not working, or maybe you feel like you are making the situation worse. If this describes how you feel, or have felt, in your work with children, there are a few strategies listed below that may be helpful in creating, rebuilding, and/or strengthening the bond you have with the children you serve.
Why is maintaining a healthy bond important in our work with children? One answer out of many, as stated by Child Psychiatrist Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., “The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”
We cannot take away the trauma a child has experienced, but we do have the ability to create a bonding experience, even if for just a moment, that could positively impact a child’s life forever.
Strategies For Professionals to Consider:
• Remember that some families may have different expectations for how children interact with adults, which can be confusing for a child. Some families don’t encourage eye contact. Some families encourage children to question and negotiate. Help children and families understand expectations for your specific setting.
• Use language that helps children see you as a mentor rather than opponent.
• Get to know children well. If a child’s personality clashes with yours, find what endearing qualities the child has and don’t fall into an unhealthy relationship.
o Other ways to create a relationship
Make up a secret handshake with the child(ren).
Create a special word you say, or song you sing together.
One-on-one child-led play time.
• Have casual/purposeful conversations with children. Conversation does not always have to be about academics (shapes, colors, numbers).
• Be affectionate even when child(ren) are showing challenging behaviors. Don’t just use affection as a reward for good behavior, use affection during challenging behaviors as well.
• Show children that you will keep them safe. When a child is out of control, keep them close to you. Let them know you won’t let them hurt others and won’t let others hurt them.
• Mean what you say. Be consistent with your words and actions.
• Teach children that relationships can be repaired. This may mean apologizing to them if you spoke to them harshly or you may be teaching them how to repair relationships with others.
• Speak quietly/softly to the child(ren) during stressful situations.
• Help children understand and fix their mistakes.
Janelle Jeffrey, LMSW became a Mental Health Specialist at Rainbows United in June 2019. She currently works with children in the Wichita area who are enrolled in USD 259 Pre-K programs offering individual therapeutic services. She also serves children and their families in their home environment.
Bruce D. Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook