Humankind is genetically wired to seek out connection and contribute to each other’s wellbeing. The bonds between us have defined our families and communities since the beginning of time. With the threat of COVID-19 shutting down not just communities, but entire countries, we are tasked with finding new ways to connect and contribute.

We can choose to shift our perspective to see this unprecedented threat as an unprecedented opportunity to build unity, compassion, connection, contribution and caring within our families and communities.

Connection

Most of us have had the experience of being in a room full of people, yet feeling totally alone. Most of us have also sat right beside someone and felt like they’re not really “there.” All connection is not created equal. Authentic connection with children requires four basic components: Eye contact, touch, presence and a playful setting.

The quick scoop on connection is this: Connection with others builds neural connections in the brain. It increases cooperation, focus, attention span, emotional health and overall wellbeing. During times of stress (and this is certainly one of those times), authentic connection provides a buffer that softens the negative effects of the stressful situation. If you’re interested in more information about connection, Dr. Becky Bailey’s I Love You Rituals explores its many brain-boosting benefits and provides dozens of connection-building rituals to enjoy together.

In a COVID-19 world, it might be helpful to think of your connections in concentric circles like a bulls-eye. The innermost circle is comprised of those in your home. The next circle includes key people outside of your home. The third ring is more casual friends, family and groups.

Focus your connection efforts on the people in your inner ring first, and then move outward. Healthy, attuned relationships with the key people in your life build resiliency. Resiliency is most easily described as the ability to bounce back from hardship or diversity, and provides many protective factors for physical and emotional wellbeing.

Innermost Circle: Increasing Authentic Connection

Make those in front of you a priority. When all of this is said and done, children will remember a few significant moments and the overall vibe from this time. Did they have fun while they were home from school? Did home feel like a safe, connected place where they were helping others by staying in and they could handle whatever came their way? Or did they feel lonely and anxious, as if the world was upside down and no one could do anything about it?

The attitudes and feelings we cultivate will color children’s experiences. Consciously connect and play together. Acknowledge the difficulties, but dwell on the positive aspects. Learn through life—by baking, building and experimenting together—not just through screens and worksheets. You’re eating meals at home now; eat them together. Figure out each person’s favorite meal and try cooking it together. Ask your partner to show you something about a favorite hobby. Get on the floor with your toddler and play. Start up a game night with your third grader. Have your teen show you the ins and outs of TikTok or other technology you don’t really understand. Connection doesn’t need to be a big production; just focus on being present and having fun. In this way, you can discover dozens of spontaneous ways to connect with those under your roof every day.

Consciously building connecting rituals into your day is another valuable way to bond, cultivate peace and encourage cooperation with your innermost circle. Connecting rituals are short activities that include the four components of connection already discussed: Eye contact, touch, presence and a playful situation. The goal is delight, not getting the words and motions right. You can make up your own rituals or get ideas from the links below.

Sometimes, we tend to think difficult behaviors and defiance require consequences, but these behaviors are often signs of stress that will dissipate with greater connection. If mornings are hard, build in a ritual before eating or dressing to shift the flow of the whole day. It can be as simple as offering a loving “good morning” to your child’s eyes, nose, arms and toes: “Good morning to Shelley’s eyes (kiss), nose (kiss), arms (kiss) and toes (kiss).” Watch your child’s cues closely and adjust your “good morning” to be more energetic and playful or more calm and quiet as indicated by her response.

Remember a basic concept of Conscious Discipline: Challenging behaviors are an important communication that signals a need for increased safety or increased connection. Now, more than ever, it is helpful to take this concept to heart and provide for the need underlying your child’s behavior. Connection rituals are one simple way to start. Aim for at least three connecting rituals per day. The greater the child’s level of distress, the greater the need for these rituals.

Helpful Resources:

Second Circle: Connecting Through Technology

The second circle to connect with is heavily impacted by the unique challenge of lockdown situations. How do you connect with close family and best friends when you’re here and they’re there? Fortunately, technology enables phone calls, texts, video chats and other means of communicating. We can turn this basic communication into authentic connection by tweaking technology with a few homespun details.

Think about the things that help you feel connected to these key people in the “normal” world. What elements of that can you bring to your communication now? Common points of connection include meals, school, worship, clubs, athletics and, for adults, coffee or cocktails. Start up video chat and share a meal with Grandma and Grandpa. Worship online together with Auntie. Put kids on video so they can work through their schoolwork together. Band practice can go virtual, too, as can happy hour. Uncle Mike can show off his flying squirrel and Linda can teach the kids how to crochet. If technology isn’t your thing, seek out someone in your inner circle who can help—and bond over that. We’re all in this together and the opportunity to help has a brain-boosting, mood-boosting power all its own.

Incorporating rituals is another way to increase the connection factor when communicating via technology. Is there a song or rhyme you already share in common? Incorporate it in your phone call or video chat. A top-of-your-lungs rendition of “Let It Go” or chanting “Twinkle, Twinkle” together adds a delightful connecting moment to your communication.

If a particular song or ritual doesn’t come to mind, establish one. The I Love You Rituals resources listed above will help you get started. When using video chat for a ritual that includes touch, have the person on screen say the words and act out the touch while you provide the physical touch for the child. (For “This Little Piggy,” the person on-screen would say the words and move their fingers while you massage each of the child’s toes.)

It is helpful to repeat the same connecting ritual during every conversation you have with that person; the brain finds a certain comfort and safety in repetitive patterns. As time passes, you can continue with the existing ritual and plan for a novel ritual that you’ll change every time you talk. Watch this multi-generational I Love You Rituals video to see how connecting rituals build and strengthen bonds between people of all ages.

A note about young ones: Anyone who has had a phone conversation with a 4-year-old knows it can be… challenging. For young children, especially those not accustomed to this kind of communication, it is helpful to lay out a general plan for how the conversation will work: “We’re going to video chat with Gigi. You’re going to see her here on the screen and she will see you, too. We’re going to say hello, sing your song together, tell her all about the fun things you’ve been doing at home this week and then say goodbye. We will call her again in two days.”

The goal is to help both parties meet each other at the same level and connect. If there is a song your child already shares with the person they’ll talk with, that can be a huge help (for example, a hymn with Gigi or a favorite preschool song to sing with a friend). For young children and for siblings using a video chat function, it may help to provide a designated place for them to sit so they’re not vying for the camera’s attention or running in excited circles during the call (though running in circles has a certain charm).

Third Circle: Connecting in Groups

The third ring of connection provides the opportunity to create virtual social groups to help clusters of people stay connected. Scouts, clubs, sports teams, worship groups, classrooms, work teams, etc. won’t be meeting for quite some time. Social media, email, Flip Grid, and video conferencing like Zoom and Google Meet provide no-fuss ways for these groups to remain connected. If your group doesn’t already have a Facebook group, you might create one and invite members. Flip Grid makes it possible for friends in groups to leave each other video shout outs without requiring much coordination.

Many teachers are working on virtual learning plans that include a connection component; others have already started posting videos and emailing photos. This is a whole new world for educators, too, and they are doing their best to keep everyone informed and connected. Contact your room parent or teacher to ask what you can do to help kids connect. Volunteer to coordinate virtual spirit weeks, themed photo postings (kids pose with a favorite book, something that starts with the letter A, art they made or showing the best thing about being home), good old fashioned pen pals, and other group activities to help kids connect while keeping it light and fun.

Helpful Resources:

After Connecting

Be prepared for the possibility of an emotional response after the communication. The response might happen right away or much later, like at bedtime. It is vital for children to connect, but that connection can trigger difficult emotions. Your job is to recognize these emotions in all their forms, and help children through them. If Claire is unusually defiant after a video chat with her best friend, it’s possible she’s expressing frustration about not being able to play together for who knows how long. If Trevor is unusually clingy and whiny at bedtime, it’s possible that he’s worried about Gma and missing her after their talk earlier in the day.

First, recognize that difficult behaviors often signal an underlying emotional struggle. Then breathe deeply so you can remain calm, and be a source of understanding, validation and emotional safety for children as they experience these big emotions. Simply saying, “Something’s going on. You seem frustrated (sad, angry, etc.),” can open a conversation that creates trust, builds connection and provides the opportunity to help children manage their emotions. Reassuring phrases include:

  • “Breathe with me. You’re safe. You can handle this.”
  • “Things are tough right now. You’re safe. You’ve got this. We’ll figure it out together.”
  • “It’s hard being away from our loved ones. You can handle this. Breathe with me. We’re all in this together.”

Helpful Resources:

Contribution

If we extend the connection bulls-eye model one ring further, we would have an outer community ring. The main way we will interact with this ring is through contribution—being of service to others. Research indicates we are neither completely independent nor dependent. We are healthiest when we give and receive in mutual interdependence. Being of service is not an option; it is a biological imperative that is required for optimal brain devel­opment (Cacioppo, Visser & Pickett, 2005). Being of service to others also triggers the brain to release feel-good hormones and chemicals, something we could all benefit from right now.

Most people are already doing the most important thing to contribute to the welfare of others: staying home and limiting physical contact with those outside their homes. Those whose jobs require them to be out in the community are providing an essential service to help keep us safe and keep our communities running. Verbally relating these actions in terms of helping others cultivates a positive, unifying perspective. It also helps children feel some control over a largely out-of-their-control situation. Use liberal doses of statements like:

  • “Millions of people all over the globe are staying home to keep each other safe, just like you and me!”
  • “It can feel scary sometimes. One thing we’re all doing to keep ourselves and our neighbors safe is to stay home right now.”
  • “Our neighbor goes to work every day to do her part to keep our community up and running. We’re doing our part by staying home so fewer people get sick.”

Relating people’s actions to the greater good helps build a sense of global unity and personal contribution.

Finding ways for children to contribute creates a sense of purpose, accomplishment and wellbeing. They may not be able to control when they’re able to play with their friends again, but they can control showing friends that they care. The internet is full of ideas for contributing and reaching out, like sewing protective masks, supporting small businesses, painting pet rocks to leave on neighbors’ doorsteps, practicing random acts of kindness, donating to food pantries, and bringing cheer to those out walking by decorating your front door or making sidewalk art with chalk.

When we contribute to others’ wellbeing, we create a sense of wellbeing within ourselves. The Conscious Discipline Power of Attention says, “What you focus on, you get more of,” and it is also true that what we offer to others, we strengthen within ourselves. Cherish the opportunity to contribute to the greater good during this difficult time. Your heart, your brain, and your circle of family, friends and community will thank you.

We’ve compiled a list of 75 Ways for Kids to Connect and Contribute to help you get started.