Oxytocin is often called the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone” because it’s released when people bond. A hug, a smile, or a laugh all cause the release of oxytocin. Its purpose is to reward positive social attachment between parents and their kids. The hormone is also proven to build love and trust between people.
So, how can you apply knowledge of oxytocin to parenting? Use its power to develop a deeper bond with your kid.
Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder and senior science advisor at education non-profit Turnaround for Children, says that strong relationships—along with routines and resilience—is one of the three Rs for promoting healthy social-emotional development in our kids. “Relationships are about connections that release oxytocin,” she says.
To start, implement daily check-ins and check-outs with your family to help each person talk about and cope with their feelings.
To dig deeper individually, though, consider doing weekly 1:1 time with each of your kids to give them personal time to talk through the challenges and joys they’re experiencing individually. Taking time out to spend time with your kids individually lets them know they matter.
This is a concept that was pioneered in the education space. Educators at Summit Public Schools and in the nearly 400 Summit Learning schools across the country, for example, implement weekly 1:1s for all students, each of whom have a dedicated, long-term mentor. The 1:1 mentoring session is a safe space for students to go for support, academic or otherwise; they typically last at least 10 minutes. Parents can bring this 1:1 connection to the home.
Here are four steps to kick off weekly 1:1 time with your kid.
1. Start with the 2×10 strategy
Educators use the “2×10 strategy” to connect with students who need extra support. For two minutes a day, 10 days in a row, they have 1:1 time with the student to talk or play, whatever it takes to connect. For parents, that can translate to talking about or doing anything your kid likes to do at home or school—it could even mean doing show-and-tell, playing a game, coloring, having a 1:1 lunch, or taking a walk around the block.
Starting with shorter, more frequent 1:1 time could be a good strategy for your family if you’re looking to kickstart 1:1 time or provide a boost of reassurance during a particularly difficult time. From there, you could launch into weekly 1:1s. Or skip this step entirely and go straight to 1:1s.
2. Find your 1:1 time and stick to it
When is the best time for you to connect with each of your kids? Find a time to spend 10 uninterrupted minutes together. It only takes five to 20 minutes for a kid to feel secure and loved—these short bursts of 1:1 attention are essential to helping your kid feel important. Ten minutes is a good middle ground that ensures your kid has time to feel special, but not so excessive to feel like a stress on your already full schedule.
If you have multiple kids, consider whether you’d prefer to schedule 1:1s back-to-back with buffer time in-between or choose different days and/or times to space out your kids’ “special time.”
If you’re parenting with a spouse or partner, consider whether you’d like to split up 1:1 time between partners each week or have both partners present for every get-together. Talk about the benefits of various setups. What that looks like can be different for each family. The important part is that your kid has a consistent outlet for sharing their emotions and being heard.
3. Throw away the script
While it’s okay to use a template or formula to a routine get-together with your kid, remember that every checkin should be unique to what your kid needs that day or week. Throw away the script to give your kid the opportunity to talk about or do what they want to do.
Dr. Cantor shares that for younger kids, that could be playing a game, particularly because they may not yet have the vocabulary to discuss their life experiences. For older kids, that time can be spent in conversation, reflecting on goals, feelings, and growth.
Regardless of age, the key is to focus on what they want to do or talk about. If you get stuck or your kid is reluctant to talk, ask reflection questions to kickstart the conversation. Or tell them a story that could spur conversation—storytelling is another tool that builds attachment as trust is passed from storyteller to listener.
4. Hand over the reins
When you start to think of your role as a parent as that of a mentor, rather than a director, you enable your kid to develop independence and self-direction. Give your kid control of their future—stop micromanaging and start motivating. Eventually, your kid will be on their own; hand over the reins now so they can practice directing their life.
Help your kid to build self-direction skills by encouraging them to set and achieve goals, big and small. Use your weekly 1:1s to check on progress, discuss challenges, and find strategies to overcome setbacks. As they become effective goal-setters, help them acquire the five power behaviors of self-directed learners: strategy shifting, challenge seeking, persistence, responding to setbacks, and seeking appropriate help.
Each get-together doesn’t have to be productive in the traditional sense of the word, with goals and to-dos and progress reports. They can also simply be emotionally productive, as you check in on how your kid is feeling. The key is to make your weekly 1:1s a special time for your kid.