Updated: Sep 11, 2021
You may have seen the videos of strangers staring into one another’s eyes for four minutes. Perhaps you’ve seen the genuine affection and positive regard each seemed to express to the other at the end. Well, what would you say if you knew that you too could create that level of closeness with the people around you, and more significantly in your family relationships?
In 1997, a group of psychologists experimented with the possibility of creating closeness between people who did not know each other. It began with 36 questions of an increasingly personal nature, and ended with a four minute exercise to look into one another’s eyes without talking. The results showed that these specific tasks significantly increased feelings of closeness, even when the individuals had been pre-screened to have significant differences in opinion or preference.
Most of us just assume that we either like someone or we don’t, that we get on with someone or not. What this study reveals though, is that we actually need to work on achieving closeness, and that there are specific ways to do this. You may be wondering who you might want to build closeness with, and if you have an intimate partner and they are open to it, the 36 questions can be a really good place to start even if you already know each other quite well.
But what about your kids? The relationship we have with our children is not equal. Children have immature brains and an undeveloped capacity to be present and responsive in relationships in the way we expect adults to be. What this means is that we the adults need to be the ones who are providing and guiding most of the time. And of course many of us do it willingly and happily, knowing it is what our children need, but there can be times when it feels a bit draining and unreciprocated. And that’s because in the most part the effort and attention is not returned. So how do we generate closeness with our children when we feel depleted and unappreciated?
Turning back to the study, the activity of looking quietly at the other person can give us a clue. Of course, with a child we can’t expect them to sit quietly and stare back into our eyes. It would be too intimidating and exhausting for them. However, if they happen to be sitting quietly, maybe drawing or reading, or having a quiet play with their toys, we as parents can deliberately settle into that moment and observe. Start with your body: choose a comfortable place to sit or lean and soften your muscles, slow your breath and deliberately relax. Notice the worries and to-do-list that endlessly repeats through our minds, and make a choice. In that moment, you are engaging in the most important activity of generating closeness with your child. The other things can wait, right?
Now really look at your child. Look at the softness of their hair and the way it falls against their face. Notice the expression of concentration or delight, seeing how their expression changes. Maybe you see their mouth curl up in a soft smile, or their forehead tenses in concentration. Just breathe softly yourself and take in the moment. They won’t be like this for very long, so just take it all in: the curl of their eyelashes, the smallness of their wrist, the chuntering voice of play. And if they look up at you and see you watching them, really take in that expression of delight as they bask in your attention. I guarantee, your affection levels will be refilled and revitalised, and you’ll be ready for the difficult job of parenting once more.
If you want support in slowing down yourself, or to understand complex feelings towards your child, we can help. Our parent listening groups offer a space where you can share your challenges with others who understand and are going through it themselves. We also offer individual counselling to help sort through the messy feelings that lie underneath so you can be free to parent at your best.
If you want a free cheat sheet to help support you with this activity, click here.