Do you find it hard to keep your child engaged with you? Is it hard to have an ongoing back-and-forth interaction without them losing interest or moving away? It could be that you struggling to connect with your child on an emotional level. Floortime is all about connecting with your child, and your number one resource for doing this is affect.

Affect refers to the emotional messaging that expresses our ideas and emotions. It’s our authentic expression in our communication such as the tone of voice we use, our gestures, facial expressions and other non-verbal communication. This is our primary tool in Floortime!

Affect is also about enjoying yourself. The brain imprints things more efficiently when you are using ‘high affect’. This is why we remember emotionally-rich memories from our childhood. Being in a state of heightened joy is a sincere and genuine expression of your emotional experience that your child will be drawn to.

We aren’t using enough affect

There are a few things I see parents do when they are learning about Floortime that prevents that emotional bonding. The first has been discussed here many times: they are directive rather than interactive, telling their child what to do or pointing them in a particular direction. They do not follow their child’s lead, which is their window into the child’s emotional world, and they are not being attuned to their child by staying in the moment and responding to the child’s non-verbal communication and behavioural cues.

Now don’t get me wrong–I’m not blaming parents. This tends not to be something intentional on their part at all. It usually is just that they are trying so hard to get that communication they seek and haven’t yet figured out how to be comfortable with being playful with their child, or don’t even know how to. As adults, we often forget how to play, but affect happens naturally when you are more playful! It sometimes might also seem to us like our children just aren’t interested in playing with us at all!

Foster the connection

To build that emotional connection, you really need to clear your head of doing anything and instead just stay in the moment and wait, watch, and wonder. Look for your child’s subtle non-verbal cues such as gestures, where they look, how they move their body, and any other signals that indicate what they are communicating to you. This is hard because we are always wanting verbal language. But our children tend to say so much more with their non-verbal communication.

Don’t let any of these cues pass by without acknowledging and responding to them. How you respond, will depend on where the child is developmentally, but what’s always the same is that we are being playful. And this is where the affect is so important. It’s the delivery of who you are, which comes out so naturally when we are playful. Connecting through this affect with each other is the beginning of your developmental journey together.

One way to get this affective connection going is to do nonsense and be silly. This isn’t just for young children. It’s about having fun and sharing joy together. Go slow with your language and movements, and use a lot of natural facial expressions and gestures. Exaggerate your tone of voice. Then wait for a response. Often, our kids won’t say anything without you encouraging them through waiting and anticipation. So attune to the child again and watch for their cues, then continue to respond playfully.

Talking or no talking?

Recall that our Relationship with our child is helping our child’s regulation. When we are responding to our child’s non-verbal cues, we are co-regulating with them, and affect is the fuel we use! This involves mirroring* what we see our child presenting to us emotionally. So it’s very easy to say “talk less and use more affect“, but that’s really not the issue. The issue is how we tend to talk to our children in play. It’s a lot of monotonous commenting, questioning, and directing without really attuning to the child’s non-verbal signals they are presenting to us.

*This all sounds so simple, but recall that Jennifer Kolari told us that on average parents spend only seven minutes per week talking to their children in a connected way! So we are often unaware of how unconnected we really can be. She also shares the neuroscience behind connecting with our child using affect starting around the 14 min mark until about the 24 minute mark, and about her C.A.L.M. technique starting at about 29:00 (Connect-Affect Matching-Listen-Mirroring).

When we are at the start of our journey towards gaining shared attention, it is not language that helps us gain that, it is affect. Affect becomes our language because we connect to each other on an emotional level, using affective signalling. Within this process, the language of words is less important than the language of love and emotion. We are working on the development of a Relationship within which our child feels safe.

So if we tend to talk a lot and don’t get much engagement or communication back, it might help at the beginning to talk less to promote the use of affect because if we aren’t talking we have to find another tool to connect and to be with our child, and that tool is affect. Affect becomes the guide for the interaction. Once we are comfortable being in that place of connection and shared attention with our child, and using our genuine affect, our language flows naturally and will guide our child’s language development.

Presume competence
With every interaction we have with our child, we must always presume competence. What seems like them not paying attention, not listening nor understanding doesn’t mean at all that they don’t hear us and understand. Our children’s brains differ from how ours work and their bodies may be preventing them from communicating the way we do. It is our responsibility to help them communicate with us and affect is our number one resource.
Thank you to Jackie Bartell for her assistance with this week’s post.
How have you been playful with your child to build a stronger emotional connection? Have you noticed how you can lose the connection when you are too serious without being playful for awhile? If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter below, or sharing your experiences with being more at ease with your child in play in the Comments section below.

Until next time… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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