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"My 7 yr old daughter seems to have a difficult time having her 'cup filled.'  Even after 5  minutes of games where I’m doing what she wants whether it’s the tickle monster game or a game of cards with her—something that I consider quality time —she is still needy and can’t turn it off.  Even if I’ve given the 2 minute warning, she will continue to jump all over me and then when I’ve clearly stated it’s time for bath, etc., she stomps off.  Her attitude  negates the fun time we just had.  Even when I try to validate her feelings by saying that I know it’s hard to stop the fun, I can’t get through to her.  I do understand that she is probably trying to tell me that we need to do this more often and I am working harder at making sure we get that quality time together but when I’m just spent at the end of the day, I don’t know how to respond to her need for more more more when I feel I’ve just given."

We can all relate to this, right?  After all, Mom has just spent time focusing intensely on her child, "filling her cup."  It's the end of a long day, and it isn't easy to summon up our patience and presence to spend special time with our child, even for a few minutes.  At this point, any sane parent is moving kids toward bath and bed. After this nice interaction with Mom, shouldn't the kid go off to her bath with a smile?

Well, maybe some children would.  But many kids won't, at least some of the time.  And if we want to get through the evening without a rupture in our relationship, it helps to understand what's happening. For instance:

1. Her cup isn't yet full.  I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but when kids are away from us all day, they need us intensely in the evening.  Five minutes of one-on-one "quality time" may not be enough for your child, especially if she can't count on it daily.  She's finally got your undivided attention; why should she let you go?

Imagine you've been waiting for a few days for quality time with your spouse.  After five minutes of a lovely connection, your spouse says, "Sorry, we have to stop now."  You might have a hard time transitioning, too.  You might even feel hurt.

2. It wasn't quality time.  Maybe the activity was fun, and maybe your child even chose it, but maybe it didn't fill her deeper hunger to be held, adored, and wholly accepted.  Those needs are best filled through physical play, not card games, reading, or other "structured" activities. So while kids get to choose what to do with their Special Time (except that screen time is off-limits), I recommend that every other day the parent gets to choose. On those days, always opt for physical games that get your child laughing, like the "Fix" game.  Depending on your child's age, chasing him around the house, a pillow fight, or trying to take off each other's socks will work like magic. 

3. It did fill her cup, but she doesn't make transitions easily.  All kids have a hard time with transitions, which is why we give them two minute warnings.  But some kids need extra help to get themselves from one activity to the next, especially when they're physically wound up from playing with us and the next activity moves them closer to bedtime.  So don't take your child's upset as a reflection on your playtime.  When you see it from her perspective -- she was just getting going! -- it's a reasonable response.  Don't let the tough transition negate the nice connection you just made.  Keep your own attitude positive. Is there a way to continue your game in some form as you get her into the tub?

4. Your quality time tapped into some big feelings that need expression.  This might be the most common reason for your child having a hard time when you disengage from close time together.  Every child grapples with challenging experiences every day, from sitting still in class to making new friends to being afraid of the dark. All day long, he stuffs those emotions until he has a safe time to process them.  When you connect deeply with your child, he feels safe enough to let those troubling emotions surface.  So it's not surprising that just when we start to disengage, he gets swamped with feelings. You'll know this is happening if your child responds with hurt and anger every time you disengage from a close time together.  That's a signal that you need to start allowing more time for your child to cry in your arms on a regular basis. 

For now, make sure you allow an extra 10 minutes in case there's a meltdown after you've spent time connecting deeply. When she gets angry that you have to stop, stay compassionate and connected.  Be grateful that you've provided this big trigger to help her surface and express whatever is going on inside.  This might be the most important thing you do all day. 

Acknowledge her big feelings:  "You're so upset that we have to stop playing. You just don't feel like it's enough right now. You can count on Special Time tomorrow Sweetie, but right now we do have to stop.....I'm sorry this is so hard for you, Sweetie."

What if she cries? Wonderful! That's an indication that the connection you've made is helping your child feel safe enough to go into scary emotional territory and offload some emotional baggage she's been dragging around.You'll be amazed how cooperative and affectionate she'll be after a good cry in your safe presence. I know it's bath time, but she won't cry forever, and this won't happen every day. 

Most parents in this situation get frustrated because we wonder if what we've just given our child made any difference at all.  The answer is, YES, YES, YES! Every bit of love and patience you extend toward your child makes a huge difference.  Don't take her reluctance to let you go as anything but a vote for more closeness, and an SOS for your help.

Finding Special Time with kids is always tough.  After all, parents by definition are sleep-deprived and stretched way too thin. It can be hard to find time for a shower!

But that doesn't mean kids don't need that time with us. Most parents say they're astonished at the difference it makes. If you can't do it daily, then prioritize a longer Special Time where kids choose the activity on weekends, and make sure there's 15 minutes for a physical game with all the kids every day before or after dinner, plus at least five minutes of snuggling with each child (in addition to reading) at bedtime daily.  If it means the kids wear clothes still wrinkled out of the laundry basket, who cares?  You're giving them the emotional foundation they need to thrive all week long -- and throughout their lives.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013 | Permalink | Blog Home
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Lisa commented on 20-Jan-2012 11:43 PM
Dr. Laura, I feel like this explanation has shifted my perspective. I read this article yesterday, and today when my son was uncooperative, I challenged him to a pillow fight. That turned into hitting mommy with his hand. I scooped him up and asked if
he needed to cry, and instead he curled up and took a nap. I guess he was trying to tell me ow tired he was. I usually get frustrated and try to put some space between us, but his felt way more compassionate and was so much quicker! Thanks! Lisa
Susie commented on 02-Feb-2012 03:23 AM
This is very interesting....I have recently been looking at your site and other positive parenting sites to try and find a peaceful solution to some of the challenges I face with my 21month son daily. When I have spent some time focussed on a task such
as housework or making phone calls my son will come up to try and get my attention which continues into poking, hitting and eventually deliberate misbehaviour that he knows I will ALWAYS react to such as spilling water everywhere, pulling things down, finding
a pen to draw on the walls (argh)! Lately I have responded earlier and by getting down on the floor and having a tickle-fest or wrestling or anything physical. This really seems to help him reconnect and within 10minutes he is happy to be involved in an activity
that does not require my presence. So much better than the horrible tantrums and extended unhappy times that we were having before Christmas. I am really starting to understand that he needs that quality time to feel secure and process emotion – I am a SAHM
and really believe in the importance of attachment/bonding between parent and child so it’s great to find useful advice that is considerate of this 

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