"I give my kids plenty of attention. What's so special about Special Time?" - Emilee

Every parent I know who has started doing Special Time with his or her child has told me that they see significant changes in their child's behavior. Parents often say that their child seems to respond to it as if they've been missing an essential nutrient. In a way, they have.

Why? Because we live in a stressful culture that disconnects us from each other, from our feelings, and from our own inner wisdom. Special Time is the antidote for parents and children, an essential nutrient that heals the upsets and disconnections of daily modern life. Specifically, Special Time: 

  • Reconnects us with our child after the separations and struggles of the day, so she's happier and more cooperative.
  • Gives the child the essential--but unfortunately so often elusive--experience of the parent's full, attentive, loving presence.
  • Gives the child a regular opportunity to express scary feelings and ideas to a compassionate, trusted adult who will listen and help her work them through using her own natural language: Play.
  • Gives the child a safe place to work through the everyday issues that all kids need to work through, such as feeling powerless, by reversing the roles and letting the child lead.
  • Deepens our empathy for our child so that we can stay more compassionate and see things from their point of view, which strengthens the connection and our parenting.
  • Builds a foundation of trust and partnership between parent and child which is a precondition for them to trust us with their big feelings when they're upset (as opposed to lashing out), so improves the child's behavior.
  • Convinces the child on a primal level that she is central to the parent, that she really matters, that she is important. (You know she is, but children often wonder.)
  • Restores the parent's joy in parenting because the parent-child relationship becomes sweeter.

Think of Special Time as preventive maintenance to keep things on track in your family. And if you're having issues with your child, it's the first thing to change.  Often, it's the only thing you need to change.

Clearly, every child benefits from Special Time with each parent on a regular basis.  How often? At the risk of sounding like your dentist telling you to floss, every day would be ideal -- but once a week is substantially better than never! Start where you can.

How do you do it? Here are my top ten tips.

1. Announce that you want to have special time with each child.

This will be for ten minutes a day (or 20, if you can swing it), as often as you can. Call it by the most special name there is -- your child's name. So in your house it might be Talia time or Oliver time.

2. Choose a time when any other children are being looked after by someone else...

...unless they're old enough to stay safely occupied without adult supervision. If you have more than one child, you'll want to set up a schedule so all siblings know their special time is coming soon. One good strategy for siblings as you do time with one child is an audio book, which absorbs their attention enough to keep them from noticing you laughing with their sibling. (Headphones are essential, and if they need something to do with their hands, give them drawing materials to illustrate as they listen. Great for brain development!)

3. Set a timer for ten minutes.

Turn off all phones so you can't hear incoming calls. Is ten minutes long enough? I suggest starting with ten minutes because it will seem like an eternity if you aren't used to being fully present in the moment with another person. Don't worry, it gets easier, and you do start to enjoy it!

4. Decide if you will also have other time most days to roughhouse with your child to get her laughing.

Roughhousing is also essential, but it can often involve more than one child. If you can squeeze in some roughhousing and laughter at another point in the day, then daily Special Time is your child's to use as she sees fit. But if not -- let's say you work outside the home and have limited time with your child -- then you do need to reserve some time for roughhousing. In that case, I recommend that you alternate days. The first day, your child decides how to use the Special Time. The next day, you get decide, and you always choose roughhousing/laughter.

5. Say "I am all yours for the next ten minutes..."

"The only things we can't do are read or use screens. This time is just to play. What would you like to do?"

Or, if you are including roughhousing in special time, add "Today you get to decide what we will do with our 'Jonah time.'  Tomorrow, I get to decide. We'll alternate."

6. Follow your child's lead with 110% of your attention with no agenda and no distractions.

Just connect to your child with all your heart. Really notice your child, and follow his lead. If he wants to play with his blocks, don't rush in to tell him how to build the tower. Instead, watch with every bit of your attention. Occasionally, say what you see without interfering: "You are making that tower even taller....you are standing on your tiptoes to get that block up there..."

If she wants you to pull her in a circle on her skates until she falls down, over and over, resist "teaching" her to skate. Consider it your workout for the day, and make it fun: "For special time, my daughter took us out into the cul-de-sac to roller skate. I pulled her in a circle round and round so hard and she laughed and laughed until she fell on the ground. She kept coming back for more. After all this laughing, we had a great night!" 

Resist the urge to judge or evaluate your child. Don't take control or suggest your own ideas unless he asks. Refrain from checking your phone. Just show up and give your child the tremendous gift of being seen and acknowledged. (If you've ever really been seen and appreciated, you know just how great a gift this is.) Your child may not be able to articulate it, but he will know when you're really being present with him. Kids sense our presence and they "follow" it like a magnet.

7. What if they want to do something they aren't usually allowed to do?

Consider whether there's a way to do it safely, since you're there to help and keep them safe.  Maybe you always tell her that it's too dangerous to jump off the dresser onto the bed, but for special time you can push the bed next to the dresser and stay with her as she jumps to be sure she's safe.  Maybe he's always wanted to play with his dad's shaving cream but you weren't about to let him waste a can of it, or to clean it up. For special time, you might decide to gift him with his own can of cheap shaving cream and let him play with it in the tub, and then the two of you can clean it up together. If you can't grant her desire (go to Hawaii), find a way to approximate it (make grass skirts and play hula dancing together.)

Why bother? Your child learns that you really do care about his desires, even if you can't always give him what he wants (so he's less likely to feel like he never gets his way, and more likely to cooperate in general.) And since these desires will no longer be forbidden fruit after your child has a chance to indulge her curiosity and experience them, she's less likely to try them behind your back.

8. When it's your day to decide what to do, roughhouse!

Initiate games for laughter, emotional intelligence and bonding. That usually means roughhousing in a way that gets your child giggling. I know, it sounds like a lot of energy. But it's only for ten minutes, and it will energize you, too.  I promise. Favorite themes include:

  • Power ("You can't get away from me!  Hey, where'd you go?  You're too fast for me!")
  • Rebellion, control and breaking the rules ("Whatever you do, don't get off the couch! Oh, no, now I have to give you 20 kisses! Where do you want them?")
  • Mock aggression (Pillow fights).
  • Separation and reunion (Peekaboo, Hide 'n Seek, The Bye Bye Game, "No, don't leave me!")
  • Fear ("I'm the scary monster coming to get you... Oh, I tripped... Now, where did you go? EEK! You scared ME!") Be just scary enough to get your child giggling, not scary enough to scare him.

You might also tackle a specific issue that your child is struggling to master, by, for instance, playing school. Let him be the teacher and assign you tons of homework and embarrass you when you don't know the answer. Or play basketball and let her dominate the court.

In all these games, the parent bumbles ineffectually, blusters and hams it up, but just can't catch the strong, fast, smart child who always bests us. The goal is giggling, which releases the same anxieties that are offloaded with tears, so whatever gets your child giggling, do more of that! A great source of ideas for games is Dr. Lawrence Cohen's book Playful Parenting, which has inspired many of the games I suggest. Here are some links with more ideas:

Games for Bonding and Emotional Intelligence

Let's Get Physical -- Games to Connect with Your Child

More Games to Transform Tears to Laughter

9. Don't structure Special Time.

I used to call this "quality time," but that often confused parents. After all, reading to kids, or baking cookies with them -- aren't those activities quality time? Yes, indeed, and they're wonderful things to do with your child. But they aren't Special Time. So I borrowed the name Special Time from my friend Patty Wipfler at Hand in Hand Parenting. As kids get older, they may request more structured activities, which is fine -- but that's why the parent reserves the right to choose the activity on alternate days, to focus on connection and emotional processing. So no screens, no books, no structured activities. Instead, show up and connect!

10. End Special Time when the timer buzzes.

If your child has a meltdown, handle it with the same compassionate empathy with which you would greet any other meltdown ("It's so hard to stop... I loved our time together too... you can cry as much as you want, Sweetie, I am right here") and give him your full attention in his meltdown.  But don't think of that as extending special time, just as you would not give your child anything else that he has a tantrum about, like an extra cookie. Special time needs boundaries around it to signal that the rules aren't the same as in regular life.

11. Be aware that often your child's emotions will bubble up during special time.

This means that often children fall apart when the timer signals that Special Time is over. That doesn't mean that your child is a bottomless pit. It means that they finally got something they were needing and wanting, and losing it again feels like the end of the world.

It's good to schedule a little cushion at the end in case your child has a meltdown, especially when you're just starting out, or when your child has been having a hard time. When the meltdown begins, just empathize, and give yourself a pat on the back for being the kind of parent your child trusts enough to express all these big feelings.  Once he cries, those feelings will dissipate, and he'll feel so much better--and so much more connected to you.

What's so special about special time?  It transforms our relationship with our child.  And since that relationship is 90% of our parenting, you can't get more special than that!

 

"Giving your child Special Time is an active form of listening, in which your child’s play becomes her vehicle for telling you about her life and perceptions." - Patty Wipfler

"Special time is priceless because it symbolizes the parent’s unconditional love for the child." - B.J. Howard

 

Click here to watch Dr. Laura's video "Making 'Special-Time' Effective."