When I see kids individually or in family therapy one of the very first things I suggest is to have “special time” scheduled with your child. Special time is a routinely scheduled play date with your child that is consistent and allows them to choose what to play or do. For some parents this might look like a half hour or more at 3pm each Saturday. For others this is ten minutes each night before the bedtime routine or after school. The three main ingredients to this designated time are the consistent schedule, the parents undivided attention, and the child being able to choose what to do. This works for many reasons, most of which have to do with the nervous system regulating, giving your child a sense of empowerment and building bonding and attachment in the relationship.
We forget as adults that children’s days are mostly scheduled by us. We tell them when to get up, when to eat, when to play, when to sleep….most of the day is dictated by someone else. Just giving a child some time each week with you that they know they have control of gives them a sense of empowerment. Knowing that during this time your attention will be totally on them opens a door for exploration in the relationship and builds trust. It can be very exciting for them to show you things or play in ways they normally don’t get to with you and this can be very informative and fun for parents. Having it be a routine time also lets their nervous systems relax a little knowing that if they can’t have your undivided attention now…they will get it at the designated special time. Often I have had parents come into me saying, “my kid yells mommy! mommy! or daddy! daddy!” non stop and their behavior escalates to get their attention every moment they are around. When they have implemented special time consistently in a short while they notice their kids calmer and less demanding on attention in the day to day because they know they will have it at their scheduled time. Parents can also use this as a way to help calm their children by saying, “I can’t play with you now because I’m making dinner, but we have our special time at 7:30 and then we’ll do what you want to.” This can also help to build patience and what is known as frustration tolerance for kids as they learn to self-soothe until they get the attention they want.
Most families have very busy schedules these days and adults are often distracted by the routines of the day with their children. They also will count that as time spent together, and it is, but it is not the same as quality time of the child’s choosing. This is a powerful way to join with your child and learn their language through play and expression which will ultimately build trust in your relationship with them. The caveat I always put on this is that special time does not need to be elaborate or have money involved at all. In fact I usually suggest it is not so as not to set up patterns of manipulation. Hanging out in their room, going for a walk or to a park nearby, maybe with your teen it is listening to music or going for a drive. Some kids want to play with toys, some to color, some to just sit and tell you about what’s going on in their lives.
In another post I will talk about the importance of reflective dialogue in relationship and with children especially as this is an added ingredient to build trust and rapport and to soothe your child and make sure they feel heard. In the meantime, try setting up a special time with your child. And I’d like to add, it works with partners too!!