WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT SPECIAL TIME? Parents who implement Special Time with their child always tell me they see significant changes in their child’s behavior. Why? Because Special Time:

  1. Gives the child the essential—but unfortunately so often elusive—experience of the parent’s full, attentive, loving attention, without which he can’t thrive.
  2. Reconnects us with our child after the separations and conflicts of everyday life, so she’s happier and more cooperative.
  3. Gives children a regular, safe opportunity to “unpack” all those sad, scared feelings they’ve been stuffing in their (figurative) emotional backpacks, which will otherwise spill out as contrary behavior.
  4. Deepens our empathy for our child so we can stay more compassionate and see things from his point of view.
  5. Builds a foundation of trust and partnership between parent and child, which is a precondition for him to trust us with his big feelings when he’s upset (as opposed to lashing out).
  6. Convinces the child on a primal level that she really matters to the parent. (Of course you know she does, but sometimes she has doubts.)

Every child benefits from Special Time to reconnect with each parent often, if possible every day. Think of it as preventive maintenance to keep things on track in your family. And if you’re having issues with your child, adding Special Time is the first thing to change. How do you do it?

  1. Announce that you want to have Special Time with each child for fifteen minutes, as many days in the week as you can. Call it by the most special name there is, your child’s name—for example, “Lauren Time.”
  2. Choose a time when any other children are being looked after by someone else (unless they are old enough to stay reliably occupied with something even while they sense their sibling getting something they’d like to have for themselves).
  3. Set a timer for fifteen minutes, with your child. Turn off all phones so you can’t hear incoming calls. Say, “Today you get to decide what we will do with our ‘Jonah Time.’ Tomorrow I get to decide. We’ll alternate. So now I am all yours for fifteen minutes. What would you like to do?”
  4. Give your child 100 percent of your attention with no agenda and no distractions. Just follow his lead. If he wants to play with his blocks, don’t rush in to tell him how to build the tower. Instead, enjoy watching your child explore, play, create. Occasionally say what you see: “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, consider it your workout for the day and make it fun. Resist the urge to judge or evaluate your child. Don’t suggest your own ideas unless she asks. Refrain from checking your cell phone. Just show up and give your child the tremendous gift of being seen and acknowledged.
  5. If she wants to do something that she isn’t usually allowed to do, consider whether there’s a way to do it safely since you’re there to help her. 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 has 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).
  6. When it’s your turn to decide what to do, initiate games to build emotional intelligence and bonding. Quiet talking and cuddling is okay once in a while, but your goal is to help your child release pent-up anxiety—another word for fear—and the most direct path is laughter. That usually means roughhousing in a way that gets your child giggling. I know, it sounds like a lot of energy for a tired parent. But it’s only for fifteen minutes, and you’ll find it energizes you, too. Do any game that gets your child laughing, which usually means engaging him in what scares or upsets him—but just enough to let him master it.
  7. 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 off-loaded with tears, so whatever gets your child giggling, do more of it.
  8. End Special Time when the timer buzzes. Special Time needs boundaries around it to signal that the rules aren’t the same as in regular life. When the timer goes off, give your child a big hug and tell him how much you loved this time together, and that you will have Special Time again very soon. 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 Special Time, I know.”) But don’t think of that as extending Special Time, just as you would not “give in” to anything else that your child has a tantrum about.
  9. Be aware that often your child’s emotions will bubble up during Special Time, especially at the end. That doesn’t mean she’s a bottomless pit. It means she feels safer with you after this time together, so all those feelings she’s been lugging around are now coming up to be processed. Or it means that letting go of you brings up all those feelings of how hard it is to share you. Often kids use the end of Special Time to express their upsets, so 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.

What’s so special about Special Time? It transforms your relationship with your child. And since that relationship is what makes good parenting possible, you can’t get more special than that.

This post adapted from Laura Markum’s book “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids” (reproduced with permission).

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