My sister wisely told me, “Kids who are demanding time and attention need… time and attention!” I totally agree. The challenge is, how do we give a demanding kid the attention she appears to crave without feeling like we’re rewarding negative behavior? The answer is clear when we put it through our Adlerian lens. We simply need to give attention in a way that is respectful to all three core needs:
- The needs of the child
- The needs of the parent
- The needs of the situation
Let’s take the example of a child who is demanding that we spend more and more time helping her settle down to sleep. Once you set bedtime limits, then add “Special Time” to your daily calendar. Let you child know you’re looking forward to being with her when you’re both wide awake and ready to play!
When I first heard the term Special Time, I was sitting in a parenting class in Washington, DC at the Parent Encouragement Program and my daughter was 3 years old. My first thought was, “Her life is special time! I’m with her doing cool stuff all of the time.” However, once I implemented real Special Time (or “Hang Time”), as originally outlined by Dr. Stanley Greenspan, it was an entirely different thing with a very powerful impact. Here are some of the key features that make it unique:
1. Label a 15-minute block of your day as “special time,” mark it on the family calendar so you and your child both have something to anticipate, talk about, and count on.
2. This is one-on-one time. One parent to one child. Siblings will quickly learn to respect it.
3. Establish core limits up front: this time is screen-free and $-free (This isn’t an opportunity to watch a favorite show or go out for ice cream).
4. The child plans it. This is a key difference. Unwittingly, many parents find themselves orchestrating most of the activities. This will be a time when the child picks the activity and manages it. We are guests in her world.
5. Be a good guest. Be curious, patient, alert, quiet. This isn’t a time where the parent needs to narrate, choose, make funny jokes, manage, control or lead in any way. Don’t feel obliged to make value judgments or “fix” anything. Simply being present and interested is enough.
6. Stick to the set time. Use a timer. (I’m partial to the “Time Timer” which visually shows time passing like a slice of pie that gets smaller and smaller.) When the timer dings, you might give your child a hug, thank her for letting you into her world, and tell her you’re already looking forward to tomorrow’s time.
A younger child, at the beginning, might need some help transitioning and letting you go – perhaps you could look at the calendar together to see when it will be the following day. Then, preview the next part of the day. It might sound like, “It’s time to get dinner together, we need to decide what vegetables we’ll eat tonight. Let’s look at our choices…”
An older child or teen might play it cool and appear nonchalant about the time ending. However, she will be watching you to see if you stick to your promise to give time again and do it consistently. A parent’s time and attention matters to a child, no matter what their age.
Some very valuable things happen during special time.
– The child learns that you care about what she cares about and care to get into her world more deeply.
– She grows a sense of self-respect for herself and her interests.
– You gain the wonderful result of greater appreciation for your child.
– Together, you grow a bond that will stay with you both long after the 15-minute timer dings.
This is a simple tool to give your child the attention she craves in a way that is respectful to both of you and the needs of the situation. The amazing thing you’ll discover after steady, reliable doses of special time is that those annoying demands for your attention will become distant memories.
An Example of Special Time in Action:
A single mom, an immigrant to my city from a country on the African continent, listened to me share about special time and decided to put it into action with her family. This mom had three children and was also juggling full-time work. She was also worried about her middle child, a daughter, who was getting into fights at school and causing disruption in her classes.
This mom decided that “special time” for her family would look like a 30 minute block of time each evening after dinner. She had all three of the children go outside into a backyard space together. Each child would get 10 minutes one-on-one with their mom. They would walk up and down the back alley, or if they wished, practice their biking skills on the one family bike with her at their side while the other two siblings waited their turn behind the fence in the yard. She listened to them talk about their days, encouraged their growing bike skills and they’d talk together about whatever was on the child’s mind. This became a consistent part of the evening routine.
Three weeks into the new routine, the mom was glowing as she shared how special time had impacted her family. Everyone in the family loved it and the evening wasn’t complete without it. Incidentally, the reports from her daughter’s teachers had completely changed during this time. Her middle daughter was calmer with classmates, able to follow directions and contributing in a useful way to her class.
Special Time gives a child the very powerful experience of having belonging, growing capable skills, being significant, and encouraged. Having these four core needs met is a little bit like fairy dust, it can magically transform a child’s experience of her world.