A stunning 80% of adults feel like their parents didn’t really love them as a kid (1). This creates a drain on the mental health of children. Of course, we all love our children beyond words, but sometimes our love gets buried under feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion, loneliness, and worry. Deep down we want nothing more than our child to feel cherished and good no matter what their struggles are in life. It’s not lack of love that stops our children feeling appreciated. It’s that we parents have to work hard with little support, creating many barriers that can stop our love from landing in our children’s hearts.
At the attachment-theory-based Circle of Security Project (2), run by respected clinical therapists, they see “delight” as the critical quality parents need to show to support the mental health of children. More than anything children need us to feel joy when we are with them, it makes them feel deeply appreciated and accepted just as they are.
But parent’s lives are full. It can be hard to find pleasure in raising children given the many pressures in our lives. On top of the vitally important work we do caring for our kids, we have to juggle earning a living, putting meals on the table, washing clothes, etc. It can be tricky to remember to stop and simply delight in our kids.
A Booster for the Mental Health of Children
There is a practice you can adopt to help you shine your love in a way that makes it land right in your child’s heart. It’s unbelievably powerful. Busy parents can fit it into their lives. And if you do this regularly you’ll see big shifts in your relationship with your child. They’ll become more cooperative, more affectionate, and more relaxed. And you’ll likely feel closer to them, more aware of their inner world and more delighted by who they are.
It’s called “Special Time” (3).
Here’s what you do:
- Let your child know that in Special Time you’re going to do whatever they want. You’re handing the reigns of the relationship over to your child. So much of their day is spent doing what other people want them to do. Reversing the roles brings relief to a child and opens up possibilities for them to show you things they don’t normally have space to reveal.
- Let your child know ahead of time when you’re going to have Special Time e.g. after lunch, or on Saturday. This gives them a chance to figure out how they’ll use your attention.
- You decide how long it’s going to be e.g. “After lunch, we’ll have 20 minutes of Special Time” and you make sure there are no interruptions to this time. Phones are silent and tidying up will wait. Your full and complete attention is focused on your child.
- Set a timer. It might seem a bit odd at first but it’s interesting to notice how much better it goes with a timer. Part of the power of Special Time comes from your child being in charge. If you say it’s over, you’re keeping some of the power around the time. The timer keeps the child in the upper hand and you keep playing until it goes off.
- Do whatever your child wants to do. Really, anything. The only exceptions being that it’s important to gently set limits if they want to do something that would hurt someone or something. Try being enthusiastic about what they choose to do, even if it makes you groan inwardly.
- Shine all your love and warmth at your child. Delight in them no matter what they show you. This is the magic ingredient. Shining your utmost love at your child whilst they lead the play, makes a child feel fully accepted and appreciated for who they are. When you approach Special Time with an air of interest and expectation they’ll show you new things with the safety of knowing that you’ll be pleased with them, no matter what.
- Follow the laughter. If anything makes your kid laugh, keep doing it. Laughter is such a powerful tonic it helps shed light fears and embarrassment and makes us feel close: it’s “…the shortest distance between two friends” (4). And, you get to slipstream in on all those good feelings: you become hardwired into your child’s brain alongside the feelings of laughter and the love you’re offering up.
Here’s how doing regular Special Time went for Justine, a mum in Melbourne:
Whenever my 7 year old daughter would ask me to play, I would always be busy. “Just a minute, I’m putting a load of washing on, I’ll be there soon” while in my mind I was thinking ‘anything but play’ I once even told a friend ‘I’d rather clean the toilet than play’.
When I first tried Special Time with my daughter , I could manage 5 minutes at the most and it was hard. I’d have to really focus on being present.I would secretly watch the minutes tick by and couldn’t wait till it ended. I felt like a really poor mother -why couldn’t I just enjoy playing?
I kept at it and spent over a week trying Special Time each day for 5-10 minutes. It became a little easier with each day, though not all the time – if I was tired it was hard. I noticed something interesting after a week – my daughter was now happier to do all sorts of things that were once a challenge for her such as getting out of the house for school on Monday, brushing her teeth, being flexible when plans changed, and having a shower. She even put her dirty laundry in the basket!
It also built a real place of refuge for us both. We started laughing more during our play and it was flowing more easily. It influenced other aspects of our lives, bringing greater closeness and trust. We made close eye contact more often and smiled across the room.
Sometimes children will use Special Time simply to do things they love to do, maybe playing Barbie dolls, riding bikes, or reading books together. Other times children will push you to do things you might not be comfortable with, but are actually okay to do. They get to show you all the things they’d love to do but can’t normally and have you delight in them whilst they do it! One of my most memorable times was when I was 7 months pregnant and my 4 year old squirted a hose at me for 10 minutes! He laughed and laughed and laughed. And so did I (with a little bit of squealing thrown in). Other times children will use the power of your attention to try and tackle something they find difficult like doing back flips on the trampoline or writing their name.
Children LOVE Special Time.
I recently asked some kids what they thought about it:
“It’s special and it’s only me and no-one else. I like it,” Arlo, 3 years old
“I like it. It feels nice,” Lucy, 4 years old
“I like Special Time ‘cos I get one-on-one time with Mama and we don’t get to hang out together much just the two of us. It feels good. I think other kids would like it,” Alfie, 8 years old
Leigh Jamison, a mum in Sweden has a gorgeous story about how important Special Time is, no matter how humdrum it may seem from the outside:
“This summer we had planned a visit to the equivalent of Disneyland in Sweden. The boys, 5 and 7, had never been there and had been looking forward to the visit for many months. The theme park was a long drive away and very pricey so we planned a full day there, getting there early and staying until they closed which was past the boys’ bedtime.
Knowing how cranky they got without a full night’s sleep, we prepared them to get in their pyjamas and go straight to bed as soon as we got home, which meant no Special Time or toothbrushing. The boys looked at each other with startled eyes when I said this and asked to discuss it by themselves in another room.
They returned saying they would rather leave the theme park a couple of hours early so they could get home in time to have Special Time! And they get Special Time every day so it would have meant missing just one of 365 days in the year!”
As you try out Special Time in your family, you might find:
It feels hard to actually do it. On the face of it Special Time is such a simple thing yet it can be surprisingly hard for parents to do. It’s not our fault. The lack of support we have as parents means it can be difficult to find the energy to do Special Time. And it’s unlikely you were given such attention when you were a kid. You might also find yourself getting distracted and wanting to tidy up, quickly looking at your phone, or daydreaming about something else. If you’re finding it hard to actually do Special Time or get sidetracked easily, it’s a sign that you might need some support. Finding someone to listen to you whilst you explore the resistance you have can be very helpful.
You need to be clever introducing it to teenagers and some tweens. It’s likely to go down like a lead balloon suggesting to your teenager they could have Special Time. You’ll have to be a little crafty. A mum in one of my Hand in Hand Parenting Starter Classes said to her 12 year old in whisper, “Hey, I reckon you and me could sneak off and have an hour together when I finish work and no one would notice – I’ll do whatever you want – what do you reckon?” The “let’s be a bit naughty” tone totally appealed to her son and they plotted how they’d head to the beach for a quick surf together.
A child brings up past difficulties. One of the things that makes Special Time so beneficial to the mental health of a child is that it gives them a place where unresolved feelings can resurface. Regular Special Time helps a child feel very safe and they will use that to bring up issues they haven’t fully processed. For example they may become clingier to you. This is actually progress: they trust you to be there for them, so they want to work through buried difficulties.
A child shows you some old hurts. As you begin to have Special Time, your child will start to feel safe enough to show you their upsets. It’s not uncommon for a child to get upset over something small during, at the end of, or soon after, Special Time. They are using the safety of your attention to offload some old hurts and just need you to be with them as their emotional storm passes. You’ll likely notice they feel lighter and more affectionate after they’ve cleared out a load of old feelings.
Patty Wipfler, Founder of Hand in Hand Parenting says, “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.” And Dr. Laura Markham, Clinical Psychologist, sums it up nicely, “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!”
1. From conversations with Melbourne therapist Joane Goulding in 2013 and 2015. This is based on her clinical experience over 40 years of practice where she estimates only 20% of adults grow up to feel their parents loved and accepted them for who they are. Also backed up by Brene Brown’s research cited in “Power of Vulnerability”.
2. From Circle of Security training workshops in 2007
3. Created by Patty Wipfler, Founder of Hand in Hand Parenting. For more information please read “Listen: Five Simple Tools to Meet Your Everyday Parenting Challenges” or the Listening to Children Booklet set.
4. Victor Borge, Danish comedian, conductor and pianist.