You’ve learned about Special Time in a Starter Class or in a talk, or from our web site. You’ve heard of other parents who’ve had an amazing outcome using Special Time. You are home with your little one and are excited to try it and keen to see the results.
However, nothing has prepared you for this: your child doesn’t know what to do for Special Time and gets frustrated when the timer beeps at the end. Your child feels cheated or stupid. Your dream turns into a nightmare and your confidence in your parenting sinks.
I have news for you: this happens to most of us. I remember when I was in the Certification Program to become a Hand in Hand Instructor, my 5-year-old middle daughter had this issue. My son and daughter would each launch into their Special Time as if it were the sweetest treat. They knew exactly what they wanted to do and asked for it. But my middle daughter would get frustrated and mad because she didn’t know what she wanted, or she wanted so many things that 10, 15, even 20 minutes would never suffice. Her Special Time would usually turn into a Staylistening session. It felt frustrating and exhausting, and wasn’t what I had envisioned.
Then I learned that some children struggle to manage their fears, so when a parent announces Special Time, it signals emotional safety, and the child suddenly can't think at all. The hurt that bubbles up may be related to time when they were so stressed that the idea of wanting or choosing something was far beyond where their mind could go. Or even imagine. All their inner resources were focused on survival. So the idea of choice can become an immediate shutdown when there's you, wonderful you, there to pay attention. That was definitely the case with my sweet daughter.
By Staylistening, I was actually doing her a huge favor. I was helping her release that hurt and tidy up her emotional closet. To help her move toward being able to connect through Special Time I wanted to think of a strategy. But first I needed to work on my own emotional mess with the help of my Listening Partners. I noticed that I had certain expectations about how Special Time should be, and I think I may have made her feel pressured to “perform.” After working on my own feelings and worries, there was less stress and background noise in my head, and I had an idea.
Every time my daughter said she didn't know what to do for Special Time, I would say lovingly,
“That's perfectly OK. I'll just stay here and love you while you think about it.”
Then I just sat watching her, or followed her around while she prepared her stuff, or cried because she couldn’t think. I didn’t say much, just lovingly watched and stayed with her. With every new session of Special Time, I noticed the need for Staylistening decreased and she became more relaxed. She eventually was able to consistently choose how she wanted to use her time. She was about 5 years old then.
Another thing I did was to talk to her about it outside Special Time. I told her I noticed she had a hard time finding things to do for Special Time and asked her if she needed help. I suggested we make a list of things she might like to try for Special Time. When she did something she enjoyed or saw something she wanted or liked, I would ask her if I should put it on the list. When it was time for Special Time I would ask if she knew what she wanted to do, or if she would like to check out the list. We used this for a very short time, but I think it gave her a sense of safety.
Being there for her without judging or pressuring her allowed her to feel safe and accepted as she was. After some good and helpful cries to clear her mind, she found her own way of doing Special Time, which allowed me to enjoy my beautiful, smart girl.
Irina Nichifiriuc is a certified Hand in Hand Instructor. She lives in Romania with her husband and three children. You can connect with her through her facebook page @Sfatul Mamei.