Special Time* is a simple idea that carries a lot of power! It's a highly dependable way to build and to rebuild a close connection with a child.
The power of Special Time is that it puts the parent in the "back seat" of the parent/child relationship. The child does the steering. Until you do Special Time, it's hard to detect habits of control and direction that you may have adopted in your interactions with your child. Special Time helps a parent pull away from those habits, and gives the child a chance to bask in the parent's approval and demonstrate his own preferences and interests.
Children often ask for kinds of play or interaction that a parent wouldn't usually choose, or wouldn't think of. The child's choices are a direct but nonverbal communication about what he likes, his issues, or possibly the places he has become stuck in a rut of fascination or worry. But in any case, Special Time makes it safe for a child to "show himself" in ways that he might not usually dare to, because the parent has agreed to pay attention, to support the child's ideas, and has sworn not to allow anything to interrupt. The sense of closeness and caring that children derive from Special Time builds their confidence in their ability to think, to love, and to learn.
Used wisely, Special Time can be a powerful tool for creating and repairing connection between parent and teen, too. Here are a few things to remember when setting out to try Special Time with your teenager.
- Teens need their parents to reach out for a genuine connection. Think for a minute about why you want to be close to your teenager. Think about what you used to love to do with him or her, and what has been fun recently. Think about his or her longings and the things your teen is interested in. Offer to spend one-on-one time, not because you "should," or because a problem needs to be solved, but because you want your life and his life to be good, and good together.
- It's helpful to set the guidelines, so your teen's hopes aren't raised, then dashed unnecessarily. How much time can you really spend? How much money can you spend? Do you have transportation? How far can you go? Will you buy things you don't usually allow, i.e., candy, soda, body piercings, or not?
- Don't bring up sore subjects. This is a time to put your attention on the good things about your teen, not on your irritations or worries. If you must bring up difficult topics, make an appointment for that, totally separate from Special Time. Let this time be led by your teen, not your worries or upsets.
- If your offer of time together is rejected, don't give up! There are at least two things you can do to move things forward.
- The first and most important one is to set up a good amount of time for a Listening Partnership, so you can talk fully about yourself and your teenager. What's great in your relationship with him, and what's difficult? What was life like for you at that age? What was your relationship like when he was an infant? A toddler? It's surprisingly helpful for parents to have 45 minutes or an hour to consider the big picture of their relationship without advice or interruption. Talking about one's own experiences, and noticing the feelings that make it hard to show respect, affection, or encouragement toward your teen will help to move the relationship between you forward.
- The second thing a parent can do is to initiate time together without announcing it, and without drawing attention to it. This might mean taking a magazine into your teenager's room and plopping down on the bed while he's doing homework, moving close to really listen to the words of the songs on your daughter's favorite CD, or being awake and ready with a snack when your teen comes home late at night. Prepare yourself to pay attention to your teen, but in a low-key way. You're "leaning toward him," not rushing in to ask questions or try to be his best friend. Look for opportunities to offer approval. Discipline yourself not to ask probing questions. Just hang out.
You're "trolling" for an opportunity to engage. Your teen might not take immediate advantage of your unspoken availability. He may look like he doesn't notice. That's fine. You're learning to let him be in the driver's seat during these unannounced Special Times. You are making a commitment in your mind and heart to offer your attention, and to trust him to take the offer eventually. Every time you hang around, content to be in your teen's presence, you're making it safer for your teen to eventually talk with you about important things. The path won't be short or certain, but carving out times when you decide not to be busy, and you set out no demands or expectations, will take you in a good direction.
Special Time, tailored by you for your own circumstances with your teenager, can make a big difference at times of trouble. Having one-on-one time during which you offer approval, interest, and no reference to difficulties can help break the isolation that glues a rough spot affecting a teen and his parents in place.
Special Time can also provide your teen a way to create times with you that he'll remember all his life, because he was able to be in charge, and to feel your support as he did what he loved, or tried something new. The more Listening Partnership time you organize for yourself, so you can release the emotions that your teenager ignites in you, the fuller your reach for connection with your teenager will be. Genuine caring makes a huge difference to teenagers. Whether they're fighting caring or absorbing it, they need to feel their parents sending it. Special Time, announced or unannounced, is a tool that helps parents send that vital caring toward their child.
There's more about building a close connection with teenagers (and pre-teens) in our booklet, Supporting Adolescents.
This issue's Parent Success Story is a powerful story from a mother who used Special Time for the first time with her 14-year-old son. She did several things just right.
- She wanted to spend time one-on-one with him, and he could tell.
- She made a firm decision to follow his lead. The interactions that resulted were fresh, because she lifted the standards and policies she usually enforced, in order to let her son direct the time between them. She kept catching herself, and steering away from her usual responses.
- She relaxed and enjoyed herself and him.
Not every Special Time yields important insights that make a marked change in the parent/teen relationship. But it's a practice with great potential for improving relationships, and one that can be used to build love and respect in both good times and hard times.
* Special Time is when the parent spends a well-defined amount of time one-on-one with his child, with no interruptions, promising to do whatever the child wants to do. During Special Time, the parent tries to remain pleased and fully attentive, and does not try to teach, advise or control his child unless safety is an issue.
The mission of Hand in Hand is to foster healthy parent-child relationships that will last a lifetime. Parenting by Connection is Hand in Hand’s approach to fostering close, responsive relationships between parents and children. All information has been reprinted with permission from Hand in Hand, © 1997 - 2009 Hand in Hand.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand