Using “Special Time” to Connect with your Child and Improve their Behavior

At times, you may feel you’re trapped in a cycle of negative interactions with your child. To break the cycle, it may seem logical to target the unwanted behaviors with consequences such as time outs. However, research shows that focusing on increasing positive behaviors is more effective. These two approaches may sound similar in theory, but they are vastly different in practice.

It may feel difficult to focus on improving your relationship when you’re already trapped in a negative cycle. An easy place to start is by setting up a daily routine of “special time”: a specified, uninterrupted period of time in which you join your child one-on-one in play, while allowing them to fully take the lead. Even a daily 5 minutes of special time can not only promote a secure, warm relationship between you and your child, but also help improve your child’s self-esteem, social skills, and even language skills. It’s derived from Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), an evidence-based treatment that includes two phases: a “child-directed” phase that focuses on positive behaviors, followed by a “parent-directed” phase that focuses on limit setting. Limit setting is more effective when it takes place in the context of a positive parent-child relationship.

How to Practice “Special Time”

It is important to set yourself up for success by using toys that encourage creative and safe play, while also letting you follow your child’s lead (blocks, toy cars, food and kitchen toys, crayons and paper). Avoid toys that are conducive to rough play (balls, action figures), messy play (slime, paint), games with rules, or games with little interaction (books, video games). Once you have an activity in mind, it’s time to play! To make sure your special time is truly child-led, you can follow these dos and don’ts.

You can remember the dos with the acronym PRIDE:

  • PRAISE: Praise appropriate behavior – and be specific! (e.g., “Great job building such a tall tower”)
  • REFLECT: Reflect appropriate talk (e.g., Child: “I drew a cat.” Parent: “Yes, you drew a cat!”)
  • IMITATE: Imitate appropriate play (e.g., Child: Drawing a flower. Parent: “I’m going to draw flowers just like you.”)
  • DESCRIBE: Describe appropriate behavior – act as a “sportscaster” for your child’s play (e.g., Child: Making a tower. Parent: “You’re making a tower!”)

These allow your child to lead the play while showing that you approve of the activity and are interested in what they are doing.  As for the don’ts, the goal is to avoid using any commands (“Hand me that block”), questions (“What are you drawing?”), and critical statements (“That’s not what a cow says”) during the designated special time, as these can interfere in your child’s ability to lead play. Try your best to ignore any attention-seeking negative behaviors. However, if your child becomes aggressive or destructive, then it is time to stop special time.

Special Time with Teens

Special time is most used with younger children; however, you can still do a variant of special time with your teenager–it will just have to look a bit different. While spending one-on-one time with your teen (preferably an activity of their choice), make no corrections or criticisms and give no directions. Or, take a moment to observe your teen doing something they enjoy (e.g., working on an art project, watching a basketball game on TV) and casually provide some positive attention. Show genuine interest in what your teen is doing and ask to join.

It helps to take a more subtle approach that makes less of a “to-do” out of special time. For example, PRIDE skills can be implemented in more age-appropriate ways by using validation (communicating to another person that their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are understandable to you in a particular situation) more than straightforward praise. Additionally, the activity may be less restricted by the above recommendations; for example, games with rules may be more feasible with a teen.

Don’t worry if your teen rejects your initial attempts–this response may shift over time as they realize your motives are genuine. Taking a more passive approach with your teen may also help, by initiating time together without drawing too much attention to it. Founder of Hand in Hand Parenting, Patty Wipfler, has come up with some creative ideas for this, such as: take a book to read in the same room in which your teen is doing their homework; join your teen in their room to really listen to their favorite music; or sit with your teen while they eat their after-school snack. The goal is to pay attention to your teen in a “low-key” way and to look for ways to offer your approval, no questions asked.

The more consistently and predictably you practice special time with your child, the more likely you are to see improvements in your child’s behavior over time. If at any point your child’s behaviors become overly interfering with day-to-day functioning, it may be time to check in with your pediatrician.

Dr. Lindsay Myerberg is an RAB Research Fellow and licensed clinical psychologist at Alvord, Baker and Associates, LLC, in Rockville, MD. Dr. Myerberg earned her PhD from Temple University and completed her clinical internship at the University of Maryland Medical Center Child & Adolescent Inpatient Unit. Dr. Myerberg has provided evidence-based treatments for children, adolescents, and adults in a variety of settings and is actively involved in research evaluating cognitive-behavioral interventions for youth.

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