Connectedness in Childhood
“More than any single factor that we can control, connectedness in childhood is the key to a happy adulthood” says Edward Hallowell in “The Childhood Roots to Adult Happiness”. He cites a comprehensive study in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1997. This study, on ninety thousand students around the US, demonstrated the importance, above all, of feeling connected. Our first experience comes from home and our family of origin. Connectedness was defined as feeling understood, loved, wanted, and paid attention to by family members. The feeling of connectedness at home protects against emotional distress, suicidal thoughts and attempts, violent behavior, and drug and alcohol abuse. The second most important factor was connectedness at school.
I remember hearing this advice as a young parent of three and wondering how I can deliver this magic bullet of connectedness to protect my children, while working and taking care of basic family needs at the same time. I discovered the work of Stanley Greenspan, who coined the term “floortime”. Dr. Greenspan’s method has been modified to become accessible to all parents. “Special Time” is a practice that I learned through the Parent Encouragement Program, www.PEPparent.org. Using Special Time regularly, ensures that your children, from the earliest age though adolescence, will feel connected, and that they really matter to their family. It builds empathy, trust, a sense of partnership, and self-worth. When I coach parents, this is the first basic tool I recommend.
Steps for Special Time
- Introduce the concept to the child. At a neutral time, the adult asks the child if they would be interested in spending special time with you on a regular basis. Decide how much time (15 min/day recommended for small children, and about half an hour twice a week for school age children). The understanding is that it is the child’s time to do any activity that he or she chooses, within the limits of mutual respect.
- Negotiate a time with the child. Find a convenient time when you will both be available without distractions. Ideally when other children aren’t around or are preoccupied. This should be set ahead of time and put on the calendar. Consistency and reliability are very important. If a time is missed or proves unreliable, it should be renegotiated and re-established as soon as possible. At timer can be a useful aid in establishing a consistent beginning and end for special time. Be prepared for a possible melt down at the end when special time is first established. Just give a hug and empathize that it’s hard to stop when you’re having fun. Since it is frequent and reliable, an activity can be continued the next time if the child is interested.
- Regardless of the child’s behavior though the day, special time is guaranteed. If the child is destructive or disrespectful during special time, the parent is not obligated to continue. They should be given one warning, and if the behavior continues, you should uphold the limit, end the time, and tell them that “we will try again tomorrow”. This permanence alone demonstrates to the child their value.
- Special time is for one child and one parent. That child gets 100% of your attention, no cell phones! Each parent schedules individual times for each child in the family. Children come to respect their sibling’s special time, knowing that their turn will come.
- The child has the freedom to choose the activity, within reasonable limits of time and finances. Sometimes the parent may need to suggest activities, but we follow the child’s lead and their choice, attending to them exclusively, both emotionally, and physically.
Special time has so many benefits. Making myself available to my kids in this way gave me a window into their world: their desires, fears, learning style, creativity. It teaches children the necessary skills to create successful relationships, such as attunement and empathy. Empathy is largely dependent on the automatic attunement process, usually learned in early childhood through parent-child engagement and mirroring. As important as nutrition, it gives children the emotional nutrition needed to build a positive sense of self-worth, as reflected by the intentional engagement with the most important individuals in their life. It helps build a trusting relationship of influence, which should last a lifetime.