We all know what it means to feel “attached” to a thing or place, however we may not have considered attachment in terms of another person. For children, attachment to a parent or caregiver is the way to get their needs met. Healthy attachment affects development in a positive way. Conversely, when children get a message that the world isn’t safe and their needs won’t be met, it can sometimes lead to severe behavioral issues, such as aggression, depression, anxiety and even suicidality in children as small as six years of age. I saw this many times when I worked in a San Francisco residential facility with some of the most challenged children in the state.
The theory of attachment, which originated with a psychologist named John Bowlby, has been extensively researched and become integral to understanding early childhood social development. Bowlby’s work outlined the theory that our “attachment”— the ways we connect to our primary caregiver as children — is a significant determinant in how we interact with the world and operate in our relationships as adults. When a baby cries and a parent comes to soothe her, attend to her needs and have social interaction and connection (talking, making eye contact, touching etc.), this tells the baby’s nervous system that yes, you are going to be okay! These early experiences actually stimulate growth in neural pathways that determine responses as adults.
Connecting attachment to “special time” — a dedicated block of time when we attune to our children (look at them, listen to them, touch them and take an interest in what interests them) — we are extending this concept of attachment into the child’s school-age and even teen years, and helping to make sure our children feel safe. The concept of special time refers simply to quality time spent with your child. Consistent, uninterrupted, undistracted, playful quality time. For the sake of this post, I’ll focus on the uses in younger children (ages infant–10 years).
Recipe for successful special time:
1. Put it on the calendar! Life is busy and if we don’t schedule the time, it may not happen. Putting it on the calendar makes it easier to do even when we’re tired and might really rather sit down with our feet up! Special time can be whatever amount of time you think you can dedicate weekly. A little can go a long way so I suggest 20 minutes per day, if you can manage that. I’m not suggesting you only spend time with your child for 20 minutes per day, but more that this will be the allotted time for constant focus and interaction without distraction.
2. Eliminate all distractions. Leave your phone in the other room or put it face down on silent, turn off the TV and as much as you can, focus totally on your child during this playtime. If you have more than one child, pick a time when someone else can watch the other kids or when they are in a separate room or space.
3. Let your child know when special time is beginning and that this will be play time for the child to do, show or talk about anything he or she chooses. Give a length of time and set a timer. During this time period if the child isn’t hurting you, hurting himself or breaking anything, consider that maybe for this brief period of time it’s okay! You want to listen and pay attention: what can you discover? Let your child know this is a safe time and there will be no screens as long as everybody stays physically safe. Above all, you want your child to have fun, but you may find yourself surprised at how fun it is for you, too.
4. Whatever your child wants to do, do it! This time is unstructured and non-directive. Make good eye contact, match your child’s mood (excited, calm, happy etc.) and be in their world. If you’re concerned your child might suggest something you don’t feel comfortable with, consider your location when scheduling. Children communicate best through play, which is why clinical play therapy with a professional can be so powerful.
5. Try watching what they play, narrate their interactions (e.g. “It looks like the baby got hurt,” “it looks like the monster is mad”); ask open-ended, non-threatening questions (“I wonder why no one is helping the baby”); and don’t be afraid to get into character with them (“would you like for me to pretend to be the sister?”).
6. Resist the temptation to insert your own preferences or judge. This will be a tough one. In therapy we call it “following the child’s lead,” which simply is letting the child dictate what happens next. This is a time where you have no agenda and no lessons are being taught. At the end of the play, you can speak with your child about things you saw and ask questions if you’re curious.
7. Don’t be surprised when the play surprises you. Play is the child’s way of rehearsing, communicating and processing. There are many possible themes in play but some you may see might include: Power/control, caretaking and nurturance, self-esteem, trust/betrayal, rule breaking/rebellion, protection/safety, and anger. These are all perfectly normal and part of child development.
8. End when the timer goes off. This could be difficult for children as they may be reluctant to relinquish your undivided attention. If your child struggles, give him love and attention and validate that he is sad that the special time must end. Reassure your child that you love him/her and that you will have special time again soon.
Watch and prepare to be amazed! Not only will you likely learn something new about your child, but you also may notice an improvement in your relationship and in your child’s sense of self. It’s easy to lose 20 minutes checking your Instagram feed or chatting with a friend, but chances are excellent that spending 20 focused minutes a day with your child will create one of the most rewarding relationships of both of your lives.