An introduction to Special Time: your questions answered

3rd February 2022 Posted by Emilie

An introduction to Special Time: your questions answered

When we parents are at home, we spend lots of time with our children - from the moment they get up in the morning, until the time that they drop off to sleep at night, if we’re not right there with them, we’re certainly on call. And in amongst all of the many, many chores that need to be done to keep the household running smoothly, we try to make time to play with our children and to have fun with them. But it can be so hard! We have so many pressures weighing on us, so many distractions to drag us away, that spending our day trying to balance these demands, whilst also putting our focus fully onto each of our children, can mean that playing ends up seeming like just another ‘must do’ on the list. And when we don’t manage it? We can end up feeling guilty that we’re not giving them everything that we could, not giving them our best. So what if there were a way, in just a few minutes each day, to know that we have really given our children some fantastic quality time, which will really fill their cup - and ours as well? Well, there is - and it’s called Special Time.

What is Special Time?

child on swing
Special Time is one of the Hand in Hand Parenting Tools. In brief, Special Time is one-on-one time with each child individually for a set amount of time, with no interruptions. We let the child choose whatever they want to do, and follow their lead in the activity, only putting limits on activities if there is a real issue of safety, time or money. We don’t try to guide the play, to teach, or to entertain. Our focus is solely on pouring in all of our love, awareness and enjoyment to that child in the moment. In doing this, our child can bask in our full attention, showing us what they are enjoying currently, or setting up situations where they can address issues that they are having in their lives. It’s our invaluable opportunity to really enter their world, to listen to what they have to say, and to see how things are for them.

Apart from giving our child a real sense of how important they and their ideas and interests are to us, Special Time also has another huge benefit. We know that as social animals, our brains function much better when we are feeling safe and connected to others. By giving our children Special Time, we boost our connection with them, and fill their cup. When they are feeling full of our love and warmth in this way, child are much more likely to be their cooperative, cheerful selves - which means life runs much more smoothly. Not to mention how close we, as parents, feel towards our children after a bit of Special Time! And this in turn tends to make us a bit more flexible and loving when the time comes to get things done that might challenge us.

I won’t go into detail here about the ‘how to’ of Special Time - there’s lots more information in the links at the end of this post, about how to set up Special Time and get the most out of it - rather this post will focus on giving some thought to the main issues and questions that we parents often have around Special Time.

Eek! I like the idea of Special Time, but I’m not sure how to fit it in!

With our seemingly endless lists of things we must or even just want to do, it can feel overwhelming to add yet another item to the list. So I try to see Special Time as an investment - I have to put in some time and effort up front, but it is paid back many times in what I save in time and energy later on! Our lives overall run so much more smoothly with our children when we have put in this little extra element to our routine - we all feel more relaxed and connected, so we all end up being more flexible and cooperative.

More connection equals fewer tussles and disagreements, and helps us all to think more clearly when things aren’t going so well. So it’s definitely worth fitting in somewhere - but how? Well, it’s just fine to start small - just a few minutes here and there can make a big difference to how our days pan out. And once we see the value, it’s much easier to increase the time a little to get even more benefit!
adult and child crouched by a fire

I give my child lots of one-on-one time - why is Special Time important?

It’s wonderful when we are able to give our child a lot of time just the two of us, and this is certainly very valuable and important time, both for us and for our child. For me, the difference between normal one-on-one time and dedicated Special Time lies in the energy and constancy of our focus. For example, when I’m just playing normally with one of my children, I might suddenly think of something I want to look up on the internet, start tidying idly around the area that we are playing, or wander off to make yet another cup of tea. We adults also have a tendency to see opportunities as we play, and to lead the play in a direction that we enjoy more, or that we see as having more learning potential, for example. This steering of the play might prevent our child from showing us what they really enjoy - and basking in our enjoyment of it too. Or it might redirect them from ‘playing out’ something which is on their mind - and so getting to root of anything which might be bothering them. And where some of our families have more than one child, we will also find ourselves drawn away to what the others are doing, often with no warning. So in these sorts of instances, the child I’m playing with has no idea how long I will be with them, whether I’m really getting into the play, and whether I can be trusted not to disappear off on a whim of my own.

How do you do Special Time if you have one adult and more than one child?

It’s not easy! We have three children, and I try to do Special Time during the day with them when I’m on my own, and sometimes it goes better than others! What has worked well for us, has been starting really small - literally one minute each. This way, they can start to see the value, and the two who are not the focus at any one time can practise playing with each other - but with it being a short burst it doesn’t feel like too much! And then very slowly we have been able to increase the time we can spend on Special Time for each child. And don’t worry if for the first few times it doesn’t go to plan and someone comes and interrupts - just apologise to the child whose time it should have been, and make sure you make it up to them later. They do soon get the hang of it! Another thing we do, because there are two adults in our family, is to have longer Special Times when we are both around at the weekend, or when for example their Grandma comes to play and can be the second adult. Other families have used screen time, e.g. a favourite programme, or Facetiming a family member, to keep the other child/ren occupied, or you can use times like naptimes, or when one child wakes earlier than others. There are more ideas in this article, and don’t be afraid to try various things and see what works for you - it might take a bit of time and thought, but you will get there!

Really? They can choose any activity??

child pulling sledge
Many of us are concerned about the idea of our child having free rein over the choice of activity in Special Time - and it’s true that occasionally a child might choose something rather wild! The idea is that we say yes if we possibly can, even if it is something that makes us uncomfortable. This builds trust and safety for our child that we really will enter into their world, and also allows us to see what they really feel like they want and need right now. And our discomfort is not actually a bad thing - it is the first step towards our own growth. We can take that discomfort and explore it (Listening Partnerships are ideal for this sort of work), and see what underlies the feeling of ‘this is hard’ for us, and usually we can then get ourselves to a point where we’re much more relaxed about a range of activities, which definitely makes life
easier, not to mention more fun! If possible, we only put limits on safety, time and money issues - and even these sometimes need examining, especially the safety aspect, to check that there really is an issue!! If our children choose something like watching TV or eating sweets, and we find this challenging, bear in mind that it is likely that they will do it a few times and then it will lose its appeal and they will move on to something which uses your good attention more effectively. If not, well, see the next point…

My child does the same thing for every Special Time

If we have offered our child Special Time and they have chosen the same activity a good 8 or 10 or 15 times, we might want to delve a little here. It may just be that they are really enjoying developing their skills on the trampoline say, and revelling in having an attentive audience - in which case it’s just fine to carry on, as they will move on when they are ready. Or perhaps we ourselves are concerned about the repetition and need to examine where our own discomfort is coming from, so that we can allow the activity to continue for as long as our child needs. This is going to be very different for each child and family - it may be that you are not comfortable with lots of screen time for example, and you may wish to set a limit here which is in line with your family values. But spending some good Listening Time in our Listening Partnerships on why this is important for you, is a great way to make sure we are making the decision for the right reasons.

Sometimes though, we might just get the sense of our child being stuck in a particular activity, rather than that they are enjoying it and wanting to carry on. In this case, after a good number of sessions of saying a wholehearted ‘yes’ to the activity, we might want to bring a limit on that particular activity. This would look like a warm and loving ‘We can do anything you want to do, but no trampoline for Special Time today’ and ‘We can choose something else today’.

If your child is just repeating the activity because they haven’t realised that they can do whatever they like, or because they haven’t yet thought of anything else to do, they are likely to move on fairly quickly. But if some feelings are making them feel really rigid around that activity, a good warm limit - where you listen to their hard feelings around giving up the activity - can really make a breakthrough to move them forwards and lighten their emotional load.
adult and child by the sea

My child doesn’t like the timer

It can be really hard for some children to have a limit put on this precious time with you, and rightly so - why would they want it to end?! The timer is one of the elements that makes Special Time special, and parents over the years have found it a useful aspect of this tool. Only you know what feels right for your child, but I will outline here some of the reasons why having a timer can be helpful (even though it might not seem that way), and hopefully that will help you weigh up its usefulness in your own family situation.

The main reason to use it, is that the timer protects this precious time for your child - at any other time when you are playing with your child one-on-one, you might be tempted to answer the phone, pull the washing out of the just-finished machine, chat to your other half, or pop to make a cup of tea. Having the time protected in this way means that your child can trust that you will give them your full attention for the entire time, if humanly possible! This is a rare chance for your child to be fully in charge of their time with you, and builds up a tremendous amount of safety for them to experiment with their limits, and to show you anything that’s bothering them - knowing you will be fully present as they do so. It is also time that is ‘protected’ from siblings - this is so valuable in families with more than one child, where one-on-one time with one parent is often rarer than we might like. From an adult perspective, some of the activities our child chooses in Special Time might not be our favourites! When we are asked to participate in an activity that challenges us, it can be hard to throw ourselves into it wholeheartedly with no end in sight - so the timer helps us to bring our full enthusiasm to the activity for the time we have given over to our child. And how wonderful to have specified time with just one child, feeling we have ‘permission’ to know we are fully focused on their interests, not trying to ‘achieve’ anything, and that our only job is to love and enjoy them for that time. It benefits us both - and they know it and feel it! Finally, the timer can give our child something to push against if they are needing a limit - but more on that in the next section!

If you feel your child really does struggle with the timer (and this can be the case particularly for some of our neurodivergent children), if you decide the timer is helpful, you may wish to either clarify that the timer is for you, the parent (to help you stay focused), and/or have something that only you will notice, e.g. a quick check of a wall clock occasionally. If you do this latter, you will just need to find a way to not be constantly checking. You could also use a prompt like the timer going off when a load of washing has finished – if you do this, you will need to wait a few minutes before saying it’s time to finish, so that your child doesn’t think you’re going off because the washing has finished.

What if my child gets upset when Special Time ends?

It can be really hard when our children hear the timer and get upset. Firstly, I think it’s important to say that once children get used to Special Time, this generally lessens quite quickly - if they are just upset that the fun game is over, you will find that they will be upset, you will listen, and they will quickly get through it. They might do this a few times until they have learnt that Special Time happens regularly, but once they’ve worked out that this wonderful time they have spent with you will be back soon, they will find it easier when it comes to an end each time.

But sometimes children are carrying some big hurts or worries or fears around with them. You’ll probably know if this is the case, because throughout their days they’re not their usual sunny, cooperative self. In this situation, our children wisely use the timer as a pretext to offload some of these feelings they are holding onto. First, they feel the full force of your unconditional love during your wonderful time together, and they feel the safety build. Then they hear the timer go off, and they are feeling so loved up, so trusting in your warm presence, that they finally feel able to offload these big feelings to you, safe in the knowledge that you are present enough to listen to them fully. It’s a gift - but you might want to take it to your Listening Time to help you maintain your warm, loving energies during these episodes!

Won’t it take up a lot of time if they start offloading?!

Yes, it might! We usually suggest (especially if you know your child is carrying some big feelings around) that if you have say half an hour available for Special Time, that you allocate maybe 20 minutes to Special Time, and then have 10 minutes left over for listening. Or, depending on how you feel things are, you might want to only spend 5 or 10 minutes on Special Time, to give you plenty of relaxed time to listen.

Can I carry on playing with my child once Special Time ends?

child walking on rocks by the sea
Of course! If you have more time and energy to spend on your child right there and then, by all means carry on playing with them. Just make it clear that Special Time has ended, thank them for spending the time with you, and carry on. This way, they know that there’s a possibility that you might be interrupted, but that you’re not taking their dedicated time away from them. Some children may find it easier to understand if you make a clear break between the end of Special Time and continuing the play - once the timer goes off, you can thank your child and say that you’d like to carry on playing
but you’re just going to make a cuppa/take that washing up out of the machine/check if the post has come… - a small job that clearly marks the continued play from the dedicated Special Time.

My child doesn’t know what to do for Special Time

Some children are fantastic at thinking of a million and one ingenious ideas for their Special Time. Others are wonderful at bringing their full attention and joy to slightly more everyday activities, like sharing a story or doing a puzzle. But some children really struggle to think of anything at all that they could do in their Special Time. If this is the case for your child, at this point, I would usually say to resist the temptation to make suggestions - this ‘I can’t think of anything to do’ sense is a really important barrier for our children to work through, and almost always they will come out the other side being more creative and clear-thinking.

We can just set the Special Time timer, and say ‘I’ll be with you while you think’ - and then just pour our love and attention into being with them, no matter what they are doing. Occasionally reassure them with warm words like ‘You’ll think of something’, and ‘I’m right here with you’, and just listen to their feelings of frustration or upset as needed.

If they are upset and this continues after the timer marking the end of Special Time goes off, be prepared to carry on listening. Or our child might seem fine doing essentially nothing with us up until the timer goes off, and then realise what they have missed! It’s ok to just listen through this, to let them have their feelings about it without reproach from us, and to give gentle reassurances like ‘We’ll have Special Time again soon’.

For a handful of children, and this can be the case more for our neurodivergent children (although not always by any means, so it’s important not to assume!), suggestions can be useful and necessary for getting Special Time going. What we usually find though, is that after a while, suggestions are no longer needed, as our children settle in to Special Time and understand and trust how it’s working for them.

My child doesn’t want Special Time!!

Children mostly love the idea of one-to-one time with one of their favourite adults! But occasionally they will say they don’t want Special Time - and that can be hard to take! It might be that they are new to the idea (especially if it’s an older child) and not sure why you’re suddenly offering to spend time with them - they might think it’s all a bit suspicious! But even if they have done Special Time on a number of occasions, they might suddenly decide it’s a no go, which can fox us a little. When we understand that they might be feeling a bit disconnected from us and so push back when we offer to be with them, or that they are carrying some big feelings that they are afraid to confront in the warmth of your attention, it can be a little easier to see where this might be coming from. You can handle it by staying close, setting the timer and saying ‘I’ll stay close in case you change your mind’. Once the timer goes off, you can just thank them for being with you - and be ready to listen as needed. This builds trust that you are there even when things are hard, and that you’re not asking anything of them. If they get upset as you sit warmly nearby, it’s a sure sign that they have some big feelings to offload - just listen, and they will work through them and feel better on the other side. Or you might choose to go playful when they initially reject your Special Time offer - a melodramatic ‘Oh noooooo! Pleeeeease play with me!’ as you fall to the floor and clutch at their ankles, might elicit some laughter and get things warmed up between the two of you again. There are some more ideas in this article, but feel free to try a few different things out and see where it takes you. And if it feels hard to be told that you’re not wanted, do take it to your Listening Time to work through it!

My child only wants Special Time with me (or my partner)

Oh, this always feels hard - whether you’re the one the child wants, or the one being rejected! Children often have a preference for one parent or the other at any given time, and it’s well worth taking this to your Listening Time to talk about how it feels, which will help to take the heat out of it for you. In practical terms, if a child says they don’t want Special Time with a particular parent, that parent can offer their warm presence, and give the occasional bit of information or reassurance such as ‘I know you want Daddy’ and ‘It’s our Special Time today’ and ‘You’ll have Special Time with Daddy another time’. As above, put the timer on and thank the child when it’s finished - even if all you’ve been able to do is sit and listen to their upset about missing the other parent. Then continue to listen after the timer for as long as you are able - being heard in this way will greatly ease whatever burden the child is carrying about needing the other parent so much. Again, as above, you could take this in a playful direction if it feels appropriate - when the child grumbles that they don’t want you, you can playfully beg and plead with them to play with you and see if that leads to some laughter and silliness between the two of you. There’s some great information and ideas here and here on what is going on when a child wants only one parent, which might help spark some more thinking for you in this area.

(Quietly whispers - sometimes it’s a bit boring!!)

Yes, yes it is. Sometimes our children choose an activity that really doesn’t speak to us, and that can be tough going! But there will be a reason they have chosen it, and we can take a few minutes here and there to immerse ourselves in their specific interest, and doing that is tremendously valuable for them. And then we can take it to Listening Time - why does that particular activity feel quite so tortuous for us?? What we find out can be really useful in moving us forwards in our family journey.
child's cupped hands holding sand

Try it - you might like it!

If you’re not sure how Special Time might work, or whether it’s really useful - try taking these thoughts to your Listening Time to rant and rave about someone trying to add even more things to do to your schedule, and see what might be underneath those feelings. And if you’re still feeling resistance to Special Time (and a little resistance in life is normal, and not a bad thing to work against now and then!), just take a moment to imagine your own childhood - what would it have been like to have one of your parents suspend their busy schedule to spend time with just you? Where they fully immersed themselves in your interests, and clearly loved spending time with you? Where they weren’t going off to answer the phone, get the washing out of the machine, or make a cup of tea? And these days of course, we also have the siren call of Facebook or other social media to answer to - it’s all too easy for us to just ‘have to’ nip off to check in with what’s going on in our non-parenting life, and not be fully present with our kids. I should know - I’m as guilty as anyone of being distracted by cups of tea and Facebook throughout the day! But Special Time is our chance to put that to one side, just for a while - after all, the kettle will still be there when we’re done. Give it a try and see how things work out for you - what do you have to lose?

How it can look in practice

Here’s an example of some Special Time I spent with one of our children (then 4), and how they really used it to test out some limits with me!*

One of our children (4 years old at the time of writing) loves doing experiments (the messier the better!) and messy sensory play. Sometimes I find it hard to engage with these activities - they just seem to make so much mess, and take lots of time to clear up, and I’m not that keen on getting messy myself! On this particular cold winter’s day our child decided they wanted to use their Special Time to go outside and do some water play with the hose, to try to ‘make a rainbow’. I must admit I wasn’t really looking forward to it – it was really cold!! But it was Special Time, and I got my head ready to throw myself into it 100%, and off we went.

Our child got me to unroll the hose as they wandered down the garden spraying things on their way. Then they got me to be with them as they sprayed all sorts of things in the garden - I had to resist the temptation to get them to stop because of all the water I felt they were using up (actually not that much in the end, as they kept stopping and starting it), and not to tell them that the plants didn’t need watering, or that someone else might want to use the trampoline later so not to get it wet. We went around ‘cleaning’ lots of things, and at one point they accidentally sprayed me - normally I would have been irritable about this, but I didn’t even feel that sense of annoyance because it was Special Time. I just laughed in surprise and our child giggled, and then gave me a bit of a searching look, as if to say, Is this really ok?, and then they sprayed me again! We both giggled a lot, and actually they didn’t do it for long, and were quite gentle with me with the water. I’m not sure what I thought would happen if I got wet, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I would have imagined - I’m hoping I remember that for next time I get sprayed when the children are playing with the water! Anyway, it was really great to see my child fully immersed in an activity they love, basking in my attention, and showing great leadership skills, confidence, enjoyment, and joy in experimenting.

Shortly after spraying me, and doing a bit more ‘cleaning’, my child slipped and fell on the wet decking, and landed hard on their elbows, bottom and back. They cried hard, and suddenly realised they were cold and wanted to go inside. We went in and took off our wet coats as they cried a little more. I didn’t say much, but made sure to really listen and be present with them. They stopped crying, and thought we ought to change our wet clothes. My child talked about us being wet having played in the water, and that reminded them that they had slipped - as they talked about it briefly (‘And then I fell over on the decking’), they looked just slightly tearful. I said something like ‘Yeah, you did fall, didn’t you?’ and my child acknowledged it, and then moved on cheerfully - I had really expected them to be more upset, but I think they felt really connected to me after all our time together playing, and felt listened to, so they were able to quickly work through their sudden and quite painful fall, and move on from it. Our child went on to have a happy time reading books and doing junk modelling after that, and then had a very cheerful evening playing with their sibling.

*All stories about my children on my blog have been reviewed and given the green light for sharing by my children.

Other resources you may find useful:

Emilie Leeks

Emilie is a heart-centred life mentor and space holder, supporting those on a healing path. This is not an easy journey, and often we can find ourselves losing our way. Emilie's work meets you where you're at, with beautiful, accepting support and connection, and weaves that support with practices and explorations in self-compassion, body connection, and a return to a deep trust in ourselves. Note: all blog post content which refers to them, has been read and agreed to by Emilie's children.

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