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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rachel Kramer

May 16: The Importance of One-on-One Time

Last week I had the opportunity to talk with students at a local school about Understanding Feelings and Managing Big Emotions. The students were so earnest and engaged, and a comment made by a middle school student sparked the idea for this email. The day was structured such that I spoke separately with students in grades K-2, 3-6, and 7-9 during the day, and in the evening I made a presentation to parents. During my middle school presentation, I reminded the students that I was speaking with many of their parents that evening and asked them if there was any information they wanted me to pass along. A student said, “Can you let my parents know that when I’m upset and I don’t want to talk with them it doesn’t mean I hate them?” I responded that I would do my part and share the information as requested. Then I told the student that I also wanted them to take responsibility to find a time when they were not upset to communicate about this issue with their parents. In the moment, the student agreed, and I’m hopeful that this happened.

This request brings to mind my recent post about respecting children’s desire for space when they are upset. In addition, the student’s comment led me to reflect on the importance of creating space in family life to have dedicated one-on-one time with children. So many important family conversations happen in a peaceful moment when only one parent and one child are present. Whenever possible, I recommend that parents try to be intentional about setting aside regular individual time with each child on a regular basis. Choose a time when you can turn off your phone and other devices so that your child knows you are devoting your full attention to being with them. The goal is not to requirea child to talk with you. Initially, much of the conversation may be about everyday interests and concerns and may not be very personal at all. However, once your child knows that they have a regular time when they can expect your undivided attention, many children will realize that this is also a good time to talk about trickier or more meaningful topics.

Here are some age-specific thoughts and recommendations. For toddlers and preschoolers:

  • Lots of different factors come into play in considering what one-on-one time looks like with a child this age including your child’s specific age, temperament, and birth order as well as the structure of your days. Some parents of young children feel that they have plenty of individual time with their child every day, whereas for others it is important to set aside devoted time, perhaps weekly.

  • For children this age, it’s often helpful to refer to your time together by a specific name such as special time, Mommy time, Dada time, etc.

  • I have learned from my own personal experience as well as the experiences of many families in my practice that it’s important to use words to mark the beginning and end of your one-on-one time so that your child registers that it is happening: “After lunch will be our special time. Would you like to play outside or play in your room?” While it may be obvious to you as adult that you are devoting all of your attention to a child, your child may not feel that they have had their special time with you unless you state clearly that it is happening

  • One option is to engage in a child-led activity such as playing with toy figures, building with blocks, coloring, or playing outside.

  • Depending on what activity your child chooses, consider ‘sportscasting’ – watching your child closely and narrating aloud what they are doing - as a way to indicate that you are paying full attention: “You’re making such a big track for the trains. You added a hill and a tunnel.”

  • If engaging in free play doesn’t appeal to you (which is true for many parents – no judgement!), you can be more structured and offer a choice of a couple of activities that do appeal to you, perhaps doing a puzzle or pushing your child on a swing.

For school-aged children:

  • Many children this age have busy lives with lots of activities. Often parents find that a good chunk of individual time with their children takes place when they are in the car. Driving can be a great time to talk with children. The fact that you are not face-to-face often makes it easier for children to be open about their thoughts and feelings.

  • If your time in the car with your child usually includes other people (siblings, carpools), you might try planning one-on-one time that involves a side-by-side activity such as taking a walk, drawing together, going fishing, or building with Legos.

  • The goal isn’t to force children to talk about big topics. Express interest in whatever they want to share, and after spending time together be sure to let your child know how much you enjoyed talking just with them.

For tweens and teens:

  • So often children this age prefer not to talk directly about themselves. However, they may share stories about friends and classmates more freely. Conversations held in the third person, about other people, can still provide fertile ground for talking about feelings, values, and beliefs and may be much more tolerable for your tween or teen.

  • While I support the idea of offering regular one-on-one time to tweens and teens, adolescents are often most comfortable talking about more emotional or controversial topics on their own timeline and at a time when they have more control over when the conversation will begin and end. Be aware that your tween or teen may wait to initiate big conversations until the end of a car ride or just before bedtime when they can rely on the discussion being time-limited.

For some families it can be helpful to write down when special time will be happening. Putting one-on-one time on the calendar sends a message to children that this time is just as important as a work meeting, dinner with extended family, or any other event you might write down on your family calendar. You don’t necessarily need to schedule an exact time that special time will occur. Rather, you might indicate in a general way that you and your child will have one-on-one time on Saturday afternoon after lunch and before dinner.

For many families, May is a particularly busy month with many school presentations and end of year meetings and events. If you find that it’s challenging to schedule individual time with your children right now, please try not to feel guilty. Instead, make a mental note to re-visit this parenting goal in a few weeks.

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