The Transition from Connecting: When Your Child Wants More
5 reasons kids might struggle when you end "Special Time."
Posted Jul 22, 2019
"My 7 yr old daughter seems to have a difficult time having her 'cup filled. Even after 5 minutes of games where I’m doing what she wants like a game of cards with her—something that I consider quality time —she is still needy and can’t turn it off. Even if I’ve given the 2 minute warning, she will continue to jump all over me and then when I’ve clearly stated it’s time for bath, etc., she stomps off. Her attitude negates the fun time we just had. Even when I try to validate her feelings by saying that I know it’s hard to stop the fun, I can’t get through to her. I do understand that she is probably trying to tell me that we need to do this more often and I am working harder at making sure we get that quality time together but when I’m just spent at the end of the day, I don’t know how to respond to her need for more more more when I feel I’ve just given."
We can all relate to this, right? After all, the parent has just spent time focusing intensely on the child, “filling her cup.” It’s the end of a long day, and it isn’t easy to summon up our patience and presence to spend Special Time with our child, even for a few minutes.
At this point, any sane parent is moving kids toward bath and bed. After this nice interaction, shouldn’t the kid go off to her bath with a smile?
Yes, or at least that’s what we hope for! And sometimes, some children will. But many kids won’t, at least some of the time. And if we want to get through the evening without a rupture in our relationship, it helps to understand what’s happening.
Here are five reasons kids often struggle when you end Special Time -- and Solutions to transform the drama.
1. Her cup isn't yet full.
When kids are stressed -- like in the middle of a pandemic, but even with normal stress levels -- they use their connection with their parent to self regulate. So even when we've been nearby all day, they need to be able to count on some time in the evening to connect more deeply with us. Five minutes of one-on-one "quality time" may not be enough for your child, especially if she can't count on it daily. This is worsened if all day you've had to shoo her away from interrupting your work calls. Now that she's finally got your undivided attention, having to let you go so quickly is a crashing disappointment.
Imagine you've been waiting for a few days for quality time with your partner. After five minutes of a lovely connection, your partner says, "Sorry, we have to stop now." You might have a hard time transitioning, too. You might even feel hurt.
Schedule Special Time daily with each child, for at least 15 minutes. Finding time for Special Time with kids is always tough. After all, parents by definition are sleep-deprived and stretched way too thin. But that doesn't mean kids don't need that time with us. Most parents say they're astonished at the difference it makes.
If you can't do it daily, then prioritize a longer Special Time where kids choose the activity on weekends, and make sure there's 15 minutes for a laughing game or fun family dance party with all the kids every day before dinner, plus at least five minutes of snuggling with each child (in addition to reading) at bedtime daily.
2. It wasn't what he needed.
Maybe the activity was fun, and maybe your child even chose it, but maybe it didn't fill his deeper hunger for more intimate connection. Those needs are best filled through physical play that gets your child laughing, rather than card games or other "structured" activities.
Roughhousing that gets your child laughing is the best way to spend a few minutes with your child! If you're having a hard time fitting in daily roughhousing as well as special time, try combining them. Let your child choose what to do with his Special Time every other day (except that screen time and reading are off-limits). Then, on alternate days, you the parent reserve the right to choose, and always opt for physical games that get your child laughing. Depending on your child's age, chasing him around the house, a pillow fight, or a contest to take off each other's socks (let him win) will work like magic.
3. It did fill her cup, but she doesn't make transitions easily.
All kids have a hard time with transitions, which is why we give them two minute warnings. But some kids need extra help to get themselves from one activity to the next, especially when they're physically wound up from playing with us and the next activity moves them closer to bedtime.
Don't take your child's upset as a reflection on your lovely time together. When you see it from her perspective -- she was just getting going! -- it's a reasonable response. Don't let the tough transition negate the nice connection you just made. Keep your own attitude positive. Is there a way to continue your game in some form as you get her into the tub?
4. She needs more connection with you.
When you first begin doing Special Time, your child is likely to feel a sense of great relief. Finally, she has you all to herself. But now that she’s finally had your full attention and adoration, it can be even harder to give you up, especially in the beginning. The grief and loneliness of all the times she wanted more connection with you than she was able to get comes bubbling up, and she feels more needy than ever.
Help your child work through those longings. Start by empathizing, even as you set the limit: “You’re upset that we have to stop playing. You just don’t feel like it’s enough right now. I love our special time together too. You can count on Special Time tomorrow, Noah. And right now we do have to stop. I’m sorry this is so hard for you.”
If your child cries, welcome their tears with understanding. Don't get defensive. Just be grateful that you’ve provided the safety to help your child surface this pain. You’re healing something much deeper than Special Time coming to an end.
5. Your quality time tapped into some big feelings that need expression.
This might be the most common reason for your child having a hard time when you disengage from close time together. Every child grapples with challenging experiences every day, from being afraid of the dark to missing friends to worrying that they aren't understanding what's being taught on zoom so they must not be as smart as their parent thinks.
All day long, kids stuff these emotions until they have a safe time to process them. When you connect deeply with your child, they feel safe enough to let those troubling emotions surface. So it's not surprising that just when we start to disengage, our child feels overwhelmed with emotions that they need our help to work through.
Welcome the Feelings. If your child has a hard time stopping your Special Time, start building in an extra 15 minutes in case there’s a meltdown. When he gets angry that you have to stop, don't extend Special Time. But do stay compassionate and connected as you welcome his feelings.
What if he cries? Wonderful! That’s an indication that the connection you’ve made is helping your child feel safe enough to go into scary emotional territory and show you some emotional baggage he’s been dragging around. Humans benefit from crying as long as they have a compassionate witness.
You’ll be amazed at how cooperative and affectionate your child will be after a good cry in your safe presence. I know it’s bath time and you want to move on with your family’s schedule, but they won’t cry forever, and this won’t happen every day.
Don't give up.
As your child learns that she can depend on regular Special Time with you, she'll handle Special Time ending with more grace. Your child is giving you an opportunity to help her heal. Don’t take her reluctance to let you go as anything but an SOS for your help and a vote for more closeness.
Most parents in this situation get frustrated because we wonder if what we’ve just given our child made any difference at all. The answer is, yes, yes, yes! Every bit of patience and compassion you offer your child when they're struggling helps them work through the upsets that are driving their challenging behavior.
That helps your child develop emotional intelligence and grow a calmer brain. It strengthens your relationship with your child, which increases your influence and their cooperation. And it puts the sweetness back into parenting. Which is, after all, what helps you genuinely delight in yet another pillow fight or family dance party!