We parents want to stay close to our young people as they get older. And they want us to stay close to them too, even though it doesn’t always feel like they do! But how do we do that? 
It’s a volatile mix
By the time our children are 10,11,12, our relationship has history. There will be several communication grooves (which work well) and relationship ruts (which don’t work so well). We don’t always come to parenting with the freshness and hope we brought to our children’s early years. We expect more of them now they are older. But our expectations are often dashed, as they are buffeted by massive brain changes and big hormonal shifts. They, too, have things they would like us to do, or not do, but they may not be able to express these directly or politely. And let’s face it, teens get a bad rap. In general, our culture has low expectations of them, and a dim view of what they have to offer.
Getting the “Relationship Bank Balance” right
The challenge is to get the balance right: we must provide guidance and limit-setting to our children as they grow older, but every time we step in, we use up “emotional credit” in our “relationship bank.” We must use it carefully and judiciously.
We need to be looking to build up credit whenever we can, because we don’t know when we will need to make a withdrawal. As our children move towards adolescence, there is often less credit in the bank anyway. They are launching a huge physical and psychological shift. And we, often, are tired and a bit depleted. Plus, our children’s approaching adolescence has an uncanny way of reminding us of our own teenage years in ways that can impair our judgement.
If you have an older teen, your relationship account may already be quite overdrawn. But don’t lose heart – research suggests that it isn’t too late to begin putting deposits into your relationship bank with your child.
How can you do that? Even if things have got hard between you and your pre-teen or teen, these six steps should help.
1. Assume you are as important to your child as you ever were.
Things are changing for your children, and also for you. When they were little, you were front and centre, In the pre-teen years, you shift to the side – you are still important, but not quite so central. And by the time your child reaches the teen years, you are more like the heat in the room – she won’t necessarily notice you are there, but if you are not, things get pretty tight, pretty fast. At each stage, you are just as important to your child as you ever were, but your role is different.
Whatever it looks like, as they move into later childhood and the teen years, we are still VITALLY IMPORTANT to our young people. Ellen Galinsky, in a study called “Ask the Children”, conducted surveys and interviews with hundreds of young people aged between 8 and 18 and their parents. She says:
“There’s a feeling sometimes among parents that when your kids turn into teens, that you’ve done your job in a sense, that it’s the peers who have the greatest influence, and that your influence is a lot less. That’s not what I heard from teens, particularly if they have a halfway decent relationship with their parent; which doesn’t mean that you don’t fight or disagree or they don’t make your life miserable. It doesn’t mean that. But if they feel like they’re respected, if they feel like they’re listened to, if they feel like they’re valued, they really want adults to help shape their views about world. They want adults to tell them about the world and how it works.”
A sense of connection with the adults who care for them is vital to young people of all ages. That is no less true now that your child is older. While things may not be as easy between you and your child as it was when they were younger, the fact is they still want and need a deep sense of connection with you. As Patty Wipfler says:
“Parents and children are at their best when they feel close and connected. Our experience tells us that the ability to connect with respect and love is at the heart of healthy relationships between parents and children. When parents know how to connect and reconnect, and child can feel his parents’ love, regardless of his age or stage. This connection is at the root of children’s confidence and good judgement as they grow.”
What is connection? It is “characterized by a positive, stable, emotional bond. It is measured by acceptance, spending time together, the parent’s availability to the child and enjoyment of being with the child.”
Especially once our children get older, we are tempted to focus on all the things that are going wrong, that are not being done, or that could be improved. We encounter difficulties in our relationship with them and we immediately start worrying: is this a sign of things to come? Will they ever be able to take responsibility for themselves? Are they going to end up screen- or drug-addicted for life?
I call this the “Parent Brain” – for various reasons, we end up feeling a) that we are responsible if things have gone wrong and b) that we must fix things immediately. And when we can’t fix things, we worry. But the reasons that things go wrong are often complex, maybe more so as our children get older, and we aren’t always able to “fix” things by going directly at the problem. And sometimes, sadly, the problem is us. The fact is that our ability to address these problems, and to fix up mistakes, will be dependent on how connected we are with our child.
The truth is that “parent-child connectedness is the single strongest indicator that an adolescent will reach adulthood without experiencing teen pregnancy or violence, without becoming addicted to drugs or tobacco, and without dropping out of high school.”
Building, repairing and maintaining our pre-teen and teens’ sense of connection with us is vital to their development. Focusing on connection is like putting “money in the bank” – building credit that can be used when times are tough. But how do we build that sense of connection?
3. Understand the power of your attention
The attention we give to things matters. And it is a precious resource. The research is clear that multitasking doesn’t really work: our minds can’t function well when we are trying to pay attention to a number of things at a time. But attention – giving another person our full attention – is one of the building blocks of connection:
“We all know the experience of sitting in front of someone who we are having a conversation with but we notice they have drifted off. Their physical body may not have moved but their eyes seem to recede in some way, and we know attention has gone. And so not only do we feel not heard we actually feel disconnected. So attention is very much a physical force that connects us. And therefor when it flows well, you do find people feel more strongly connected.”
In recent years, I’ve become chronically distracted (I’m sure my smart-phone doesn’t help!). Lately my daughter has been complaining at me “Mum, you aren’t paying attention.” She adds, I’m ashamed to say, “Mum, put your phone away!”
The Hand in Hand Listening Tool of Special Time is the way I have made sure that in the thick of it all, I pay my daughter the attention she needs for our relationship to stay strong, and for her to feel she really has my backing as she begins to venture further from home and takes on the bold new experiments that are part of adolescence.
The Hand in Hand Listening Tool of Special Time is a very efficient way to build the credit in your relationship with your child, helping to build and maintain connection and closeness.
What is Special Time?
Special Time is the regular commitment by an adult to spend time with a young person delighting in doing just what they want. Generally, it’s one-on-one – although sometimes it can work to have more than one adult along for the ride. But principally, Special Time is the time when we offer each of our children the one-way attention from us that they have always needed, wanted and craved.
During Special Time, we:
- put away distractions;
- give our child our full attention;
- don’t try to direct the time together;
- don’t offer judgement or criticism – we make it a “trouble free zone,” careful not to bring up sore topics (although our child may choose to raise them!).
Why does it work?
Offering this kind of time – building it into our relationship with each of our children – is essential to keeping the wheels of our relationship with them running smoothly. It can serve all sorts of purposes:
- functioning as a re-connector and connection repair tool when we have been separated – physically or emotionally;
- as a tension relief valve and circuit breaker if we find ourselves caught in some kind of power struggle or argument;
- as a reset switch when either we or our children have made a mistake;
- providing a space where a child can explore issues, and try things, that you would normally not allow, or that they wouldn’t normally have the confidence to do;
- creating a space where a child can offer you a challenge, turning the tables of your relationship for a short while. This is especially good for building trust and confidence in your preparedness to “go the extra mile” for them, and easing relationships which have become mired in a series of stand-offs or ongoing struggles.
- Special Time also works in interesting ways to bring difficulties to the surface – making the safety for our children to show us how hard things are for them.
More than anything else, Special Time provides an essential buffer and balance for the times when we need to provide necessary course-corrections if our pre-teen or teen has gone off-track. We’ll need to be picking our battles on this front and not sweating the small stuff. We need to focus on the really important limits that will help keep our older young people safe and heading in the right direction. But every time we offer a course-correction we use up “emotional credit” in our relationship. Special Time acts like “money in the bank”, credit we can draw on when times get tough.
Announce and time it
When you first start using Special Time, you are beginning a new aspect of your relationship with your child. It will help if both you are both really clear about what it is: your undivided attention on your child as they lead the way, and your enthusiasm for whatever they want to do. (And you don’t have to call it Special Time. You and your child may want to think up a name that you would like to use.)
Initially, I recommend announcing (naming) and timing Special Time. Let your pre-teen or teen know that you’d like to have Special Time with them and how long it will be for. With an older child you will need to consider offering at least 30 minutes, and let them know ahead of time if there is a limit on going places or spending money.
Having a name for this time together has great benefits. It provides a mutual agreement and understanding of what Special Time is and how long it is going to last. This will help your child understand that it is “protected time” when they can really count fully on your attention. It will also help them notice that you really did pay them attention – many children accumulate a deep feeling of not having been paid attention to. Often-times, we adults are distracted, but for various reasons there are times when we are paying our children good attention, but they can’t always tell. Announcing Special Time helps them to tell that you are moving in their direction.
Plus, it will help you keep your end of the bargain. You are going to need to stick with them even if they are doing something you don’t really want to do. When I first started doing Special Time I went out and bought the biggest kitchen timer I could find. At points of duress in the middle of Special Time, I could look up at it and know just how many minutes I had to last!
Timing and announcing it will also help you notice that you paid them the kind of attention – loving and delighting in your child – that most parents wish we could pay all the time. Whatever else happens in the day, you can lay your head on the pillow at night and know that you really did your best to carve some of that precious time out of the routine.
State your limits ahead of time
Stating your limits – around time, travel and money- ahead of time avoids getting caught in a situation where you are caught having to say “no” instead of “yes” in Special Time. It will also give your child a chance to think about how they want to work within these limits, get upset about them, or make an alternative proposal. And you may need to flex – if there is not enough time this week to travel to the mall and go on a shopping expedition, is that something you could find the time to do once every couple of months or so?
Here’s how it can work
Deciding to do Special Time with your older child can serve as a circuit breaker for difficulties in your relationship.
A mother came to me about six months ago and was locked in a series of battles with her nine-year-old daughter over everyday issues. Her daughter was “talking back” to her, they couldn’t sit at a meal together, she was getting in trouble at school. This mother was very distressed by this, had tried time-outs, punishments and rewards, and nothing was working.
I recommended that for a couple of weeks she just stop having these arguments, and instead organise a couple of days where they got to spend a few hours together doing just what her daughter wanted to do. I suggested at least some of this be formal Special Time so that her daughter really “got” that her mum was prepared to put her in charge of the relationship for a while. This mother had to have quite a few Listening Partnerships where she ranted and raved about her daughter’s bad behaviour, and about how worried she was about letting her daughter “get away with it”. But in Special Time, she did not mention any difficulties, raise any sore issues, or try to pry or give advice. She just put her full attention on her daughter, delighted in her, “walked alongside her”. I think they went shopping one time, and another time her daughter did several things including showing her mother all her favourite music videos on YouTube.
The mother texted me the other day and said, “I wanted to tell you, we have this week been all sitting down at the table to dinner together, and everyone has been talking and listening about how their days have gone. My daughter wanted us all to talk about something we had learned in the day. It was great!”
5. Expect to be challenged!
Special Time is a powerful way to build emotional safety into our relationships with our children. A sense of safety — that we love our child no matter what — is a precious commodity at any stage of parenting. It allows our children to feel safe enough to tell us what is really going on for them, and to ask for help when they need it. This kind of emotional safety can be in short supply as our children get older. But opening up this safety can have several consequences.
Your child may raise tough topics
First, your child may choose to bring up sore topics, or things you are often tense about. They may do this to test your commitment to “hanging in there”, or because you’ve given them confidence, over time, that you will stay connected as they explore tough topics. If you are to keep building the emotional safety that your child needs, it will be important that you dig deep to not react negatively and stay pleased with your child.
Your child may want to do things you hate to do, or you do not approve of
Take heart! This is a good sign! At last, you have offered them your willingness to go to places you have never been before! This is sometimes just what your child needs in order to have confidence you really are on their side.
So be warned, you may need to drum up enthusiasm for computer games you never dreamed you would know anything about, or for watching much more television with them than they would usually allow, or dredge up enthusiasm for eating a lot of sweets. You’ll probably need to stick with this longer than feels comfortable for you.
Your child may get upset
You may find that your child gets very upset about the end of Special Time. It’s fine to extend Special Time if you have the time, but you don’t need to feel obliged to. Ending Special Time when the stated time is up is just fine. But If your child has stored feelings of disappointment, these may surface around the end of Special Time. You need to be prepared to listen to the upset with the same generosity as you offered yourself in Special Time. In general, over time, these big upsets about the ending of Special Time subside – as the stored up feelings are drained, and as your child gains confidence that there will be another Special Time after this one.
Things may get harder for a while
Sometimes, when we first introduce Special Time, our children seem to go through a period of being more testy, troublesome, easily upset and unco-operative. Trust that this will pass. It is another example of a child taking advantage of the extra emotional safety you have built. Chances are, they have been carrying these troubles around for a while, and now it is safe for them to bubble up to the surface. If you can listen to these upsets without getting defensive or upset yourself, you should find that things settle after some time.
Your child may turn down your offer of Special Time
There are a number of reasons for this. I suggest that you continue to offer – perhaps asking them when there is a time they think would work, or making plans for something they really want to do with you. But if Special Time really seems never to get off the ground, you might need to shift to offering Unannounced Special Time. I’ll talk about that some more in next month’s article.
You may start to suffer “Special Time Dread”
And lastly, most of us did not have anyone much who paid us this kind of attention when we were young. We don’t have deep reserves of attention to call on when we try to offer this to our children. So, over time, we find ourselves less and less keen on offering Special Time – particularly if our child is exploring territory in Special Time that we are not all that comfortable with. Or we start to find Special Time unutterably boring…we struggle to keep our eyes open…
If this happens, then it is time to…
6. Get support for yourself
It’s a big job to provide the guidance and encouragement your child needs as they navigate adolescence. At this time, more than any other, you will need more than “grit” to get through. You can’t keep pouring out attention and patience if you don’t replenish your own resources.
All parents need emotional support for the complex work we do. As our children start to navigate the teen years, more than ever we need a place we can be sure is confidential, where we can really tell it how it is, and know that we will not be judged or criticised.
Listening Partnerships can help
I’ve found Listening Partnerships to be absolutely essential for providing the emotional support I need as I work to have my own needs met, strive to understand my teen and keep from taking things personally. Every now and again, I can pry open the “black box” of my own adolescence to take a peek at what lurks there, with the gentle support and attention of my Listening Partner. I’ve learned that my experience of my own adolescence influences how I respond to my daughter as she moves into the teen years. Taking my feelings to a Listening Partnership, and tracing how they may be connected to my own story of growing up seems to loosen their hold, and give me more flexibility in my parenting.
Get company on the journey
I’ve also found it very helpful to be part of a group of parents who are also striving to maintain connection and provide thoughtful guidance to our older children. Something special happens when we are able to notice that we are not alone, and when we have a place to share our heartbreaks, hopes and victories with parents on the same journey. I run regular Parenting Support Calls for Parents of Pre-Teens and Teens which you would be welcome to join.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. By the time we have teens, most of us have found we have to create that village ourselves. I invite you to join us at the Hand in Hand Village. Hard jobs are always done better in company. Welcome!
Try it and see
I’d love to hear how named, announced and timed Special Time goes in your household. Leave a comment below.
 I’m deeply indebted to Patty Wipfler, Founder and Program Director of Hand in Hand Parenting, for her deep and generous thinking about teens and their parents. I can recommend her booklet “Supporting Adolescents,” and a number of articles she has written. You can download a copy of the booklet here. It’s a great read. Wipfler, Patty Supporting Adolescents. Palo Alto: Hand in Hand, 2006. Print
 Siegel, D. (2013). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain (1st ed.). New York, New York: Jeremy P Tarcher/Penguin. Dr Dan Siegel, Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA describes the teenage brain as “a construction site”:
“Now, when it comes to teenagers, this flipping one’s lid is often seen as being a “crazy teenager.” But let’s make an agreement not to call this crazy; let’s call it what it is – remodeling and shifts in integration. In a construction site, sometimes the previously working plumbing and electricity are temporarily disabled. We don’t have to call that a faulty building – it’s just a reconstruction project. Remodeling has its inevitable downsides, for sure. For a short time, or for bursts of time, those utilities on the construction site are off-line. No effective electricity, no plumbing, no workable staircase. These are all temporary shifts in what works well. The good news is that remodelling is a process that will create new and improved ways of functioning. Remodeling is necessary to adapt the structure of our neural foundation to adjust to new needs, and remodelling in adolescence is necessary to adapt our human family to the new needs of a changing world.” P103-104.
 Shellenbarger, Sue. “What Teens Need Most From Their Parents.” The Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company, 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 11 Jan. 2017. <http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-teens-need-most-from-their-parents-1470765906>. “In a laboratory risk-taking test, teens who grew closer to their parents starting at age 15 showed less activation of a brain region linked to risk-taking and took fewer chances 18 months later.”
Wipfler, Patty. Supporting Adolescents. Palo Alto: Hand in Hand, 2006. Print p19: “Building closeness is a bit like playing outfielder in a baseball game. Your readiness and attention are vital, but you can never predict exactly when you will be called upon, or when you’ll have the opportunity make a significant difference. Your readiness to care is your main responsibility. The rest is a unique and unfolding story.”
Galinsky, Ellen. “Inside the Teenage Brain – Interview with Ellen Galinsky.” PBS. FRONTLINE+wgbh+Pbs Online. Broadcast 2002? Web. 24 Mar. 2015.<http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/interviews/galinsky.html>.
Wiplfer, Patty. Parenting by Connection. Palo Alto: Hand in Hand, 2006. Print p5.
ETR and associates. Parent-Child Connectedness Implications for Research, Interventions, And Positive Impacts on Adolescent Health. 2004. Web. 19 Apr. 2017. <http://recapp.etr.org/recapp/documents/research/litreview.pdf>.
 Idleman, Julianne. “The Cries that Bind: Connecting with Children.” Hand in Hand Parenting. Hand in Hand Parenting, 555 Waverley St., #25 Palo Alto, CA 94301 , n.d. Web. 06 Jan. 2017. <http://www.handinhandparenting.org/article/the-cries-that-bind-connecting-with-children/>.
 Malcolm, Lyn, and Daniel Levitin. “The distracted mind.” Radio National. Australian Broadcasting Commission, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/allinthemind/the-distracted-mind/6663470>.
 Funnell, Anthony . “Attention / distraction.” Radio National. Australian Broadcasting Commission, 12 Oct. 2016. Web. 17 Jan. 2017. <http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/futuretense/summer-attention-and-distraction/7926086#transcript>. Here he is interviewing Martina Sheehan, cofounder of an organisation called Mind Gardener, which helps people to prioritise what’s important.
 You may already have a name for the time you spend together one-on-one. If you decide to keep using that name, then you will need to make sure that you are both clear that it is now time you will spend as if it were Special Time proper. When I introduce Special Time to parents for the first time, they often will say either “Oh! We already have that. We call it “Mummy Time (or whatever name they have for it)”, or (and this is most often parents of much younger children) “It all feels like Special Time – I’m with them all the time.” In both cases, the time together doesn’t include one or two of the elements that make Special Time work. Most often, it is that it is not timed. Amongst several other things, when you both are clear about how long Special Time will last, your children know how long they can really count on your undivided attention. When they know this, they can settle in, and begin to organise what they want to do with the time. It’s one of the key ways that Special Time builds emotional safety for our children. And for you, being clear about the time means that you commit to not stopping it on a whim, based on how you are feeling, but stick to your commitment to pay close and warm attention no matter what.
 I recommend that you find 30 minutes for Special Time with older children. For various reasons, it can take longer for them to get a sense of you being there for them. Plus, they may tend to have more complex and time-consuming things they want to explore with you than a younger child might. That said, please don’t let this get in your way of doing Special Time – if all you can manage is five minutes of just enjoying your child while you give them your full attention, that will make a difference. In fact, building your capacity for Special Time is a bit like building muscle strength – the more you do it, the stronger you get. With Special Time, the equivalent of your “fitness coach” will be your Listening Partner or Parent Support Group. You can use your listeners to set your intention to do Special Time, and hold you accountable for doing it.