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When children come to see me for one-to-one psychotherapeutic work, they have often been referred by their parents or carers. Family-life has reached crisis point and sometimes the parents are extremely worried, and are struggling to cope or manage their child’s behaviour or mood.

Despondent, having tried different ways to change the situation, parents come to me hoping that I will be able to change their child’s behaviour or mood. As the work unfolds, I help them understand that, what the child needs is for us, that’s me and the parents, is to understand that the child’s difficult, worrying or upsetting behaviour can be a signal that something within the family dynamic may need to shift. Or it is the child’s only way of communicating something they have no words for yet.

A big part of my role, as a child psychotherapist, is to help the child find the words to communicate their feelings, experiences and needs instead of acting out in negative ways. But also an important part of the work is to support parents to make the shifts necessary to heal or re-build a healthy happy child-parent relationship; empowering parents to make a positive difference to their child’s life.

Child psychotherapy works best when the adults around the child work as a team.

What I so often see is that a child’s behaviour or mood changes for the better when their self-esteem grows. A child’s self-esteem can grow through reaching mile-stones, having healthy friendships and also success at school. However, the most important source of growth comes directly from their parents and families. An integral part of enabling this to happen is Special Time.

What is Special Time?

Special Time is dedicated one-one-time a parent spends with each child individually. Special Time is a powerful tool to nurture and enhance parent-child relationships. It strengthens a child’s emotional well-being, self-esteem, coping skills and also prepares them for future relationships.

Special Time can also happen between children and other adult members of their family like grandparents, aunties and uncles.

How to do Special Time

  1. Make an announcement, tell each child that you would like to have Special Time with them. Use your child’s name, for example call it ‘Sarah Time’ or ‘Jack Time.’ Tell them you want to do this because you love them.
  2. With younger children, aim for 15 minutes a day. With older children, 1 hour, twice a week. Set a timer, turn off all mobile phones, screens and devices so neither of you are distracted by incoming texts, bleeps or calls. This is so you can be fully present. Say to them “I am all yours for the next 15 minutes/hour…”
  3. Alternate who decides how to use the time. Let your child decide the first time, then you can choose next time. If they suggest the impossible, like “Let’s go camping in Cornwall!” be creative and suggest building a tent out of sheets and furniture. Or if they ask to do something that they’re not usually allowed to do, like bounce up and down on your bed, consider if there is a way of doing this in a safe way, just for Special Time. If they are able to do the ‘forbidden’ during Special Time, children are less likely to do it behind their parents’ back.
  4. When it’s your turn to decide, choose games that will create lots of laughter, bonding and help them develop emotional intelligence. For younger children, ‘peek-a-boo’ is a great separation/reunion game. A fun game that helps process anxiety, channel energy and aggression is a good old pillow fight! ‘Rough and tumble’ is an important part of physical and mental development. But remember that you are bigger and stronger than your child, so be gentle with them, this is meant to be fun! Give your child the experience of being powerful, strong and rebellious. Let them win races! Why not pretend to be a scary monster (scary enough to excite your child but not too scary) and then playfully trip up, giving them a sense they can out-smart you. Let them be the scary monster and show mock fear when they come chasing you! For older children suggest a board game, cards, draw something together, use play-dough, make or bake something together.
  5. During Special Time, try not to ask them questions. Only ask questions to help your child think (no interrogations). Don’t give them directions or teach them how to do something. Don’t criticise them. Listen to your child. Repeat back what your child says so that they really know you are fully present and have been listening. Track them, “You’re adding another pillow to make the pillow-tower taller!”, “You’re really thinking hard about which colour to use”. Share appropriate information about yourself, “I use to love making tents when I was your age too!” Children like to know what you were like as a child.
  6. If it’s impossible to fit in more time in your already busy life, have Special Time when you and your child are already together, like bath-time, riding in the car or walking to school. What is most important is the listening, non judgemental stance described above.
  7. If possible, schedule Special Time at the same time each day.
  8. When you are with your Special Time child, make sure their sibling(s) are fully occupied or being looked after. Explain to them that they too will have the same opportunity.

But I spend ‘quality time’ with my kids, isn’t that the same as Special Time?

Special Time is different to ‘quality time’. Quality time is informal time spent enjoying activities with your child. Special Time is something more marked, organised and planned.

Why Special Time makes a difference?

  • Although children are central to their parent’s life, they’re very often not convinced of this and may harbour a belief that they’re not important. Special Time sends a message to children that they are important, likeable and loved. It makes a child feel good, and therefore builds self-esteem (Steele, & Marigna 2018).
  • Due to circumstances or busy lives, something so important as having their parent’s full loving attention, doesn’t always happen naturally. Special Time can create opportunities for this to take place. This is particularly important for older siblings when a new baby arrives and care of the baby takes precedent. Children are particularly vulnerable to feeling left out and will need reassurance that they are as important and central to their parents’ lives as always.
  • It enhances the parent-child relationship, reconnecting with each other through difficult and challenging times. This often results in happier and more cooperative children.
  • Children’s lives are mostly governed by adults and, therefore, they will often feel powerless. Special Time can provide a safe place for children to process the difficulties they have encountered throughout the day, giving them the chance to make decisions and experience autonomy. This is often done through a child’s natural language of play and metaphor.
  • Most parents wish for a happy partnership with their child where their child will come to them in times of trouble. Special Time can build a solid foundation of trust, making it easier for the child to come to their parents when they have difficult feelings, rather than acting out in ways that can be hard to tolerate.
  • Sometimes it’s difficult for a parent to understand their child’s experience or point of view. Special Time can enhance compassion, empathy and help parents see life through their child’s eyes.
  • If put in place and implemented regularly it can also increase ‘parental presence’ (Shapiro, 2019) in the child’s life. Parental presence works both ways. It supports parents to feel more empowered as parents, enabling them to guide their child through life or metaphorically put, an anchor that stabilises the little boat in choppy waters. For the child, parental presence is experienced not only as a physical presence but also a ‘felt’ presence. Felt through words, facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, bodily movements and well timed responses (Siegal, 1999). Parental presence can also be understood, in attachment terms, as a ‘secure base’ (Bowlby). A secure base is a term ‘to describe the feeling of safety provided by an attachment figure’ (Holmes, 1993:223).

Special Time is a corner stone of healthy relationships and it is one of the building blocks to enhancing parent-child relationships. Positive shifts in a relationship between parent and the child will inevitably bring about change in their interactions, but also in the child’s behaviour. Emotional well-being for all involved is improved and an upwards spiral of improvement is possible.


  • Holmes, J. (1993) ‘John Bowlby & Attachment Theory.’ London: Routledge.
  • Shapiro, M (2019) ‘Non-violent-resistance (NVR) parenting approach.: Professional Handbook.
  • Siegel, D. J. (1999) ‘The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are’. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Steele, M. & Marigna, M. (2018) ‘Strengthening families, Strengthening communities (SFSC) – an inclusive parent programme’.