Promise to Be a More Present Parent

As we pledge to better ourselves and our lives for the new year, why don’t we consider a new habit that enhances our relationship with our children?

In this hyperconnected era, it may be surprising that we often seem to be getting more distant from our children and loved ones. By checking our smartphones constantly and being connected to others through social media, we are easily distracted from the most important people in our lives.

In my practice, there is not a week that goes by without me getting the question of “how can I get my child to listen to me more?” or “how can I avoid raising my voice or getting upset by their oppositional behaviors?” These struggles can seem like a never-ending challenge of parenting with no viable solution.

After years of treating children, working with parents, and studying a wide range of therapies, there is one approach that stands out that I recommend the most to parents.

I tell them to give their children special attention on a daily basis and watch as their children’s behavior improves. It may seem easy in theory but can be hard to master in practice. This is not just any kind of attention: I’m talking about a special kind of connection that the majority of the parents have to work hard to achieve.

I recommend dedicating five minutes every day in which you interact with your child or teenager over an activity they like based on their age. During these five minutes, you design an activity that is interactive and that the child leads. For ages 3 to 8, you can use LEGOs, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, cars, puppets, or a doll house. For ages 8 to 11, activities can be around LEGOs, building an airplane or a car, or playing with balls or dolls as appropriate.

For preteens and teens over 11, you should select an activity that they like. This could include cooking or baking or some other creative outdoor activity. Special video games can be used where parents and children can play together. Ideally, allow the child to pick the activity that they like the most and go with that. In ages 12 or over, the duration of this special time can be extended but the frequency reduced to every other day or even three times a week.

There are two rules for this special time. First, during these five minutes, you avoid leading the activity or asking any questions and refrain from saying “No,” “Don’t,” “Stop” or any other words with a negative or controlling connotation. The goal is to let the child have full control and lead as much as he or she wants without interruption. It may seem easy, but most parents need practice to play this game the right way. Parents are used to guiding their children all the time. This special practice offers an opportunity for the child to feel in charge, free to play however they want, and to have their parents’ full presence and attention.

Second, during these five minutes, you describe what the child is doing. “I see you are using red LEGOs to make a car.” You can use phrases that are positive and encouraging such as “Good job paying close attention while you are placing LEGOs.” Also, try to paraphrase the child: repeat words, sentences or even noises they make while they are playing. For example, the child says: “Batman says hello to Robin,” you say: “Wow Batman says hello to Robin.” Child says: “The car takes off and goes vroom,” Parent says: “Wow the car takes off and goes vroom.” These techniques show the child that they have your full attention and that you support and confirm their creativity. This exact verbal repetition may lessen as your child gets older.

If parents do these special play times on a regular basis, it will enhance their relationship with their children.

Giving your child this special attention on a daily basis will improve self confidence in your child, decrease noncompliance or oppositional behavior, and your child will seek positive attention for getting things done. The key is to have patience for five minutes every single day and continue this habit. I also suggest involving a third person, especially in the beginning, to be an observer and to provide feedback at the end of the five minutes. They can let you know what you did well and what you can improve for the next play time. If you take this approach properly and patiently, you will see your relationship with your child improve by leaps and bounds.

Ehsan Habibpour
Ehsan Habibpour, M.D. is the medical director of McLean Counseling Center and a child and adolescent and adult psychiatrist. He is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University. He focuses on combining psychotherapy with medication management in treatment of emotional disorders. He specializes in anxiety and depressive disorders.