For those of you who might not know, I have a child with a social anxiety disorder and some related sensory regulation problems that feed into it. Last year, my middle daughter (5.5) was diagnosed with selective mutism, which is a social anxiety problem severe enough to cause an inability to speak when in overwhelming situations or with people she did not know and trust. It’s a rare condition, if caught before the age of 8 it is highly treatable (and often without anti-anxiety medications) and made worse by not understanding the disorder and expecting that the child can “grow out of it” or be forced out of it.
I have spoken at length about what worked for her on my other blog (Raising Smart Girls). One critical thing I left out of that list was the importance of one-on-one time engaged with her playing, snuggling, or reading. I was reminded of this today when I read the latest post out of PhD in Parenting’s Carnival of Play.
The article explains that our kids need our undivided attention. Not all of the time, but definitely frequently. The time of one-on-one time that is really valuable is child-led one-on-one time. Let your child guide the conversation, choose the games, lead the activities. This isn’t about you choosing something and then doing it with your child. It is about letting your child choose and lead.
She continues with these insights from the article:
The article also gives a list of 4 signs that your child needs your undivided attention:
1. He is deliberately disobedient. This may indicate that he’s feeling ignored. Floor time shows him that he doesn’t need to act up to get noticed. It also helps him feel cared for and valued while you try to learn if there’s a deeper reason for his disobedience.
2. She clings, whines, or cries frequently. This may indicate insecurity. Half an hour of undivided attention each day helps to reassure your child that she is safe and loved.
3. He hits, screams, and shows other signs of anger. Floor time provides a forum for him to express anger more appropriately (for example, through pretend play or conversation).
4. She exhibits difficulty making developmental transitions, such as moving from crib to bed or starting school. Growing up is hard, and such challenges can make a child doubt her coping abilities. Floor time helps her relax and gain confidence.
So often parents see these signs and go straight to exacting punishments, such as a time out, when really what the child so desperately needs is the opposite: a dedicated time-in.
If this is true for any child, it is doubly so for those children who have or are at risk for social/emotional disorders or delays (for instance, a child with anxiety issues or sensory regulation issues often have behavioral problems). I know some of the above behavior typical of three year olds and under, but when the behavior is daily, or multiple times a day, or persists beyond the third year (where a significant amount of emotional turmoil is present and typical during development), then it is incredibly important to know that the answer is not less but more one-on-one time. These children usually have emotional regulation issues beyond typical and definitely beyond their ability to cope with.
As hard as it was for me to deal with meltdown after meltdown after meltdown, I knew that punishment only made things worse for both of us. It sent us both into a downward spiral of pain, anger and confusion. For my highly sensitive child, standard behavioral extinction techniques such as time-outs failed to work. The reason was because my child was emotionally unable to be separated from me. Her anxiety increased and she became more needy as the time-out created insecurity in her. On top of it, she could not separate out “I AM bad” from “I DID SOMETHING bad”- to her, they were one and the same. She equated punishments of any kind as removal of love. When she could articulate it for me (around the age of 4 she was able to do this – which was one of the first clues I had that her cognitive abilities were above her actual age even though her emotional abilities were well below her chronological age), I realized she internalized a message that she was not worthy of my love. I had to explain (and revisit it often), that just because I was angry about something she had done, it didn’t mean I didn’t love her. That was quite an eye-opener when I discovered that she was starting to have poor self-esteem at the ripe old age of 4. It was a message that stayed with her longer than I ever expected it to and furthermore, it became crystal clear I had to change the self-image my daughter had.
The only way to do it was through one-on-one time. When they were little it was hard to find one-on-one time at home, so I would try to schedule a “date” with only her (and on other days, only one of her sisters) to go somewhere that was her choice and their dad watched the other two. It’s wasn’t always a specific “play” date, but often we’d go to the pet store to look at the animals, or the library to read books or play with the puppets they had there, or the bookstore to browse the kids’ section and usually ended up going out to lunch or to get an ice cream treat afterwards. I’d use that time to just talk about issues that had come up with earlier in the week. During these relaxed moments, sharing bites of ice cream or other tasty treats, I was able to glimpse where things went wrong and we both came up with ideas of how to express our wants and needs to each other in a healthier way. In between outings, I had to spend time with her on a daily basis, as she needed me to help regulate her emotions when she felt out-of-control.
I found that when I did this, her behavior improved dramatically and her self-concept improved. No longer did she think I didn’t love her, no longer did she equate “I AM BAD” with “I did something bad”. For her temperament, 15-20 minutes of my undivided attention paid off in many ways I couldn’t imagine. Over time, spending time with her and through maturity and emotion coaching her with our Problem Solving Binder, she improved and our relationship started to be very joyful. I began to see her not as my undoing, but as my hero. I was always an attached parent, but she taught me why it was important to look beyond the behavior and see the child.
Keeping up with daily doses of one-on-one play or face-to-face time and physical closeness (sitting in my lap being read to), having her brush my hair (by the way, she’s doing this now as I type – she’s standing on a stool behind my chair) or put pretend makeup on me or just snuggling together talking fills her tank so that she can feel secure. Consequently, a lot of those behaviors have been disappearing a little as time goes on. We still have some bad days (but mostly now after having too many outings in a week) but not nearly as it was at one time.
Even though her sisters do not need as much time, early on it had become very evident to me that I had to ensure I spent enough time with her sisters, particularly the oldest child. While she was more temperamentally even-keel, she was still in need of having some time with me to herself. When she started to feel left out of my attentions and came to me crying that I never spent any time with her anymore, I made it a point to sit with her almost every evening while she and I read together. Just because she was older and just because she was the “mature one” did not mean she didn’t need me. At first, I’d read Anne of Green Gables to her, then when she became an eager reader herself, we spent time alternating chapters of the Magic Treehouse books. Now that she is a fluent reader, she will read to me chapters out of Harry Potter. It’s something we both look forward to. She gets practice reading and I get to discuss the story with her. We both are fans of Harry Potter and it’s been really neat to have book discussions with her (in case you were wondering, she is my 7 year old – she is a neat-o kid).
I encourage you, if you are struggling with maddening behavior from your child to see that not as a burden, but as a challenge – a challenge to you to cut away the annoying/frustrating behavior to see the child inside who is hurting and who needs you more than you ever thought possible. Take care of your needs for sleep, for adequate nutrition, for adult companionship too, because you can not give more than you actually have to give.
Best wishes, because I have been there and I know it requires more than you expected, but it is so worth the effort.