Monthly Newsletter

December 2023

Promise to be a more present parent

By Dr Ehsan Habibpour

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, “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 or 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 daily and watch as their children’s behavior improves. It may seem easy in theory, but it 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 many parents must 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 interactive activity that the child leads. For ages 3 to 8, you can use LEGOs, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Heads, 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 they like. This could include cooking, baking, or some other creative outdoor activity. Particular 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. For ages 12 and over, this particular time can be extended, but the frequency is reduced to every other day or three times a week.

There are two rules for this particular time. First, during these five minutes, you avoid leading the activity or asking any questions and refrain from saying “no,” “stop,” or any other words with a negative or controlling connotation. The goal is to let the child have complete control and lead as much as they want without interruption. It may seem easy, but most parents must practice playing this game correctly. Parents are used to guiding their children all the time. This particular practice offers an opportunity for the child to feel in charge, free to play however they want, and to have their parents’ entire 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 positive and encouraging phrases like “Good job paying close attention while you’re playing LEGOs.” Also, try paraphrasing the child: repeat words, sentences, or even noises they make while playing. For example, the child says: “Batman says hello to Robin,” and you say: “Wow, Batman says hello to Robin.” The child says, “The car takes off and goes Vroom,” and the 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 regularly, it will enhance their relationship with their children.

Giving your child this special attention daily 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 daily 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 tell you what you did well and what you can improve for the next playtime. If you take this approach properly and patiently, your relationship with your child will improve by leaps and bounds.