The Rewards of Creating a Special Time with Attention-Seeking Children

Special Time is a technique which helps a child understand exactly when they will receive undivided attention, as a means of reducing anxiety laden attention seeking behaviors, or as a means of improving relationships when the child is defiant or alienated.

Suggestion of this technique in no way implies that this child does not receive adequate attention. In fact, many children who seek attention constantly and chronically are already receiving disproportionate amounts of attention already.

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Special Time describes spending undivided time with a child, unconditionally for just a few minutes each day.  During the Special Time period, the child [within reason] gets to pick the activities they want to do.  Because it is given unconditionally, it cannot be taken away because the child behaved badly or if the child hasn’t completed some other requirement.  There is no “earning” of Special Time.  The technique works best when it is given consistently at the same time each day, especially for presymbolic children.  For symbolic children, it can set as part of a pictorial or written schedule.

Special Time accomplishes the following:

  1. It gives it a name (like “[Your Child’s Name] Time”) and some rules to attention that did not exist before. Prior to this, attention was given amply and randomly, but it had no clear beginning or ending, and it did not have a “term” to refer to it. The use of the term, “Special Time” gives the child a reference point which reduces anxiety;
  2. It provides the child a guarantee of undivided attention. The child now has a time he can count on, which will now permit him to defer or delay his needs for short periods of time (with help);
  1. It can help teach a child to appreciate his own and others’ special time. Giving the procedure a term, allows one to point out to him that everyone gets their special time.  Children can learn that other family members have their own times, and parents can explain that sometimes, they need their own special time for themselves.  This reinforces the vital concepts of proportion that your child has not yet developed.

“Special Time” is often suggested to parents when a child seems to have an insatiable need for attention.  This feeling of never-ending need can have more to do with a child’s understanding of time, sequence, or emotional toleration (for feelings of anxiety or anger that lead to [neuro-]physiological changes) than it does with the actual amount of time a parent spends with a child.

Basically, the individual is unsure about when attention begins or ends, so his/her strategy may be to keep it ongoing.  Therefore, parameters are set in order to help them understand the limits of attention, but more importantly, the fact that the parent guarantees individual attention in exchange for a more manageable life!  These parameters are as follows:

  1. Give the time you spend a name.  “Special Time” is fine, but so is “[Your Child’s Name] Time,” “Our Time,” etc.  This lets him know the time is all his.
  2. Give the time you spendbrackets.”  Establish when Special Time (ST) begins and when it ends in terms that your child can understand.  For instance, it is unreasonable for an adult to expect young [or developmentally young] children to understand references to clock-time such as “ST will be over at 8 o’clock.”  Be careful to use what references he can understand such as when a certain TV show comes on, when dinner is ready, when we’re done with this book, when Barney is over, etc.  The same principle applies to making beginning times clear.
  3. Make arrangements for ST.  This has to vary from family to family.  Some families will do well with a pre-established time that becomes part of a consistent daily routine.  This is ideal, but doesn’t work for every family.  Things come up, and you don’t always have control complete over your routines.  Nevertheless, having a consistent time makes learning the promises and limits of ST easier for a child to understand, and he will engage in a shorter period of frustration and/or “testing the limits” before he can trust the whole deal. If a standing routine doesn’t work, you have to make daily arrangements.  This is a little harder because of the communication involved, but can and should be done if your lifestyle requires flexibility.  When arranging ST, keep in mind the cautions about references to time.  Also, your child may benefit from the use of visual supports (i.e. pictures or objects that let him know when an event will occur – the Consultant will help the family implement this if needed).
  4. Establish some limits. You don’t have to put up with hitting or purposeful destruction.  Let the child know that you will do his favorite things, but you will terminate the ST if he crosses the line.
  5. Encourage independence at the same time. When ST is over, or before it begins, make it clear that when it is not ST, he or she, is to be doing something else – and not pestering mom.  The Consultant will help mom make an activity menu to help him direct his own free time.  It is helpful to ask him what he plans to do after ST is over, and to get him to pick something.  Let him know, mommy will not play with you when ST is over.
  6. Expect limits testing.  Keep in mind that insatiable attention seeking is an attachment strategy that is meant to control your availability.  That’s what he/she has been used to, and that is the child’s strategy for maintaining good feelings.

Note about Children with Clinical level Attachment Insecurity: When a child is “hypervigilant” (the term used in attachment science to describe fears associated with being alone, and subsequent attempts to maintain and control proximity with mother), we know that anxiety is what is driving him to keep constant proximity of mom.  Misbehavior is a very common way children use to “reel mother in,” and to make sure she can’t go and do something else.

The hypervigilant child might respond to limits on this control anxiously.  In other words, he or she will fear limits on his control.  To reduce the individual’s anxiety, the child is guaranteed a special time, and the unconditional promise is what they must learn to trust.  This will take time for the child to understand, and mom will have to ‘put her money where her mouth is’ to gain mom’s trust.

Therefore, in the process of establishing this trust, expect him/her to attempt to maintain control.  This requires strategies for minimizing the damage the child might try to inflict in order to compel mom’s attention.  Ignoring him is never suggested, rather, find a way to use “Alongside Time” and activity menus as a means of minimizing his anxiety and need for control, as well as firm expectations and clear limits.  The Consultant will help mom go over the possible limits-testing behaviors the child is likely to use, and help her prepare for this expected part of the process.

  1. Reassure: Deep down, there is a feeling that certain feelings predict catastrophe – so the child fights them.  They are afraid ‘to go there’ so to say.  This has been the history after all for a lot of kids. What this child needs is reassurance that while the physical feelings are strong, they will pass in a while and everything will be OK.  “These feelings feel terrible, I know, I have felt that way.  But pretty soon, you’ll be OK.  These feelings won’t hurt you for long, and I’ll be here waiting for you” is an example of something to say.  For less verbal children, simplify the language “Shhh.  Shhh.  Mommy’s here.  It’s OK.”  For non-verbal children, the emotional tone of your voice can convey your sympathy for his or her struggle with the feelings.

ST has certain rules for the parent to follow.  They include:

  1. Do what your child wants to do and what he’s interested in.  This has to have limits of course, but should include any reasonable activity that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t involve leaving the house, and that you feel comfortable with.
  2. Don’t allow others to intrude.  This is critical – it’s his/her time and the child should not be asked to share it with anyone. It is actually very meaningful to a child to hear a parent say to someone who calls, “Can I call you back.  This is [Child’s name]‘s time.  It’ll be over when we’re done watching Barney.  Can I call you back?”  He may want others to join in, but that has to be his choice.
  3. Don’t make ST contingent on anything elseThis is the most important aspect of ST.  It is guaranteed no matter what kind of a brat he may have been before, whether you’ve had an argument or a power struggle, or whether he’s being punished for something else.  DO NOT TAKE ST AWAY FOR ANY REASON.  It is the unconditional statement of love, acceptance for who he is, and commitment to him that makes ST work.
  4. ST does not need to be very long.  15-20 minutes is usually fine.  Once the exclusivity and guarantee of ST is established, the length of time is less important – because the child is less anxious about attention, and no longer needs to worry or monopolize it.

Alongside Time: For children who don’t want to play independently, “alongside time” can help a single or unassisted parent get things done. This can be a supplement to ST and a way of organizing some of the time that does not require the child to play independently.

  • With Alongside Time (AT), it is important to plan activities in which the two of you focus on the activity, not on each other.  The activity can be just about anything that requires mutual attention and more or less equal collaboration, from doing ordinary tasks such as cleaning up or getting dressed, to playing board games or watching a favorite TV show.
  • Sometimes, you have to get into the parallel play mode. Sometimes you’re better off joining him in something he’s already doing.   Or he can join something you’re doing – as long as it doesn’t involve too much coercion.  Board games are great for this, as are outings together.  Choosing is a matter of observing your child to get a sense of the type of contact that he seems to need at the moment.


David Sponder is a Licensed Education Psychologist who has been working with Individuals with Special Needs for over 30 years. In addition to the L.E.P., David holds a Master’s Degree in Special Education and Teacher Specialist Credential for Children with Severe Handicapping Conditions. His specialty is working with children with developmental, emotional, psychiatric and behavioral issues.  He is the only person in the world who obtained certification in the three major approaches to working with Autism Spectrum disorders: ABA, Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) and Developmental, Individualized, Relationship-Based (DIR/Floortime) methods.

This article was featured in Issue 42 – Autism: Fighting the Stigmas

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