Whether you are a parent struggling to attend to each child equally or an adult reminiscing about vying for your parents’ attention, most people can relate to the challenges of being in a family with more than one child. Every child has his own needs and wants to be acknowledged for his uniqueness. And parents want to be equally attentive, but time is limited and legitimate pressing matters often take precedent over the general nurturing of individual strengths. This challenge is intensified in — but not limited to — single-parent families and families who have one or more children with special needs.
Consistent small efforts can have a large impact on how each child feels. Some parents mistakenly believe that individual attention requires a grand gesture, such as taking a child to a favorite music concert or sporting event. While such activities are certainly a fun way to spend time together, it is unrealistic to expect to do them regularly. Children will be visibly more excited about special occasions than consistent day-to-day attention, but special occasions do not provide the steady support and development each child actually needs and craves.
As old fashioned as it may sound, dinner time is a great time for families to connect and hear about each other’s experiences. For example, the Obama family has a tradition of discussing the “roses and thorns” in each person’s day. Each family member talks about the most positive aspect of their day (the rose) as well as a negative part of their day (the thorn). Each family member receives undivided attention. In the process, it demonstrates how adults face and overcome daily obstacles, opens up conversation, allows family members to reflect on each other’s problems, and opens the door to support.
While family time is integral to family cohesion, it is good to spend time with each child separately. Children have distinct interests from another. It is possible to divide nights so that each child has an opportunity to spend quality time with a parent. In any case, it is important to be clear but flexible. Children generally respond well to schedules and clear expectations. It is not necessary to be rigid – life will get in the way of plans sometimes – but to the extent that children receive attention when they expect it, they will be better able to deal with disappointments when they occur.
The challenge of balancing competing needs and getting sufficient face time is amplified in single-parent families and in families with a special needs child. In these cases, some children are asked to define their expectations differently and to be more self-sufficient. This can be an opportunity to develop independence and responsibility, but parents need to be mindful that self-sufficient children often appear to need less attention than they actually do. Even strong, independent children benefit from parental guidance.
Watch out for negative attention. Most children prefer any attention over none at all, and many will resort to undesirable behaviors to receive it. This can result in a vicious cycle that is hard to break. Consider a child who notices that their sibling is with their parents more often than with him. He may start to hit his sibling or to act out at school, forcing parents to respond. The parents may then become angry with the child, begin to over-emphasize negative behaviors, and forget to nurture the child’s strengths. This occurs frequently in families with special needs children.
Family life is chaotic and parents frequently feel guilty about how much quality time they spend with their children. While time cannot be perfectly divided, there are things parents can do to try and meet children’s needs. When possible, be consistent and focus time spent together on exploring interests and building strengths. Disappointments and derailments are inevitable. Use those situations to model patience and flexibility.
Jaime earned her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Yeshiva University. She works in a private practice in NYC doing psychotherapy and evaluations. Jaime’s specialty is in working with individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum. www.spectrumservicesnyc.com. JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com