Undivided Attention

One of the things I’ve noticed since becoming the parent of more than one child is how I constantly feel like I’m letting someone down when it comes to giving them enough attention. As the old saying goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and I have found that to be very true as a foster parent. The one with the most issues gets the most attention—which means that kids who are doing well, who are not struggling, can begin to feel like they are being (inadvertently) ignored.

If one of my children requires more attention—say, therapist appointments, teacher meetings, general behavioral interventions—it means I’m not giving as much attention to another child (or my spouse). We have three children of our own, and we often provide foster care for one or two additional little ones, which means that my attention is always, always divided. But there’s hope!

When we first became foster parents, we received some professional parenting help, and the woman who coached me in those first few weeks and months gave me a lot of invaluable advice, including the following: never underestimate the power of one minute of undivided attention. When a child is acting out, pulling on my shirt, interrupting me, calling to me from the other room, or doing something else to express his or her need for attention, I try to follow my coach’s advice, and when I do, it almost always proves to be effective.

What she said was, kneel down to eye level with the child and look right into their eyes. Adopt a cheerful tone of voice and say, “OK, you have my full attention! What can I do for you?” Stay there for about one minute, then say something positive like, “That is so interesting! Thank you for sharing!” then go back to your tasks. More often than not, that is enough to fill the child’s emotional cup and buy you the time you need to finish cooking dinner/paying bills/doing homework with another child/whatever.

I have had times when one minute did not seem to cut it, so instead of moving on, I say something like this: “I want to give you all of my attention right now, but I need to finish cooking dinner/paying bills/helping brother with his homework. How about if you let me finish this, and when I’m done, I’ll sit down and play with you?” It is so empowering for a child when you give them the opportunity to be part of the decision, knowing that you will be coming back with your full attention soon. I have seen this work beautifully with my four-year-old, as well as with other foster children we have had in our home. (Of course, it only works if you follow through on your word and actually sit down and play with that child when you’re finished with your task!)

But one minute of full attention is not enough in the long run. Another key to this is devoting longer periods of time to each child, one-on-one. Don’t get me wrong: this can be challenging, especially when you have three, four, five or more kids in your home! But I have found that, if you get creative, you can find ways to make it happen—and still get your housework or email done! Some ways I’ve done it include:

  • taking all of the kids to the YMCA and putting all but one in the nursery or kids’ gym, then taking them to the pool one at a time for thirty minutes or so
  • having a sitter come and stay with most of the kids so I can take one out for ice cream or to a playground
  • taking an extra long time with each child at bedtime once a week, snuggling on the couch and reading extra books, extra chapters, or just talking about their day
  • taking one child grocery shopping with me and letting him or her help, according to their abilities
  • taking advantage of nap time to give the non-napping child my full attention (yes, it’s hard to do that when you have a long laundry list of things to do!)

And it’s not just the kids who need our undivided attention—parents need it too! That’s why it’s so important that parents carve out time to be alone together without distractions. My husband and I have found that taking walks, going out to dinner, or just going for a cup of coffee at our favorite coffee shop have been key to staying connected and healthy in our marriage, especially during stressful times of parenting!

These times of undivided attention—whether in one-minute increments, fifteen minutes at bedtime, or thirty minutes in the pool or kicking around a soccer ball—are a vital part of the bonding and attaching process that every child needs in order to feel safe, secure, and emotionally rooted. For a child who has had disrupted attachment or has experienced neglect, these intentional times of connecting are even more integral to your bonding process—and their long-term emotional health.

It might seem impossible to give each of your children some undivided attention—we often feel like there are already not enough hours in the week! But trust me, it’s possible—and it’s pretty life-changing when you take the time to make it happen.

How about you? Are you intentional about spending one-on-one time with each of your kids and your spouse? How do you do it? Have you found it to be effective in maintaining a healthy relationship with everyone?

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