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The Most Important 10 Minutes of a Child’s Day

Patient listening may not get its due in current parenting advice. But giving children a daily opportunity to talk about anger and anxiety can help them improve emotion regulation, and transform family life. Following National Children’s Day yesterday, child therapist and Clinical Professor of Psychology Kenneth Barish explains why setting aside just 10 minutes a day may be the most important change parents who are clients can make.

 

In the years since I began my work as a child therapist (circa 1980), the practice of child psychotherapy has been gradually, but radically, transformed. Beginning child therapists now have many more ways to help troubled children and families – more ways to nurture children’s emotional health and solve the varied problems for which parents ask our help.

For many families, vicious cycles of criticism and defiance have come to dominate family life. Over time, feelings of discouragement, resentment, and aloneness increasingly become part of a child’s inner world, and the encouraging inner voice all children need to bounce back from frustration and disappointment is eroded.

In our work as child therapists, we need to help families change these pathogenic interactions and repair the emotional injuries that occur both in families and in children’s everyday lives. Repair is a fundamental principle of strengthening family relationships. When parents remain angry and critical, all other therapeutic efforts are likely to fail.

To help accomplish this goal, I recommend that parents set aside some time, every day (perhaps 10 minutes at bedtime), to talk with their children. This may be the most important 10 minutes of a child’s day.

In these brief daily conversations, parents should offer children the opportunity to talk about whatever they were angry or upset about during the day (or what they may be anxious about the following day), perhaps a conflict with her friends, a feeling of being left out, or that her parents or teachers are ‘unfair’. When a child has nothing to talk about, parents can use this opportunity for personal sharing, to talk about the events of their day, perhaps a moment of frustration or a moment of humor. Children look forward to these moments, just as they do opportunities to play. Often, when parents set aside this time to listen and talk with their children, they report immediate improvement in a child’s mood and behavior.

These are also times when parents should take the initiative and begin to repair moments of anger and misunderstanding. A parent can say, for example, “I was very angry at you today when… and I was right to be angry, because you should not have… But I want to apologise, because I got too angry.”

Children learn invaluable lessons from moments of repair. They learn that, although it is not always easy, moments of anger and disappointment are moments and can be repaired.

Disappointments, in themselves and in others, are part of life, and feelings of anger and unfairness do not last forever.

In this way, we have strengthened children’s inner resources and opened a pathway toward emotional maturity. In these moments, children begin to develop a more balanced, less all-or-nothing perspective on the disappointments and frustrations in their lives. Every moment of repair is therefore also a moment of improved emotion regulation. Because children now feel heard and understood, they will be less urgent in their expressions of distress, less insistent in their demands, and better able to think constructively about how to solve emotional problems.

Patient listening receives less attention than it deserves in the advice currently offered to parents, as we focus, instead, on helping children develop better problem solving skills or on behavioral methods to reduce oppositional and defiant behavior. In my experience, however, moments of repair (followed by problem solving) are an essential aspect of the therapeutic process for many families, helping to restore the affirming parent-child interactions that are vital to children’s emotional health.

How to Be a Better Child Therapist: An Integrative Model for Therapeutic Change, by Kenneth Barish, is published by W. W. Norton

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Ken Barish

Kenneth Barish, Ph.D. is Clinical Professor of Psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College. He is the author of How to Be a Better Child Therapist: An Integrative Model for Therapeutic Change (W.W. Norton, 2018) and Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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