Dear Cathi: When You Only Have 20 Minutes

Sometimes when I get into the car in the morning to leave for work, after wrestling all my bags into the seat, putting on my seatbelt, turning on the car, and checking to be sure I have my phone, I have to stop and take a deep breath. By 8:00am when I head off to work, it feels like a whole day has already taken place. The pace of getting myself, my kids, and my dogs all ready to go, is frenetic. I actually picture that old army slogan, “ We do more before 9am than most people do all day”-only its 8am! And there is the whole rest of the day to go.

With all this hustle and bustle, it can be hard to carve out time to be in the moment with my children. I know there is a lot disdain for the words, quality time, but I understand the sentiment. The hardest part is that when I am spending time with them, I am rarely fully present. What I mean is, my body is there and words are coming out of my mouth, but I am mentally making the grocery list, thinking about what I have to tell them about who is picking them up from school, whether they have done their laundry and so on. I hate to admit it, but sometimes as we’re playing, I am thinking about how I’m going to get them to help me clean up the toys when we are done.

That is not a good feeling and I’m pretty confident the kids can tell that I’m tuned out. Actually, that’s not a guess, they ask me questions and when I need them to repeat what they’re saying, my cover is blown. I can’t add more hours to the day, so I need the time I do have with them to be really focused and only about our relationship and the activities we are engaging in together. For me, it’s not a reality to plan out weeklong spring break day trips or full weekend baking projects. I need ways to connect with them when I see them after school and before practice, or in the morning when we are all getting ready for the day. I want to have little moments with them that foster this connection between us.

So what can I do when I only have 20 minutes?

Sara A.

Thanks so much for your honesty about this. I think as parents we are sometimes reluctant to admit that this is the toughest job out there! Whether you stay at home with your children or work out of the house, being really tuned into your kids is a challenge. It means setting aside all the lists and worries about getting everything done and just being with them. You may be surprised. But a lot of connecting can happen in 20 minutes.

Try these five simple ways of enjoying the time you do have together:

1. Let Your Child Mentor You

It sometimes can be difficult for parents to go with the flow of their children, especially when their children have interests that are very different from their own. Many parents, for example, have neither the interest nor the know-how to join their child in video game playing or on social media. But children love being the experts and, given the opportunity, will happily walk you through their “thing”. In this way, you are boosting their self-esteem while you are bonding over what they love to do.

2. Get Physical

Sitting on the couch and checking your email while giving out directions for putting away shoes is not fun for anyone. Sometimes getting up and being active together for just a few minutes can help burn off some stress and give you some quality time together. You don’t have to carve out a training run for a half marathon. Try walking the dog, shooting baskets with the hoop that stands idle most of the time, or drawing with chalk on the street. You can wash the car or set up an obstacle course in your basement. It’s amazing what your child will talk about while they are engaged in another activity.

3. Car Time

If you think about how much time you spend in the car going from one thing to the next, it can add up to hours over the course of the week. While there is the necessary stuff like reminders about water bottles and questions about pick-up times, there can also be singing, telling stories about when you were little, and, Erika Carlson, LCSW’s favorite, shouting out shapes you see in the clouds. Even your teen – who may be done listening to your stories or looking with you at shapes in the clouds – will like picking the playlist. Validating a teen’s choices in music and then actually listening with them is a path to connection with them.

4. Deep Couch Sitting

This is one of my favorites. While it might not be possible to wrangle a teen onto the couch with you, you never know until you try. Of course, it might take a few tries to convince them that you aren’t going to ambush them with a question about their English essay. Try saying, “I feel like all we do is rush around and I would love to just sit with you and relax for a bit.” Not having an agenda will take some practice for both of you, but this physical and emotional connection time is so important for kids (and parents) of all ages.

5. Feeling Flow

Have you noticed that there are times of the day that seem more chaotic? For instance, before and after school can be challenging for a lot of families. There’s the rush to get out the door in the morning. And, in the afternoon, there is the fatigue and weight of the day’s events. Even though it seems counterintuitive to carve out time during those hurried moments, there is great opportunity connect within them. For example, when your child has something on their mind that happened at school, give them the space to express their feelings with you as a neutral listener. Supporting them without making suggestions empowers them and gives them the sense that you trust their judgment. This opens up the door to other conversations and on you go.