If you are like most parents, there are plenty of days when you have spent more time correcting your child or telling them “no” than having any other interaction. It can be exhausting and demoralizing for both you and your child, and while there is no “easy fix,” there are things you can do to make it better and improve your relationship.

Research shows that in relationships (including romantic ones, so you might want to consider this with a spouse/partner too!), a key component to happiness is not simply having fewer negative interactions, but rather a ratio of negative to positive interactions. In other words, as long as you have more positive interactions balancing out the negative ones, you can more easily maintain a happy, healthy relationship. For me, this takes off some of the pressure when I am having the inevitable string of “no, stop…” conversations with my kids.

One way to shift the balance towards the positive is setting aside 10-15 minutes a day (as often as possible during the week) for “special time” with your child. This time is meant to be a time just to be together, doing child-led activities.

Rules of special time

“Do” Skills (PRIDE)

  • Giving specific praises to your child during this time lets them know that you appreciate their positive behaviors and that you are paying close attention to their actions. (Example. “I love the way you are playing gently with your toys.”)
  • Repeating the phrases your child says lets them know you are listening to them. (Example. If your child says “The dinosaur is playing with the lion,” repeat this phrase with enthusiasm.)
  • Imitating your child’s nonverbal actions also communicates that you are paying attention to them and that the spotlight is on them during play. (Example. If your child begins to stack blocks, you might stack your own blocks as well).
  • Describing in detail the things you notice your child doing also lets them know you are paying attention. We often describe this as being a “sportscaster.” (Example. “Oh, I see you are putting the green block on top of the red block and you are making a tower. Now you are looking for another block to go on top of that.”)
  • Using enthusiasm lets your child know that you are excited to be spending time with them. (Example. “Wow! You are drawing such a wonderful picture of our family! I am so happy to be drawing with you!”)

“Don’t” Skills

  • Avoid giving commands during this special time. This includes such statements as “Try using that color in your picture” or “Hand me that block.”
  • Avoid asking questions. Questions communicate that you are expecting an answer.
  • Avoid criticizing your child’s behavior. This includes such statements as “No, the piece goes into the puzzle like this.”

During this time, try to ignore mildly annoying or inappropriate behavior. Stop the play for any dangerous or destructive behavior and tell your child they will get to play again tomorrow.

I have seen again and again with my patients and with my own kids that brief special time throughout the week can make a big difference in helping improve the parent-child relationship. If you have more than one child, having one-on-one time with a parent can be a wonderful way to connect on an individual level as well.

*A thank you to Abigail Mintz Romirowsky, PhD, and Randi Streisand, PhD, for the excerpt from our parent handout, Child-Directed Interaction. Play to Improve the Parent-Child Relationship.


Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.

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