In many, if not most, families one child becomes a squeaky wheel. The child insists on being the focus of attention, and ensures his or her position with behavior designed to bring a parent’s attention again and again. The child will employ that behavior, and that tone, whether it’s Monday or Saturday, January or June. The child uses the threat of a disappointment, a fight, a whine, a descent into desperation, or an explosion that, on some days, can be triggered by any tiny thing, including a parent’s warm patience and attention.
Often, by the time parents ask for help, the whole family has pretzeled itself around that child’s behavior, in a fruitless effort to avoid the attention-commanding behavior. Everyone works hard to prevent the next appearance of his or her complaint. These adaptations are actually hard for parents to recognize, as many of them seem quite reasonable, given the circumstances. The child who needs everything to be “just so,” and finds one runny spot in his morning egg is given a second egg, so everyone gets to school on time. The child who demands that her parents not talk to each other, but only to her, or who flares the minute Mommy picks up the baby, is shielded from seeing Mommy pick up the baby with play dates, snacks, or videos. The child who can’t play alone is placated, hour after hour, by a weary parent, who has no energy or stomach for the huge cry that the appearance of a sitter will bring. The upset that the child harbors is always on the launch pad, and because this upset has appeared so often, his parents haven’t the tools or the attention they need to face it head-on. They’ve used all their energy trying to dance carefully around it.
Punishment can intimidate a child into a temporary halt, but it doesn’t actually extinguish the attention-seeking behavior. What is behind this kind of behavior infection, and what is a parent to do?
Your child doesn’t want to be difficult. He doesn’t want to alienate you or others. He’s built to be in close, warm communication. He wants to be cooperative, inventive and tucked in as a happy and important part of the family. But when he has an overwhelming experience, his emotional center sends a strong signal of alarm. His whole being throbs with upset. “I can’t feel you there! I feel afraid! I’m so alone! Help!”
A child who can’t relax without your direct attention has an alarm system that’s gotten stuck in “Danger!” mode. This signal has been coursing through his system for days, months, or years. And it’s very likely that you haven’t had access to the information or the support you need to help him dial down from high alert to a relaxed state again. None of us parents are schooled in understanding and meeting human emotional needs. For the most part, we’ve been trained to view intense emotions as a sign that things are on the wrong track. We’re taught that it’s our job to curtail our child’s feelings as soon as they erupt. The attitude is, “Crying means I have to fix something right now!” But most of the time, this assumption leads a parent to stop the crying, which leaves an emotional upset throbbing, unprocessed, inside the child.
Feelings of need arise so often in the life of an infant! “I need to be fed.” “I need to be held.” “I need to look into your eyes, and see that all is well.” “I need you to hold me while I cry. I was frightened when I woke up and didn’t see you here.” No one or two parents can meet all the emotional needs of one infant. Life is too complex, and the way our lives are structured, parents have too little peace of mind and time to connect with their child as often as he hungers for that connection.
When an infant’s feeling of need is misunderstood, or when a parent is, for any reason at all, unable to meet it, that feeling finds no resolution. It is stored as a memory, a painful one. Afterwards, it may look like nothing happened. For instance, a baby might cry in his crib for five minutes before his daddy hears him and picks him up. He’ll stop crying when Daddy puts him over his shoulder at last. He may even smile soon again, so that it looks like he has forgotten those five minutes of aching vulnerability. But babies remember everything. He perks back up because few hurts have accumulated, and he has lots more hope and eagerness for connection in his capacious good nature.
But one long difficult time, or many smaller moments of unmet need can clutter up a child’s mind with experiences that didn’t sit well. A child will cry out for someone to listen. And parents respond with all the love they can muster: they feed, rock, bounce, walk, pat, sing, distract, or use a pacifier to stop the child from expressing his upsets. But—who knew!—when a child has been through a painful time, what lets him get out of “Alarm!” mode is to have a parent or other kind person listen to his feelings. To have a good cry in the arms of someone who loves him allows the emotional hurt to dissolve. To scream with fear in good and attentive company allows him to communicate, “I feel threatened! I’m sure I’m in danger!” while his mother or father says, verbally and nonverbally, “I’m here. I know I didn’t come in time. I’m here now. You’re safe.” The child offloads his remaining fear or grief. The parent listens and offers lots of safety. When he’s finished crying or screaming, he’s not scared any longer. He has internalized the sense of peace the parent offered. He absorbed it, while he was getting rid of his sense of fear. All is, once again, very well. He’s been helped by the simple act of listening and caring.
A child whose behavior demands constant attention is showing you that frozen feelings of need lie beneath the surface. A child of four, six or twelve does not need your full attention at the drop of a hat all day long. But in infancy, he did. He was frightened when he couldn’t get his needs met. And that feeling persists. That’s what feelings do. They enter a child’s mind during a moment of need, and the feelings of that moment freeze there in an irritating chunk. If not expressed loudly and passionately in the arms of a warm listener, they form a kind of emotional burr, irritating a child’s mind many times a day. He sees his mom or his dad, and that urgent “I need my Mom!” feeling that froze there in infancy kicks into play. And up pops a behavior that doesn’t serve him well. If you don’t cater to that behavior, big feelings will explode. And if you can move close and listen while setting a kind but solid limit, a powerful healing process will begin.
What helps a child whose immediate need has not been met? If a parent will come close, and listen while the child cries hard about how sad and frightening it was, a child can get it off his chest. He cries hard. He sweats or trembles. He may be angry and lash out. The adult offers eye contact, a warm voice and tone, and gentle arms that communicate, “I’m here. I’m sorry that was hard. You can show me how hard that was. I’ll listen.” When a child has worked the whole experience through, he relaxes. He can notice the closeness that his parent offers. He can absorb love again. And his behavior transforms from difficult to open; from provocative to cooperative. If the hurt he’s working on is a big one, you’ll see small but significant changes. Many more hearty cries will be needed to relieve the attention-seeking behavior entirely.
So your first strategy in lifting persistent behavior difficulties is to listen to big feelings. To go with the child’s instinct to have a big emotional episode. To welcome the crying, the struggling, the writhing, the deep trembling and emotion that will pour out for a long time, once you are brave enough to anchor your child through it all.
There’s more about what we call Staylistening, and three other Listening Tools that relieve children’s emotional backlog so they can recover their innate sweetness in our booklets, Parenting by Connection, formerly called Listening to Children.
• Arrange listening time for yourself.
You’ll need to prepare yourself for what we call an “emotional project” to rescue your child from attention-monopolizing behaviors. Because this kind of difficulty has its roots in very early childhood, when your child was quite vulnerable, it’s not going to shift in a week or two, easy-peasy. And the first strategy is the most important: get some listening help, for now and for weeks to come.
Listening Partnerships are our tool for lowering the fight-or-flight reactions and “What is the matter with this darn kid!” attitudes that settle in on us when we have a child that insists on constant attention. You can’t actually help your child get to a new understanding of the safety of his world if your emotions are on a hair trigger. A Listening Partnership is an exchange of listening time, designed to allow a parent to say all the things that run around in our minds, and show the feelings that are too hot and too searing to be healthy for our children to see. It’s a place to talk about what’s great about your child, and what you just can’t stand right now. We have a booklet, Listening Partnerships for Parents, that outlines how to set this up for yourself. You’ll be glad you did. And progress with your child will begin to accelerate, once someone is regularly listening to you.
• Set up Special Time with your attention-hungry child, and siblings too.
Often, parents with an attention-hungry child feel like they’re always giving their child Special Time. But Special Time comes with boundaries—it’s only a certain number of minutes, and only when the parent wants to give it. It has a beginning and an end. And these boundaries are very helpful, especially for children who crave attention. They get the attention they crave, and get to be in charge of their relationship with their parent, but then the Special Time ends, and the child can feel the attention going elsewhere—to another child, to the cooking or other household tasks. And when a child has had the attention he craves, and has his sense of safety bolstered by the parent’s willing attention, he can feel the absence of attention at the end of Special Time. He can find a way to get upset. He can beg to play just two more rolls of the dice in the board game, or to have you stay 5 more minutes to see his next Lego creation. And you can say, gently and warmly, “No. We’ll do more Special Time tomorrow.” And the feelings of need that drive him so much of the time can surface, while the two of you are close, and connected. This is the ideal time to work on feelings of need. Needs have been filled. Closeness has been created.
Sometimes, in families with two parents and two or more children, parents can set up Special Time so that each parent takes one child for Special Time at the same time. Then, if the feelings of need are focused on one parent, but not the other, the night that the child wants the other parent to be with him, he can have a chance to cry about not being with the parent he craves. A really good cry hung on this little pretext will go a long way to helping a child work through early hurt. The parent who is not wanted needs to stay close, and keep expressing his or her caring, and his or her willingness to offer good time together, while the child keeps feeling like he hasn’t got what he needs. I’ve seen relationships turn entirely around after an hour of this kind of cry, when the rejected parent can stay warm and willing.
If there are more than two children, one parent can be the Special Time parent, and the other plays with the rest, so that there’s a round-robin arrangement to deliver Special Time to all the children, one at a time on the same evening, or one evening at a time, during the week. Again, parents need to be ready for emotional fireworks at the end of Special Time—nothing makes it safer to work on feelings of need like getting your needs met warmly, with 100% of a parent’s attention, even if it’s just for ten minutes!
• Set limits, early and often.
Often, children who feel starved for attention are helped immensely by a policy of 100% yes, warm and loving when you are set up to say yes, and 100% no, warm and loving, when you need to say no.
So when your child asks for a backrub, and you have the time and generosity of heart, give that backrub. Give all of you along with it. When you can’t really say yes, say no, and stick to it. Not in a mean way, not in a distant way. Say no, and offer your warmth, so that your child can become very fully upset, and get those troublesome feelings out at last. You will be told that you’re the worst parent in the world. Take your feelings about that to your Listening Partner, so you can withstand the emotional heat your child needs to unleash in order to heal from that debilitating set of feelings.
Sometimes, when a child is making a bee-line for your lap, or to grab your attention in some other way, simply reaching out your arm and placing your hand on your child’s head or chest, so he can’t get closer to you than arm’s length, can work. You offer warmth, you offer eye contact, but you keep your child from reaching the feeling of safety they crave. At a short distance, in the safety of your warmth and understanding, a child can begin a very good and healing cry. He’s close, but his feelings of need aren’t numbed out by getting all the closeness he wants. He’s got your attention, and he’s got you very near, but in a position where he can feel and shed the feeling that nothing is right, he doesn’t have enough. In truth, you are enough, even at arm’s length. Your attention is 100%. The feelings that release are from times long gone, and he’ll be much more relaxed for shedding them.
Don’t wait till you’re fed up or feel manipulated to say no. Bring a limit when you see the slightest hint of a frantic grab for attention. Offer daily Special Time, so you are connecting proactively with your child. And, secure in the knowledge that he does have all your attention at least once a day, bring the limit, and listen to him. Let him set off those emotional rockets at last!
A good no is worth ten hours of trying to keep the peace! Say “no” warmly, but say it. Then Staylisten, or perhaps Playlisten. Here’s more about that strategy!
• Offer playful connection. Spark laughter in Playlistening.
Children who tend to monopolize attention are often unable to feel your presence through words. Their slightly-frightened-all-the-time system can’t process the words you say, or even make full use of the attention you do give them. Your attention doesn’t touch that part of them that is locked in the feeling of need. So when they begin to whine or wheedle or beg for “just one more” of something, don’t say a thing. Just throw your arms wide and grab them in a big affectionate tackle. You want to be big mamma bear or big papa bear, nuzzling in on that pesky little baby bear, just for a moment. “Play dolls with me, come on!” can be answered by throwing your child over your shoulders and marching around the living room, chanting to an invisible audience, “Ramona wants to play dolls! Ramona wants to play dolls!” with good cheer. It may help laughter break through, and when a child is laughing (not from being tickled, but from playful connection), connection is seeping into those locked-in-the-feeling-of-need places. Then put her down and tell her warmly that you’re going to finish what she interrupted.
When you respond with what we call The Vigorous Snuggle, you’re not trying to fill that bottomless pit of craving. You’re connecting, working for some laughter, and offering physical closeness, which is deeply reassuring to a frightened child. Your playful side-step away from doing what she says she wants, to playful contact with her, will reassure her, better than anything else, that you care.
Then, after you’ve connected, add your, “OK, Little Bear. I want to get back to visiting with Uncle Jimmy.” And because you’ve connected, he has a better chance of bursting into the big cry he needs to offload another frozen hunk of the feelings that so often drive his behavior. You won’t be able to continue your conversation, which is frustrating, I know. But the use of Listening Tools here—the playful outreach, then the limit, then the Staylistening—are an investment in him. You work with him now on his feelings (and, in Listening Partnerships, on yours, so that in 6 months, he’s not enslaved by them every time your attention turns to another person or task.
(You can’t always hit the right tone as you attempt to be playful. And your child isn’t always open to this kind of response. If your child is upset by your playful initiative, stop, and Staylisten. Let her know that you’re not going to do the thing she craves, then allow her time and space, without you saying much more, to work herself into a good cry. Keep listening. Hold out the idea, now and then, that she can have a good day without you playing with her right this minute. She’ll cry harder at that thought until her upset clears. Then, with a sense of connection between you renewed by your generous listening, play without your direct attention will be much more possible.)
A great Playlistening game for parents of an attention-hungry child is, “I Want Her!” You snuggle with the child, and your partner or a good friend or trusted relative tries to pull the child toward him. You say, “Hey, I get her! I want her. You can’t have her—she’s mine, all mine!” and the other loved one vies for her, and finally gets her, then the game continues. It’s a great game for children who just can’t feel satisfied by attention under ordinary circumstances.
Another is, “Be My Sweet Baby!” Unexpectedly scoop your child up, cradle her in your arms, and coo over her eyelashes, her eyebrows, her sweet ears…enjoy her like you did when she was two months old. Don’t pretend. Try to really see what a lovely child you have there! If she struggles to get away, give chase! Watch for what lets her laugh—laughter is a big antidote to the isolation that attention-hungry children experience.
You’ll need to pursue these strategies, in concert, for a while. Every time you wear down and feel like, “This is so much work!” it’s time for your Listening Partnership—your haven where you can let someone know what a courageous and determined parent you are, and what it’s like to spend so much effort to rescue your child from her defended little fortress. Your efforts will set your child up for a much more deeply satisfying life ahead, and more peace at home for everyone in your family.
• Be on the lookout for separation-related emotional moments.
Often, children who have feelings of incessant need have big fears of separation from one parent or another at the root of those feelings. So try paying special attention to what happens when the “more desired” parent proposes to leave, or when your child is leaving for childcare, school, or the home of a sitter or relative. Often, children tighten up to get through the separation one way or another, but they aren’t happy. They can’t relax in the presence of others. They isolate themselves, or become picky, or aggressive, or whiny.
If you suspect that your child has unresolved separation issues, then pour in some special attention before each separation. Begin preparing for the biggest separation of the day or week by clearing some additional time to connect before it takes place. Try Special Time for 10 or 15 minutes of that time. Build that connection. Then, let your child know that it’s time to go, but be relaxed, don’t rush, be affectionate. Take her to the place of parting, or let the sitter arrive, and then stay with the sitter and your child for an additional several minutes, just playing and paying attention.
Then say goodbye, and see if your child begins to have feelings or become frantic for contact with you. Set a few limits, little ones—“OK, sweetie. Sit in my lap for one more minute, but I’m not going to let you hang onto my neck. It’s too tight for me.” Those minor limits—saying Yes to most of what your child craves, but No to one small part of their desperate desire—will trigger big feelings when it feels safe enough.
Do what you can to take the time to listen fully before you really must go. (This can mean setting up a separation as much as an hour in advance of when you really must leave.) Things are going in a deeply healing direction when your child becomes absolutely frantic with fear about the proposed separation. Listen, anchor her, and let her feelings pour out until she finally feels safe again. Here’s a podcast about handling this kind of healing opportunity, and more about handling Separation Anxiety in an article. And here’s another article about the kinds of reassurances that are useful during Staylistening.
Frozen feelings of need take time to dispel, but Listening Tools, and plenty of good emotional support for you in the process, can move things forward over time. Your child wants to be confident in the world, with and without you present. Playlistening, Special Time, Setting Limits, and Staylistening with your child, and the regular emotional support you can get with Listening Partnerships, will build her confidence, and your own.
Connecting daily in Special Time gives you time to tune into the challenges on your child's mind and gives your child time to work through their fears using the best tool they have, with play and your good attention.
Get a free guide to Special Time.
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