What to do when your child ‘just’ wants your attention

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We recently got back from a three week trip to the UK. Lots of travelling, and stressful at times, even if it was fun.

One morning, I started tidying up the house, as a friend was coming over. My two year old daughter immediately started ‘untidying,’ pulling books off the shelves and putting them on the sofa, and putting pillows in the kitchen. Suddenly all sorts of random objects appeared in random places, and all my time was taken up, rectifying the mess she was making! I felt frustrated, and only hoped my friend would forgive me for the state of my house!

This behaviour was certainly ‘attention-seeking’, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t for a good reason. I’d noticed in the evenings she’d take ages to fall asleep, sucking her fingers — a sure sign she was feeling tense. I suspected that the stress of the holiday was coming out in her behaviour. Making a mess became the theme of the next few days. She would pull all her alphabet letters off the fridge, and throw clothes onto the floor.

One mainstream response to ”attention seeking behaviour” is to ignore the bad and praise the good. But this doesn’t address the underlying upset feelings that are always beneath our child’s off-track behaviour. So these feelings are going to come up again at some point, possibly in worse behaviour, or our child will feel withdrawn and distance from us, angry, and hurt.

Attention is a biological need, the same as eating and drinking, and it literally builds a child’s brain, to have adults connecting with them. Contrary to popular opinion, children only ask for the attention they need, even if they ask for it in infuriating ways.

I responded by playing the role of the exasperated parent but in a very playful way. I’d exclaim”oh no, what are all these letters doing on the floor!!”, making sure she knew that I was turning it into a game, and not really annoyed. Then I’d pick all the letters back up and invite her to make mess again. Soon she was running around pulling books off the shelves, clothes out of my drawers, all the while giggling hysterically as I fumbled around making failed attempts to get her to stop.

Then when I sensed that my patience was beginning to wear thin, and the mess was starting to overwhelm me, I gently set a limit, and said it was time to stop playing. I asked my daughter to help clean up a bit, and she happily put books back on the shelf with me.

After a few evenings of playing this game, my daughter was back to her normal self, respecting our living environment and not making a mess just for the sake of it. She was always happy to help me clean up.

It might sound crazy to allow our children to do something ‘naughty,’ but this kind of ‘sanctioned disobedience,’ gets feelings out of their system, so it doesn’t result in larger off-track behaviours later on. If we can relax our limit of what is acceptable and have some fun, our children do understand it’s just a game. And afterwards, they’ll be more likely to co-operate with us, because they are no longer full of the upset feelings that were driving their misbehaviour. And they’ll be less attention-seeking because we’ve actually given them the attention they were asking for.

If you don’t want your child bashing up your favourite paperbacks, or messing up your clean laundry, then you can create a harmless scenario, and invite them to make a mess. You could put a stack of scrap paper on the table and say, ”I hope you don’t mess up my important paperwork!” in an inviting tone, or create a drawer of old junk, and say to yourself, ”I hope you don’t empty that drawer!”

Understanding the benefits can help us let go of those old ideas about behaviour being ‘just attention seeking,’ as can seeing the result of having a more co-operative child afterwards. Have fun, and monitor your own feelings, so you can end the game while you still have some patience left. Listening time helps too!

Listening to Our Children’s Pretexts

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Having an intellectual understanding of the healing power of tears, didn’t help me that much when it came to listening to a real live baby! Well it did, but it took me a long time to untangle my natural instincts as a parent, from my drive to stop my daughter from crying, even when she had no particular need.

As a new mum it was such a steep learning curve to figure out what my daughter wanted, that for most of the time, I seemed to forget what I had read about how some times babies cry for what seems like no apparent reason, simply to heal.

I think this is such an important distinction to make. Our strong urge to stop our children from crying when they don’t have a need, isn’t actually our natural instinct, even though it sometimes feels that way. It’s the history of our own childhood talking, when our parents couldn’t always tolerate our tears. We might have been told, ‘there’s no use crying over spilt milk’ or ‘don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about,’ and so this compulsion to stop our children from crying happens automatically, unless we have paid some attention to it, and become aware of what we were doing.

I’m not sure I could have managed that big job of untangling my childhood history, and discovered the inner awareness I needed to really listen to my daughter, if it wasn’t for Hand in Hand parenting. The articles I read, and the support I got from my Building Emotional Understanding Course, helped me dissolve the confusion in my head, about what she was trying to say without words. I finally had the confidence to trust my intuition. And I also got some really useful information, that helped me see things in a completely different light.

One sentence from an article by Patty Wipfler jumped out on me, ‘Children pick lots of pretexts to help them release pent-up feelings. They will cry about a shirt being pulled over their heads, about having a shampoo, about you moving six steps away to do the dishes….”

My daughter always hated me putting a top over her head. I would rush through the process to get it over as quickly as possible, and then get in a panic when it got stuck and the ordeal would last longer. I always felt guilty that it was as if I was doing something without her permission, something I had to do, but that she hated. I started to dread the moment when I’d have to get her dressed, and these moments became full of feeling for both of us.

The sentence about pretexts drew my attention to something I’d never considered before. That this was a small moment that had a lot of feelings for her, and if I could help her release her feelings, she wouldn’t be so bothered about it anymore. So next time, I decided to listen. I didn’t rush to put the top on, I showed her the top and told her what we were going to do. She cried for a while, much longer than that split second cry, before I yanked the top over her head and interrupted her feelings. This time, when she stopped crying, I would gently show her the top again, and tell her I needed to put it on. She’d start crying again.  Now I was fully giving her the chance to express whatever fear or upset was being triggered by the top, and when she’d completely finished crying, I put the top over her head, slowly and she was completely relaxed and at ease.

After that she never felt upset when I dressed her, and most importantly getting dressed was no longer something I forced her to do, but something we could do together. It was amazing to see, that suddenly beneath all these feelings, she was completely happy to co-operate with me when upset wasn’t clouding her view.

t never found out what was it that bothered her about having something pulled over her head, though I suspected it had something to do with trauma from her birth. When she’d first been born her head was incredibly sensitive after being born by vacuum extraction.  She hated wearing hats, or having her head touched. I’d felt guilty that I hadn’t had a natural birth, but I learnt an important lesson in acceptance, that there may be many aspects of our children’s lives that we can’t control but we can always help them to heal.

After this incident, I realised that there were all sorts of little pretexts, moments when my daughter got upset, that I could help her heal from. I didn’t have to force her to clean her teeth, or change her nappy. That these moments didn’t have to be unpleasant experiences. That if I listened long enough, she could tell me about whatever big feelings got stuck onto these small everyday events. She could get comfortable in her own skin, experience the sensations of being in the world, and we could take our time together. Investing this time is absolutely priceless, because then feelings don’t come every single time, over lots of little pretexts. There are less little edgy moments in the day for both you and your child. There isn’t so much to be fearful of in the world when feelings have been released. Are there areas of your child’s life where they have big feelings about a small pretext? They can be good places to start listening.