In general, parents want to give good things to their children. They desire to meet the needs of their children. They also want to converse and participate in activities with them. Doing so requires time and attention. All children need a healthy amount of attention, but you may wonder if your child can feel loved even when you choose not to respond to their every request for attention. The answer is yes. Ironically, parenting requires 24/7 responsibility and awareness but not 24/7 personal attention.
There is definitely a place for “not nows” in parenting. This post will focus on older preschoolers through young elementary age. I plan to discuss infants and preteens in the next post. Children are little humans who innately know they need attention and will seek it. However, they may be too immature or selfish to be balanced in their demands or may diligently test the waters of parental response.
What does attention-seeking look like in a young child?
- Becoming louder
- Responding negatively to authority
- Picking on/bossing siblings or other children
- Doing behavior they know is unacceptable
- Asking constant, unnecessary questions
- Needing to tell you something constantly
- Pretending to be sick/afraid/hungry/thirsty, etc.
- Showing off
As parents, try to determine the motive behind the attention seeking.
- Does the child simply need a quick connection such as a quick hug, a moment of your undivided attention, a reassuring word?
- Does the child need to be refueled? Some people refuel by spending time alone. Some refuel by being with others.
- Is the child simply attempting to manipulate, knowing they will get the pay-off they desire. For example, they may wonder if they whine that they are hungry, will the parents finally wear down and give the cookie they want?
- If the attention seeking is new or obviously increased, try to decipher whether the child is struggling with an issue or has had a major change in life. During life transitions or struggles, some children can temporarily become a “leaky cup,” that can seem to never be filled with enough attention. These scenarios may require you to stop what you are doing and give a reassuring, lingering hug or words, but not to the point of manipulation.
When you have to say “not now”
- Know why you need to say not now. ( time is short, more demands at the moment, someone else needs the airtime, you are not in a good frame of mind to respond properly, the child is being selfish, the child is testing limits, the child needs to settle down…)
- Provide an alternative for the attention: “I want to hear what you have to say, watch you, read you a book, etc. and I will when… I get off the phone, have a few minutes of quiet, finish this task, etc.”
- Explain why not if the attention getting is self-centered or manipulative:” I won’t give you another drink, because I know you are stalling to go to sleep or I know you are trying to show-off in front of…”
- Do a self-check. Is your child seeking attention because you have not been intentional to spend time with him, admire her achievements and talents; speak value into them, etc.?
- Have you unintentionally sent signals saying certain things supersede your attention: perhaps the phone, an adult who interrupts, etc. When you anticipate something may interrupt your focus, give your child a heads up. “I’ll color with you, but if the doctor’s office calls, the baby cries, daddy calls, etc. I’ll need to stop for a minute and answer it.” Set a timer if you need to and explain, “Let’s read until the buzzer rings, then I have to start supper.”
To try and ease the disappointment of “not now,” parents can take some simple, proactive steps day to day.
- Point out a child’s value. Value indicates that a child has worth, talents, purpose, and is respected. A child who is valued is more assured that they are secure. Security builds trust.
- Allow children to contribute to the family: household chore, display of talent, help plan a special family activity night, etc.
- Carve out individual time for your children where they have your full attention. (day-to-day or planned times together, etc.)
- Express your love to them in words, appropriate physical touches, and caring actions.
No one knows your children like you do. Parenting requires trying ideas and learning what works for your household. No one knows your child better than God knows them. Ask God for wisdom. As a loving Father, He is bent down ready to listen and hear your heart. Because he bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath! Psalm 116:2 NLT
Do you have thoughts or questions to add to this post? Feel free to comment.
Sources: sueatkinsparentingcoach.com; positiveparentingconnection.net; empoweringparents.com; focusonthefamily.com