A Child’s Cry For Attention

Hi, Janet, a friend turned me on to your blog.

I am the mother of 3 children — a son, Trevor, who will be 4 in March, and twin nearly-10-month old daughters Kiley and Morgan. Trevor has had quite a year. From Jan-April 2010, I was on hospital bed rest after Kiley’s water broke at 22 weeks. I came home in late April, and Kiley and Morgan came home in mid-May. Then, in August, we started Trevor at a new preschool. He has not adjusted well, and he’s a bit out of control. Some days are great, and he’s the caring, sweet, loving, sensitive boy I know. Other days are awful from the moment he wakes up until the moment he finally goes to bed. He won’t listen, he’ll ignore you completely, he’ll act out some more– he seems to be going for the negative attention. I can’t blame him — his sisters are a LOT of work, and since I work part-time and my husband works full-time, the times he’s home are hectic. I can’t give him all he needs, so he acts this way. He’s also acting out at preschool, which I have a sinking feeling about — I don’t think it’s the right place for him (too structured, too academic), but I don’t know if we have many alternatives at this point. But at school, he refuses to color, or cut, or do whatever, and he cries, screams, and is generally disruptive. He seems to have a lot of anger; also, I’m sure, stemming from being the big brother of twin girls and harried parents.

I’m heartbroken — I feel like we’re losing him, like he’s going to grow up feeling unloved, angry, and unwanted.

Do you have any strategies for how we might break through, to get our boy back? We’re just at our wit’s end and have scheduled time with a psychotherapist to help too.

Thanks in advance,                                                                                                                                                                               Alison  

          Hi Alison,

I understand your deep concern, and I hope I can ease your mind by assuring you that your boy is not lost or changed forever!  It sounds like he’s hurting and confused, but I believe that you and your husband can definitely help ease this situation, especially since you seem to understand him so well. I had an experience along these lines with one of my children and certainly remember the heartbreak (and wrote about it in The Easily Forgotten Gift.)

I have some thoughts to share based on the few details you’ve given me (please excuse me if I suggest things you are already doing!).

My sense is that Trevor in having difficulties for two main reasons…

1) He is still struggling to process his feelings surrounding the stressful events of the last year. The three you mention are biggies: the separation from you in the hospital; the birth of his sisters and the way that has shifted his relationship with you and your husband; and beginning preschool.

2) He isn’t getting enough of the one-on-one attention he needs. This isn’t about quantity as much as it’s about regularity, setting aside a few minutes together each day, preferably at a similar time, with you or your husband (or both), time alone with you that he can always count on and look forward to. It can be while the babies are napping, asleep in the evening, or when there is another person there to care for them.

Confusing, conflicting, unexpressed feelings

Whenever you can, encourage Trevor to share any feelings about recent events he might be repressing, unsure or confused about. If you’ve done this already, do it some more. It’s hard even as adults to sort through feelings, recognize and come to terms with them. Imagine how difficult it must be for toddlers to understand their emotions when they have no past experience, no reference for them?

Ask Trevor how he felt when you were in the hospital, totally unavailable to him. Acknowledge how difficult that must have been, how much he must have missed you.  With a totally nonjudgmental attitude, welcome him to express any anger or rage, sadness, fear, anything.  Be calm and empathetic like a therapist. Don’t pity him, and try not to project any of your own feelings (guilt, regret, etc.).  It will probably be hard to get him to connect with his feelings and even harder to talk about them. That’s okay. The fact that you are encouraging him, assuring him that it is more than okay for him to feel any of his “bad” feelings, and that they aren’t bad at all, will bring him comfort.

Likewise, help Trevor unload any grief, anger and resentment about the big change in his life when the twins came and he suddenly had to share his mom and dad with not just one, but two adorable, needy babies. On top of everything else, children in this situation commonly feel guilty for having negative thoughts and feelings when the general attitude of everyone around them is “aren’t you excited to be a big brother, and don’t you just love your precious baby sisters?” Toddlers often experience the birth of a sibling as a loss. It alters their position in the family and, they fear, in their parent’s hearts, too.

Help Trevor to explore his feelings about preschool also. Like having a new sibling, this is a situation that is “supposed” to be positive, but has downsides that Trevor needs acknowledged. He’s away from the comfort of home and family, dealing with lots of stimulation, new rules and expectations.

It’s counterintuitive for most of us to acknowledge negatives with our children. We are afraid that bringing them out into the open will make everything worse. Surprisingly, it usually has the opposite effect. Opening the door for our child to vent the “dark” feelings about a situation helps to ease them and allow them to pass, making it easier to see the bright side. Children feel relieved, understood, deeply loved.

“I hear you. You don’t want to go to school today. You don’t like the teacher, and you hate coloring and cutting. I understand. That’s a bummer, and it’s perfectly okay to feel that way, but today you must go. I’ll be back soon to pick you up.”

Paying attention

Setting aside 20 to 30 minutes a day to give Trevor your undivided attention will mitigate his urge to seek negative attention.

When you or your husband are giving Trevor his time alone with you, allow it to be whatever it is, whatever he wants or needs it be. Follow his lead. It might be a time for him to release negative feelings, complain and cry, play with toys while you watch him, or a jolly, cozy time together. He might need to act out or test you and be assured that you will calmly set the usual limits. Try not to have expectations.

It would be wonderful if you could arrange to have a regular outing with Trevor one afternoon or morning a week to a place of his choice (within reason). A special weekly outing together was hugely beneficial for my relationship with each of my daughters after a new sibling was born. I still make a point to set aside alone time with each of my 3 children, even if it’s just reading a book before bed, though not as regularly now that they’re older. I have some very precious memories of those times together.

Play therapy

Self-directed play either alone or with peers is highly therapeutic — helps children to process their feelings and release stress. I would love to see Trevor have loads of opportunities for free play every day. From your description, it doesn’t sound like his school is providing enough of this for him. (I’m not a fan of academic instruction in preschool, and explain why in 4 Reasons To Ditch Academic Preschools.)

If there is any possibility of switching to a more play-based school, or even keeping him home during this “crisis” period, I would consider it. Either way, give him plenty of time for unstructured, independent play when he’s home. And know that even the best schools are a little stressful. Children often come home from a wonderful day at school exhausted and grumpy and take it out on us, the people they feel safest with.

Trevor is blessed to have such sensitive compassionate parents. I hope some of this helps! And I hope you’ll stay in touch.

Warmly,                                                                                                                                                                                               Janet

(Photo by haley8 on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Hi Alison, I just wanted to offer a word of encouragement. I am a nanny that works specifically with families that have multiples. One family I know has similar spacing of their children and have gone through much of what you mentioned. I’ve have been with them for a year, but they have told me about how it used to be, right after their twins were born and how hard it was for their three-year old son to adjust. They told me about the tantrums and their personal feelings of helplessness. He is five now, and every weekend when I am with them, I notice his increased ability to show his love towards his twin siblings. He rarely has any upset that are not calmed by a quick conversation that recognizes his feeling and finds a compromising solution. I’m not saying that he just grew out of it, it took a lot of consistent reassurance of how important and special he was. As a mom you will always be there showing him how much you love him. This unconditional love conquers all! : )

    1. Thank you for sharing your insights and offering such wonderful support to Alison!

  2. Great conversation. Wise words about helping our children feel heard and putting strategies in place to build the parent-child relationship. I think we are lucky when we get opportunities for one-on-one time with our children. Doing this when they are young, and keeping it in place throughout, really sets the foundation for them to talk to us when they are teen. As hard as it is, sometimes the difficult times are the ones that bring us closer as a family.

    1. Shelly, I have 2 teenagers now and I have found this to be so true: “As hard as it is, sometimes the difficult times are the ones that bring us closer as a family.” Thanks for the lovely comment.

  3. Thank you all so much! Some of this I’m doing, but I’m not connecting with him, not taking the time to connect with him, so I’m going to take your advice above and give him my all a bit more. I’ll report back!

  4. What a wonderful, compassionate, and helpful response for your reader Janet.

    I remember vividly how my once sweet, lovable boy started acting out once Little Sister was born. At first, it was so hard fo me to notice. I was exhausted and honestly did not have time for his tantrums. Until, one day it hit me…he was grieving…the loss of our previous one on one relationship.

    I finally understood because I was feeling it too. One day in the midst of one of his breakdowns, I just stopped everything. Put the baby down. I went to him, I held him and I cried with him. I told him it must be hard to have a new baby and the baby is a lot of work and that I missed him. I tried giving voice to his feelings and from that day forward it really seemed to work. He felt understood and like you said, I made sure to set aside time just for him every day.

    Janet, everything you said to this mom is absolutely true and I believe you have helped her greatly. I wish her the best with her son. It really does sound like a cry for attention.

    1. Melissa, thank you for sharing this touching and beautiful story. I wish you could be my children’s pediatrician! You blow me away!

  5. MamaOnDaGo says:

    I can only imagine the pain and frustration you’re going through. I wish Trevor and the rest of the family all the best.

  6. I hope this transition gets easier for all of you soon. I’m at a similar stage; my son is almost three-and-a-half and my daughter is 11 weeks old. We had many rough moments throughout the pregnancy and I sought advice the same way you have -from Janet!
    B wasn’t listening, was becoming shy and withdrawn and didn’t want to go to daycare. I was scared for him, that all the changes we were about to face would be too much.
    We’ve had a few struggles since the baby arrived, testing me, pushing boundaries, checking his limits, etc. We’ve tried many of the things suggested here. It’s only a few months in but B is getting back to his chatty, playful, confident self.
    Sorry for going on so long, I guess I just wanted to say that I’ve been there and wish you the best!

  7. Janet’s advice is excellent. 1) you will not lose him. However imperfectly it will work out. Get rid of the emergency feeling. Also get rid of the guilt, etc., that you caused it, because your feelings will get in the way of your best move, which is to use all this time to get him to talk about his feelings–you will be increasing his emotional intelligence (rather than trying to rescue him).
    So “Ask him what so mad about & keep listening & repeating back what he is saying until “Now is there anything else?” gets “No.” Keep at it until it he has not more to tell you. Then if there is anything that needs to be said, you will say the right thing.
    Finally, be open to the fact that this might not be a good school for him. Your instincts seem to be right about a lot of things. I would include the school. When he tells you how bad it is, and you get to the bottom of it, and the school can’t adjust, please find a better place.

  8. Alison just sent me this update…

    Hi, Janet, just wanted to give you an update. Things are pretty darn good around here. I’ve made a concerted effort to spend more time with Trevor just playing and hanging out, even if it’s just 5-10 min at a time. I’ve generally lightened up, and I think all the kids are reacting positively to the reduction in my anxiety.

    Trevor goes days and days without a time-out, which are reserved for only the most egregious offenses, like hitting. He has good days and bad days at school, but even his bad days aren’t AS bad. He still has trouble settling down, and exhaustion still riles him up more than chills him out, but we’re doing a much better job handling everything. I think the most important 2 things we’ve done are:

    1. Kept our cool. We still flip our lids sometimes (which we always apologize for afterward), but 95% of the time we stay calm and don’t give him the fodder to keep acting up/out.

    2. Helped him understand that he chooses how things turn out. He can do what he wants, but there are consequences, and we’re consistent about those limits and the consequences.

    All in all, things are much happier around here. I’d also say “more relaxed,” but I don’t think that’s possible with a 4-yr-old and 2 nearly year-old babies who are so excited to be able to move that they only sit still for meals and sleep. 🙂

    So thanks again for all your advice!

  9. “It’s counterintuitive for most of us to acknowledge negatives with our children. We are afraid that bringing them out into the open will make everything worse. Surprisingly, it usually has the opposite effect. Opening the door for our child to vent the “dark” feelings about a situation helps to ease them and allow them to pass, making it easier to see the bright side. Children feel relieved, understood, deeply loved.”
    I find this to be so true! There are moments when I fight with myself, knowing what it is that is causing some anxiety or disruption with my son, but worrying that if I say it out loud it might cause a major meltdown.
    When I state it “You are sad that Daddy is going to read books with you tonight? You really want Mamma to read with you? It would be nice to cuddle with Mamma wouldn’t it? Tonight is Daddy’s turn, tomorrow we will read together.” It is AMAZING how much weight is lifted off of both of us!
    It works in the classroom too. Just giving them words, even helping them imagine how it could be, when it may never happen is like a magic tonic.
    In the off chance it does make them explode emotionally isn’t that all that much better? Help them to release or deal with what they are feeling instead of being an accomplice in helping them hold their deep emotion in.

    1. Melissa, I love your example about the books. Yes, I’ve experienced the inner battle you describe so many times and am always amazed by the positive results of just acknowledging the child’s feelings…whether there ends up being an emotional meltdown or not. But it makes sense… Having our point of view validated by those we love is a very powerful thing.

      Thanks for these great insights, Melissa.

  10. Janet,
    I loved this piece and follow your blog regularly. This was fitting timing, our 3.5 year old daughter is in a patch of really, really intense emotional outbursts. Running my own business, our schedule often creeps out-of-whack and we have to recalibrate. I do have a question my husband and I have been wrestling with….L. has always been an extremely sensitive and emotionally intense child, when she feels something; she feels it in a huge way. Sometimes the level of emotion-anger/frustration- when something doesn’t go her way shocks me…how can such intensity come from someone so tiny?? I try (though it doesn’t always happen) to stay calm, reflective and supportive, sending the message that the feeling is OK, the behavior is not. Recently when she’s upset she is seeking ways to be destructive- kicking us or anything close to her, pulling things off tables, throwing whatever is in her reach. Together we just created a safe place in her room for her to kick, throw, body slam safe items. We always revisit these experiences and process them together, but my question is, when she’s in this place- the look in her eyes is very distant. She seems totally disorganized, like all her little molecules are in chaos and while we’re working on safe ways to release the feelings, I’m wondering if I should be stepping in to to help her reorganize. When she’s seeking destruction, do you feel it’s appropriate to “hug” her in a safe hold, despite her struggles, to keep her from hurting herself or trying to hurt us? I really believe she is feeling that feeling in such intensity, what her to release that energy, but I’d like to send her the message that I am in control and won’t let her fall off the edge. I would think being that out of control is a little scary and having someone else “hold” you and that feeling might be supportive. I’d appreciate any thoughts, leave to our children to totally stump us 🙂

    1. Hi Chrissy! Hmmm… This stumps me, too. I don’t know about the safe hold…but you might try to connect with her when she is having the outburst, hold her hands and encourage her to look at you and express how angry she is. If I were you, I also might consult with a psychologist…to help you figure out what this “patch” is about and how to respond. If you get the chance, I’d love to hear back.

      Take good care and thanks for reading the blog!

  11. Chrissy. I had similar experience with my eldest at 3 yrs. she is now 5 and still a very emotionally sensitive child, but she can control and discuss her feelings. I found that she calmed down significantly when I looked at her diet and removed all artificial colours preservatives and MSG. I have found several other friends had similar experiences with extreme behavior. Janet’s advice is good. But also grab an additive code breaker book and check your fridge and pantry. Claire

  12. happykiwi67 says:

    Hi Chrissy,
    We have a similar child who goes through periods of extreme emotional responses. I also debated whether she would benefit from some kind of ‘safe holding’ or whether to just wait for her to ride the storm herself with us as near as possible. The few times that I tried holding her felt very wrong, she struggled with me and seemed to become more physiologically overstimulated by the physical contact. What I now do is stay as close as possible, stay very calm and say nothing. I think this staying close lets her know that I am there, am accepting her strong feelings, and most importantly am not frightened by them (as she must be). As soon as she is not physically thrashing about I ask if she wants a cuddle and she either crawls into my lap or just curls up by herself for a little while. I don’t think any forced ‘holding’ is helpful. Good luck!

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