Help! Our Child Keeps Interrupting and Demanding Attention

In this episode: Janet responds to an e-mail from a parent who says her 4-year-old has lately become very demanding for attention. “She won’t let us talk with friends, family, or over the phone. It has to be about her all the time.” She is also being defiant, especially in public, and ends up crying when she doesn’t get her way. This mom feels her friends and family have cast her as a ‘bad mom’ and wants Janet’s advice about “how to stop this excessive attention seeking, defiant behavior.”

Transcript of “Help! Our Child Keeps Interrupting and Demanding Attention”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

In this weeks episode of Unruffled, I am going to be responding to the parent of a four-year-old daughter who is concerned that her daughter seems to need constant attention, to the point that she says she’s avoiding taking her out or having friends over because her friends and family see her as a bad mom. She wants to know what she can do to stop this excessive attention seeking.

Here’s the note I received:

“Hi, Janet. I’m a huge follower of your work. I have a four-year-old daughter who’s very sharp, observant, and talkative. Lately she has started interrupting us a lot. She won’t let us talk with friends, family, or over the phone. It has to be about her all the time. It is becoming very embarrassing. Our friends have started commenting on the same, and I feel defeated. Even when she’s playing or coloring, she will call for our attention.

Lately she has also started being a lot more defiant, especially in public. Won’t hold hands on the street, will ask for other kids toys, will cry in public, etc. It’s gotten to a point where I avoid taking her out or having friends over. I literally am crying as I write this ’cause my friends and family see me as a bad mom. I don’t know what I can do to stop this excessive attention seeking, defiant behavior of our daughter.

P.S. My husband changed his job, so we switched cities four months back. He has been traveling since then, and is home only for weekends. Even then, he is working. Maybe our daughter is still processing this change. Please, please help me out. Thanks.”

Okay. I love that she included this P.S. because I imagine her daughter is still processing a change moving houses, switching cities four months ago. That was a big loss for this girl. Even the most positive change, in terms of moving, is also a loss of the familiar. Perhaps that was the only home that she knew and, regardless, I’m sure she had routines there, she was comfortable. Moving is tough. So, that’s very likely part of this.

And then whatever the parents are feeling, the stress that they might have, is also going to be added into the mix because children absorb that, and they process it out. In a sense, they reflect it back to us.

So those reasons alone could be enough for this girl to be going through something. That’s what I would say for sure. She’s going through something. She’s not at her best. She needs to be able to unload and fall apart a little bit.

It sounds like this parent does understand that, but I want to encourage her even more to perceive this way, and to see this as healthy for her child to be able to have tears, tantrums, meltdowns, fall apart so that she can put herself back together again, having released the stress of all these changes, or whatever else she may be going through.

The way we perceive our children and our role with them as parents and the situation that we’re in matters a lot. Sometimes it can help just to understand that, yes, this is normal behavior for this girl right now. It doesn’t mean every four-year-old would be behaving like this, but it is still normal for what she is going through. The best way to navigate this is to see these bids for attention kind of like an early meltdown. The way that the rain sometimes starts drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, and then there’s a downpour. That’s what these bids for attention are like.

The difficult thing for parents, for all of us, is that these unreasonable persistent interruptions and calls to us, tend to make us react rather than responding. When we react instead of respond, our child feels that discomfort from us, which only adds to their own.

There’s a wonderful quote from Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book, No Drama Discipline, which is one that I recommend. They say, “The pause between reactive and responsive is the beginning of choice, intention, and skillfulness as a parent.”

Is it normal to react? Yes, but as parents it will help us, and help our children, to work on responding instead of reacting — giving ourselves that moment to breathe, perceiving our child as capable of being in their uncomfortable feelings. That’s a big part of this, because if we think that every time our child says, “Mom” or “Dad,” or even as an infant, every time our baby makes a sound, “Ah,” if we’re reacting to those things, we’re going to be injecting them with our own uncomfortable energy. But if we can hear, which means we’ve normalized this for ourselves that our baby will sometimes cry, and our child will demand our attention and repeat questions to us and whine, and that’s okay for them to do… that’s not something we have to rush to fix immediately, and put out like a fire… it’s communication…

So we don’t want to ignore it, but we don’t need to react like everything is an emergency, everything is about us needing to do something. It’s not. So, again, the way to build this skill is to practice perceiving, and letting go of being the fixers, being the extinguishers of every uncomfortable emotion our child has. That’s not our job and it doesn’t help our children.

Sometimes I think of this for myself as kind of an unplugging inside. Instead of letting myself get touched off by everything children say or do, I unplug, so it gives me that bit of time to take it in, and to see what’s needed.

I’m going to talk specifically about this parent’s issues that she’s sharing with me, and how it might feel and sound to be responsive, rather than reactive. So, she starts out saying, “She started interrupting us a lot. She won’t let us talk with friends, family, or over the phone.”

It will help this parent a lot, because it helps all of us, to work on being responsive at home as much as possible. Doing the homework. Because it’s going to be even harder for us when we are with friends, or in public. That’s like going to Carnegie Hall and performing. We have to practice first. That practice will give our child the space they need for those feelings. We’re going to hold that space by being responsive instead of reactive. At home, we’re going to allow for those feelings to go wherever they need to go.

If we think about these processes being quantitative, which in a way they sort of are, then the bigger storm the better, really. Bring it on instead of trying to ward it off. Seeing that as the healthy experience that will get our child through this. Whatever this child is processing out, it will help them finish that process.

So, this little girl is interrupting… let’s say when her parents are talking together… What I would do is you hear her the first time, Oh, she’s asking for something, or she’s calling me. “Hi, I’m going to talk to your dad now, but I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. When we’re done, I can’t wait to hear what you want.”

Go back to your husband, breathe, hold your own energy. Don’t get pulled and tapped into by your daughter’s energy. Again, not being reactive. Continue as best you can talking with your husband.

And now she tries again. Maybe you let that second one go because you’ve already responded to her, but let’s say it continues. You could look at her, you could put your finger up as in, Give me another minute please, letting her know that you hear her. You can say, “Wow, you can’t wait to tell us.”

Keep going back to what you’re doing. This is not ignoring her, it’s being very respectful, but it’s letting her know that she doesn’t have this power to ignite you. That you are a separate person with boundaries. You have your own pace, and your own needs and wants, and decisions that you’re making in that moment.

It can help also to look at why we’re getting touched off. That might be a little different for each of us. Sometimes it can actually stem from reacting to that baby that we had. It’s instinctive to react when a baby cries. That is how we’ve survived from early man. This is how we’ve continued. We’ve been able to respond to those urgent needs of our babies. While maybe back in early times these were all emergencies because wild animals could find us if they heard these sounds, and attack us, these aren’t all emergencies anymore, and all we do by making each one of these an emergency is foster anxiety. We also feel anxious ourselves, and we’re much more likely to lose our temper when we’re in reactive mode. It’s hard not to, in fact.

So, if this parent is keeping her cool at all through this, kudos to her. What I’m suggesting is that she perceive it differently so that she doesn’t have to try to have such self control, and be so uncomfortable herself. If this is part of what’s going on, then she can stop seeing it as her job to keep her child happy and content every minute. That’s just not going to happen, especially when somebody is processing feelings. They need to not be content. They need to be able to feel very discontented.

Every time she has these kinds of interactions with her daughter where she is responding to the interruption, but not allowing it to work, even if she doesn’t get to have a very in depth conversation with her husband at that time, she’s going to be giving her daughter the message that it’s safe for her to have those feelings of not getting what she wants. You are not going to be set off by your daughters bids for attention and interruption.

After you do give your husband this moment to finish your sentences, or whatever it is, then I would turn to your daughter and say, “What did you want? I can’t wait to hear.” Oftentimes, children will forget, or they actually didn’t want anything, which is of course interesting and really shows us even more that it’s just a feeling that she has. Let it be her feeling, and not your feelings.

When you’re on the phone, again, that’s a very hard time. I remember as a child, hating whenever my mother was on the phone. As soon as she picked up that phone, we needed her desperately then. It was the most annoying thing for us. How dare she do that? I remember that feeling. So, yeah. It’s okay though. It’s okay for children to not get what they want. It really is. We’ve got to hold our own as their leaders.

If it’s with friends, I would do the same, but ideally you’re going to be able to practice with your husband, and when you’re on the phone, and when you don’t have these other people there so that you are comfortable, and so that your daughter has gotten the message. And she still may need to check it out. Well, I know that it really bugs her with her friends. Not that she’s deliberately trying to bug her, but these are things that children have to check out.

So, it’ll happen when you’re with your friends, and then handle it the same way. “Oh. Oh, shoot. You want me to see something. I’ll be with you in a moment,” and then let her carry on. See it as a whine, or the just beginnings of a tantrum. It’s safe for her to go there, and for you to allow her to go there. It’s not only safe, it’s the best thing.

She says, “Even when she’s playing or coloring, she will call for our attention.” I don’t know what the parents are doing at that time when she’s playing or coloring, but welcome her to call for your attention. You’ll give it to her when you can, and then I would give it to her wholeheartedly, but don’t jump, and don’t feel irritated by each one of these calls to you because, again, it won’t put you in good stead to stay unruffled. It won’t give her what she needs either, which is a parent in leadership mode, not bowing, and cringing, and jumping to fix her.

This mother says, “She’s started being a lot more defiant, especially in public. Won’t hold hands on the street. Will ask for other kids toys. Will cry in public.” So, crying in public, I would welcome that. Holding hands on the street, that has to be non-negotiable. It’s not about her being able to hold hands. You have to firmly hold her hand, and if she absolutely can’t then, yeah, I would let her melt down and fall to the ground while you’re holding her hand if she needs to. Not letting her get hurt, obviously, but allowing her to fall apart with you. Being that safe person for her that understands she’s got her reasons, and it’s the best thing she can do. You are doing reasonable things, you’re not hurting her by insisting you hold her hand. You’re not hurting her by not responding to every single time she says, “Mama,” or hurrying up your phone calls because she’s yelling at you.

Asking for other kids toys, I’m not sure what that’s about, but she’s welcome to ask. Again, she’s got to be welcome to not want to hold hands. She’s got to be welcome to call your name 50,000 times. She’s got to be welcome to cry in public. She’s got to be welcome to ask for other kids toys. It’s fine for her to do all of those things, but you are not going to let her interrupt you, you’re not going to let her take other kids’ toys. You’re going to block that from happening, physically. Just like you’re going to physically continue with your conversation with your husband for a few more moments. At least finishing those thoughts before you turn to your daughter.

So this is more showing than telling. Again, not being intimidated, not being impacted, not being sucked into her feelings. These are hers. She needs to be able to share them, and process them, and get them out of her body.

This mom says, “It’s gotten to a point where I avoid taking her out, or having friends over. I literally am crying as I write this, ’cause my friends and family see me as a bad mom.” Again, I don’t know exactly what they’re responding to, but I think it might be that this mom is getting sucked into her daughter’s neediness instead of seeing it as a healthy, okay, and necessary state that she’s in right now. I think when people make those kinds of judgments of us as parents, it’s because they see a situation where we are uncomfortable and feeling out of control. It’s not that they judge our child for being like that, it’s that they see that we are as well. This parent can turn that around immediately by perceiving her role differently, and perceiving her daughters behavior differently, more accurately.

So yes, if we’re trying to talk our child into holding our hand, or talk her out of taking other kids toys, or calming her down when she’s upset in public, we give the impression that our child is the powerful one and we have to cater to them. There’s an imbalance of power there that’s not healthy.

If there are any other shifts going on, this mother doesn’t say if she has other children or if there’s anything else, but I would always look at first my own feelings because that can be a reason that we get tapped into by everything our child does. We’ve got our own wound there, and every time our child does these things, or calls to us, it’s hitting that wound. We’ve lost routines, and friends, and comfortable little spots in our house, where we slept. We have to be able to have those feelings to understand and hold the space for our child to.

So, I hope some of that helps. And both my books are available as always on audio at audible.com, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting.  You can get both audio books for free with a 30 day trial membership by using the link in the liner notes of the podcast. You can also get them in paperback on Amazon, and in E-book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.

And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram, @Janet Lansbury.

Thank you for listening. We can do this.

3 Comments

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

  1. My grandson was so thrilled when he finally was able to find the words to express himself, that he always burst into any conversation regardless of who else was talking or what they were saying (six around the dinner table with two older brothers.) They were relatively tolerant (as if they could relate), but it was annoying. Finally, his parents told him to raise his hand when he wanted to talk, and he would be called on. It worked like a charm. If others are talking he raises his hand and waits. He does get called on asap. It’s as if he is grateful for being given a technique for expressing himself in a socially responsible way.

  2. This might be my favorite thing you have ever written. Probably because it mirrors the success I have had with my own 3yo, based largely on what I have learned from you. I would like to add that my kid actually seems to like it when we practice how to politely interrupt. It always starts with him trying to get my attention while I am talking to someone. I pause, remind him how to interrupt by saying excuse me, or placing his hand on my arm, and that he has to wait while we finish what we are saying. Then he tries it out, and eventually gets our attention after waiting while we finish. And he gets some positive reinforcement for being patient. He now knows what it means when I hold my finger up to indicate “one second, then I’ll listen”. I have done this while talking to friends and family, and they all get on board immediately and participate in the practice. Then they help him remember the next time. There was some screaming and thrashing the first few times, but now he knows what to expect and it goes pretty smoothly. I think expecting your kid not to interrupt and demand attention is unreasonable, but helping them learn how to ask for attention politely is great. You do have to make sure that you are giving them the real, undivided attention when you say you will.

  3. Hi Janet! This is brilliant, and just what I needed right now. My 5 year-old’s father and I separated last year, and it’s been tumultuous for several reasons. The dust is finally starting to settle, and each of us parents are setting into our own routines and households as single parents. My son has always been mild-mannered and actually quite pleasant to be around. He seems to find comfort in acting silly, telling jokes, and sharing in laughter with others. And has almost never had a meltdown around anyone aside from myself and his father. More with me though. He most definitely puts on a happy face for his classmates and teachers, and I have been told many times that he is incredibly “kind and considerate” with others. I have to admit that I worry about him not making his own needs known or important. His father is the same way, and behind closed doors (mainly with me) he suffers from extreme anxiety. My sweet boy is too young to be putting himself last with his classmates…he’s very passive and agreeable and will change his mind about something (toy, game, etc) if the other person wants to. At home, however, he has the most difficulty over food it seems. We’ve always provided healthy meals and snacks, and sometimes a treat of some kind (a cookie perhaps, something out of the ordinary). At home, while I’m preparing a meal, he will beg for a “treat” or some kind of particular snack that we might give him between meals, but not as a meal. We both know he won’t be having it, but he pleads and begs and cries for it anyway. Is this basically a healthy release of emotion? Something I shouldn’t try to “fix”? Another question I had was regarding his requests for attention, just as the child in this article is doing. He interrupts at pretty much anything I’ve given my attention to, including potentially dangerous situations like when I’m focusing on driving or cutting up vegetables with a humongous knife. I admit that it’s beyond difficult, after I’ve told him I’m occupied and will be able to look at whatever he’s wanting me to look at after I’m finished, to continue doing whatever I was doing. I’m easily distracted, and oftentimes lose my train of thought during a phone call he’s interrupted. He can see this. How can I proceed if his interruptions distract me altogether??

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