Stressed by a Child’s Demands for Attention

A frustrated parent who describes herself as “desperate for help” seeks advice about her persistent, high-energy 2.5-year-old, who dominates her and her husband’s time and energy with relentless demands to be the focus of their universe — all day, every day.

Transcript of “Stressed by a Child’s Demands for Attention”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury and welcome to Unruffled. In this episode, I’m responding to a parent who says she’s desperate for help because her two-and-a-half-year-old is constantly demanding her and her husband’s attention.

Dear Janet, I’m so desperate for help that I decided to come straight to you hoping you can offer some advice. My almost 2.5 year old demands constant attention, and if someone, mainly me, doesn’t give it to him, he either throws a tantrum or does something he shouldn’t be doing. So I inadvertently have to give him the attention. I’ve tried saying, I need to do X for five minutes, and then I will come play with you. And sometimes he’ll last one or two minutes, but generally he’s just right back under my feet, straight away. And if I continue to stand my ground, he’ll do something either dangerous or destructive, which will ultimately demand my attention. I’m feeling so frustrated because our whole world revolves around our only child. We spend the whole day, every day entertaining him, calming his tantrums and intense emotions, and following him around, putting out fires and cleaning up messes.

This is not okay anymore. My husband is a pilot, so he is home quite often, and we do employ a helper who helps us with household chores and child watching. And up until recently, I’ve been a stay home mom. So as you can see, there’s usually always someone who can be with him, giving him constant attention. But it’s getting out of hand. My husband and I can’t even embrace or have a conversation without him climbing in between us or interrupting us with loud shouting. He is a very intense, persistent, strong-willed sensitive child who needs better parenting to be all he can be. What changes can I make that will have a lasting and calming effect on our home and family about to combust?

This sounds very challenging, but the solution is actually pretty simple, which doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Our children can and will demand of us. It’s really up to us whether we feel captive to those demands or not. So the key here is to help our child feel more comfortable his place in the household. He sounds like an effervescent little character but he’s little! And it can feel comfortable for him to have all this power to disrupt and bother you. So we want to try not to give his behavior that kind of power. With that power comes responsibility on our part. 

For example, this mother says that she is trying to calm his tantrums and intense emotions. Now, that always stands out for me because when a parent states their approach to tantrums as taking an active role that way, then I sense that they’re wasting a lot of energy where it’s not only not needed, but actually can get in the way, because now we were teaching our child that he can hold us captive to him and stop everything whenever he’s upset.

Now, if our child is really hurt or really upset, it’s wonderful to stop and connect and say, “Wow, yeah, you didn’t like that when I said no about that,” or “Yeah, I hear you really wanted to do this and I didn’t let you.” But beyond that, we don’t have to stop, wait, coax or try to do something to calm our child. What helps is to take a more passive role in our children’s emotions where we’re accepting and we’re just letting them be. We’re just letting the explosions happen, we’re holding our own center and we’re not trying to do anything about it, except calming ourselves, reminding ourselves that we’re safe. So we’re letting our shoulders drop, we’re relaxing, we’re breathing, and we’re just letting go of managing our loved ones’ feelings which we will NEVER control. And if we have to do something at that moment, you know, if we’re not available to stop and wait or we don’t want to, we do it with full acceptance that our child is not happy with us right now. Oh dear, you’re so upset (and if he’s reacted to something specific we acknowledge that). 

OR we’re just nodding our head a bit and looking at him.

When children are in the middle of a tantrum, it’s best not to say anything because they really can’t hear it. And if they see our mouth moving, they might feel like we’re trying to talk them out of it or explain our position again, or somehow not accept, show that we don’t accept these feelings that they just need us to normalize, so the strong emotions that they feel, particularly in these toddler years, are normalized for them as well. So I would feel fine about saying, “You’re really upset you didn’t like my decision here”. Or, you know, looking at him and nodding your head, “Yeah, yeah, I hear you.” And then continuing doing what you were doing in the kitchen or whatever it is with that kind of acceptance, the door still wide open for him to vent his feelings

Every once in a while looking over at him, maybe he’s holding onto your legs and you have to say, “I have to walk over here, so I’m going to have to move your arms off my legs.” And then do it very calmly, you know, with as much loving confidence as possible, and move over and say, “Yeah, it’s really hard. You’re having a hard time letting go of me right now.”

But inside me, I’m working on feeling safe, solid, accepting. I’m not getting sucked into this. I’m not getting pulled by demands and, and feelings. That’s not helpful for us, and it’s not helpful for him if we do that. 

So right there is something where it sounds like the power is a little out of balance. It’s not only better for us to feel we’re the leaders in the house. It feels much better to children too.I strongly believe children don’t want to be these all- powerful, demanding characters that keep everybody jumping, and get us frustrated with them. It happens, of course, but it’s a perspective worth working on. Because when we’re not liking our children in moments like these, because we feel like captives, they feel that and it adds to their discomfort and erratic behavior.

It feels much better to children if we’re fine with them not liking us in these moments. But we’re still going to try to like them, because we see they’re acting out of discomfort, maybe out of a pattern, not thoughtful intention. Children’s feelings are their feelings and not our responsibility to do anything other than accept. 

It can help us to imagine that there’s a little bit of emotional separation between us, we’re not ignoring but in separate lanes. I’ve used a lot of imagery that I’ve shared where I pretend I’m a superhero in my mind and I have this shield on, so the feelings can’t penetrate me and make me feel terrible. And I really feel like I’m doing something brave and wonderful in that moment, letting him have his feelings, letting him have his, you know, primal scream therapy, letting him release the fear or anger or sadness inside him and know that he’s safe to do that because the towers in his life, his parents are not getting blown over by him. He’s safe to share in our presence. 

If we can be even a little more okay with him feeling whatever he feels, that’s going to free him up a lot.

So right now in the case of this child, he’s kind of pushing, pushing, pushing everywhere to find leaders there. And instead he’s getting, and I understand how easy it is to get caught up in that, but he’s getting discomfort from his leaders who maybe feel like they have to keep him happy and calm him down and comfort him and make everything okay which is a recipe for our frustration. 

So I would be okay with this little child yelling and yelling at you when you’re trying to embrace. You hear he’s not pleased, but you’re still going to embrace, and you can look down after and say, “You’re really trying to interrupt this. I see that.”

Don’t let it happen. Rise tall and take your role in this house as leaders. He will be much happier, and he won’t be such a whirling dervish if you can do that. He’s looking for the leaders.

So the sooner you can jump into that role with confidence, the sooner he’ll stop, or at least calm down, you know, when he’s stressed or when he’s at the end of a long day or he hasn’t seen you, he’s been with the helper and, and now you know, he’s transitioning back to you. There are going to be times like these when his feelings are more out of control, and he’ll get caught up in all these impulsive behaviors, but it will happen less if the balance of power in the house is where it belongs. 

So let’s go over some more specifics that this mother has shared.

Okay, so when he’s playing, the parent says she tells him “’I need to do X for five minutes, and then I will come play with you.’ And sometimes he’ll last one or two minutes, but generally he’s just right back under my feet, straight away.”

So I’d say he needs you to be more secure in your role that, first of all, you don’t mind if he’s trying to interrupt you, you’re going to continue whatever you’re doing as best you can. Then you see him going off doing some funny stuff that he knows he’s not supposed to do, I would try not to run over there in a panic because that’s giving it power. And we don’t want to give him this feeling that he’s disrupting us and that it’s so easy for him to do that right now. That he holds all this power to immediately disrupt us. So gauge the urgency.

If it’s just a minor thing, we might let it go for a minute so that we can finish this little moment of what we’re doing and go over, “Ah, looks like you’re, you’re doing that thing over there. I’m, I’m going to stop you. Yeah, I know you’re not happy that I said no to playing with you.”

Take your time. Don’t run unless it’s a super emergency and he’s got something really dangerous going on. Do a little bit of, I guess it is a little bit of acting here, although I like to think of this more as a perspective shift. Inch your way there until you get comfortable in this role. You know, you do have the power in this relationship. You’re just not using it. And I don’t know if, it may be that you are afraid of using it, that maybe you’re going to get too strict.

Actually, we have the best chance of being calm, confident, gentle leaders if we are coming from a place of strength, we’re coming from a place of power, strength, and power is when we don’t have to shout, “Stop. What are you doing?!”

Strength and power are when we can be quieter and we can say, “Oh, wow, very interesting. Uh, you’re doing that one again. Eh?” Not making it exciting, not making it fun for him. Because in truth, I sincerely doubt it is fun. Even if he’s smiling, it’s an uncomfortable, unsure kind of smile. It’s not the kind of centered happy feeling that we want him to have.

But first he has to establish that he has leaders in the house and that the leader isn’t him, and then he will calm down. So be really confident when you leave him, when you say, “I’ve got to go do this for five minutes.” Own your personal boundaries in this manner. You deserve them!

And then when you do play with him, don’t let him treat you like a puppet there either. I don’t know if that’s happening, but you can hold your place as the person that wants to enjoy his play and what he’s doing and doesn’t necessarily want to use up your energy playing along. There are so many benefits to this more passive yet still attentive way of “playing together,” where we say we’ll stay right there. Where we want to see his ideas and we don’t unwittingly take over them with our powerful presence.

Because what most children really want and need in play (when we’re available) is undivided attention from us. 

They don’t need us to play with them and create the ideas with them, do the actions with them. This undemanding “you are enough” approach frees us to enjoy more and is incredibly validating and fills a child’s true need for attention.

I understand how we can get caught up doing these other things or maybe we think we should, even though we don’t enjoy them.  Parents have shared stories with me where they’re in the sandbox or at the beach, and the child says, “Okay, dig this, make this.” And the parent’s doing it and doing it, and the child’s just sitting there not doing anything. We can fall into that and lose perspective on what’s happening there. It’s based on a misunderstanding that I know that I had before I became familiar with Magda Gerber‘s approach where I felt like, Oh, we’ve got to show them that playing is fun and, you know, this is what playing with them is, and they need this.

They actually don’t. It’s much more validating for them if we just want to see what they’re doing and what their ideas are and how they do things. And if we don’t have an agenda and we don’t have an expectation and we don’t alter the direction of their play ever so subtly by playing with them. That’s what happens for us as adults, because our ideas do take over, even with a strong child like this one.

Another benefit is that when we take a passive role in play children get more of that self-directed flow experience and don’t need to always rely on us for play and entertainment. 

And then be really clear when you can’t play and feel really good about separating from him. There’s no negative in that at all. It’s not our job to be with our child every moment of the day and at their disposal.

I would try to be engaged with him and focused with him when you do have what Magda called the “caregiving routines.” So, eating meals with him, or when he is having a snack. You don’t have to eat with him, but when he’s eating, you’re there. You stop everything. You don’t have your phone there. You sit with him. You take those moments whenever you can as primetime, and then you’ll know that you have connected with him enough during the day. And you won’t have to ever doubt that he’s not getting enough of your attention, because those moments happen a lot. Changing diapers or helping him to the bathroom, or taking a bath or having dressing time together, being there to support him and help him as much as he needs or wants you to in those situations. And a bedtime ritual and a predictable routine for his day.

All of those things will help children to be better able to release us at playtime. But still we’ll need to be the confident leader when we separate and accept that children (unfortunately!) aren’t going to say, “Okay, sure. Go do it! And you know what, Take 10 minutes, take 15 minutes, Enjoy it, Dad, enjoy it Mom. Just make a wonderful dinner for me and I’ll be so happy here playing on my own.” That’s the fantasy that I know I had. That seldom and probably never happened  in the early years with my 3.  

So what else? The destructiveness. Give him as safe an environment as possible and as appropriate an environment as possible so that he’s not able to get into your drawers, in your makeup and your — whatever else that makes you have to go stop him. Keep certain doors latched up high. Minimize his access to unsafe things as much as possible so you’re preventing it from happening.

When it does happen – expect it, because he’s shown you this is one of his tendencies. La, la la, la. “Oh, I see something going on over there.” Very chill and unexciting. If you can do that a few times, then the behavior will lose its power.

It’s the same when you’re trying to talk to your husband. I mean, no, it’s not going to work immediately that now you’re confidently talking and he’s going to be quiet. He’s going to yell and shout. He’s going to try that a few times and you’re not going to be able to talk to your husband or peacefully embrace with your husband, but you’re working towards this overall message to him that his behavior doesn’t get you riled up. It doesn’t anger you when he’s demanding and blustering. You just see it as there’s this little impatient person. And we’re safe.

So you’re just going to try to continue, not ignoring him, not turning away and we don’t see you. You see him. “Wow, you have some strong feelings. You want to talk to us right this minute and I’ll be able to listen shortly.”

Then back to your husband. And even if you’re just moving your mouths and you can’t even hear what each other’s saying, just, you know, maybe even fake it a little bit, just carry on so that he really gets this message that you are the towers of power, and as much as you love him (or because you love him) you’re not going to let him get to you.

People can only get to us if we let them. It’s really true, and I think my children helped teach me this, and it’s helped me in every area of my life to have boundaries and feel my power in relationships. So it’s a positive thing, and it will be very, very positive for him. It will not wound his wonderful spirit. Quite the opposite. It will actually free him, it will calm him, it will help him be more centered and more deeply happy and comfortable.

So that’s how to shift this. And again, he doesn’t need constant attention. No child does. They need constant safe leaders. 

I hope this perspective helps. I have written quite a bit on this topic, and you can read the articles on my website along with my books No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. Those are both, again, available at in paperback and on in audio, and also in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and

So thank you for listening. Hope this helps. We can do this.

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