My Child Refuses Independent Play

With our most loving intentions as parents, we might find ourselves stuck in a full-time role we never wanted—as our child’s playmate and entertainer. In this episode, a mom asks Janet for advice regarding her “bright, busy, extroverted four-year-old girl who loves having my complete attention.” Unfortunately, this parent is feeling she really needs some time to herself, but when she tries to take a break, her daughter is unwilling to let her go and seems anxious and insecure, as if this is a personal rejection.

Transcript of “My Child Refuses Independent Play”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be responding to a question that’s very similar to many that I get, and I do understand this issue because I can totally relate to the struggle of it. How do we encourage our child to play independently of us? How do we separate from them to free them up to play when our child seems to continually want our attention?

Here’s the email I received:

Hi, Janet-

Thanks so much for your podcast and advice. I hope it’s okay to ask you about a situation I’m having with my daughter. I’m a stay-at-home mom to a very bright, busy, extroverted four-year-old girl who loves having my complete attention.

She goes to school in the mornings, and in the afternoons we try to stay busy with classes, walks, and going to the park. I try to give her as much attention as I can, but I’m an introvert with ADHD and I get overstimulated and irritable from constant interaction. The only way I can get her to give me some space is if I hand her a screen, and I’m growing uncomfortable with how much I’ve been relying on screens to keep her occupied. And it doesn’t always work. Sometimes she wants me to sit down and watch the show alongside her, and I can only watch so much Peppa Pig.

I would love to help her learn to entertain herself with toys. It’s not just for me, I think it would be good for her to be comfortable being by herself. She seems to get anxious and takes it as a personal rejection when I tell her that mommy needs some time to herself. If I tell her I’m taking a break and she’s going to play by herself for 15 minutes, I have about five minutes before the bids for attention start coming: “I’m hungry.” “I need help with this.” “Come look at this.” If I tell her that I’m on a break and I’ll help her when I’m done, she’ll keep asking, “How many more minutes?” Completely defeats the purpose of a break. Last night, she got out a craft project and said, “Let’s do it together.” I said, “Go ahead. I’m going to eat a snack first and I’ll come join you when I’m ready.” She had a meltdown and then reached for her iPad.

I love that she wants to engage with me, but I worry that her constant need for my attention means that she feels insecure about her bond with me. How do I convey to her that it’s okay for us to do things separately sometimes?

A lot of interesting themes here in this parent’s note, in the issues that she’s having, this theme of a child being willing to be independent of us.

I’m going to start by offering some context for how that develops, children developing their independent play and other independent activities, what gets in the way of that, and what we can do to aid this natural process. From there, I’m going to talk about the specifics in this parent’s note.

The wish for autonomy and independence is something that naturally emerges in children. But interestingly, sometimes we can get in the way of that without meaning to, at all. This was the topic of a recent podcast I did with Hari Grebler. It was called Every Child, Even a Tiny Baby, Deserves Time On Their Own. One of the things we talked about is noticing when, even as a baby, our child is expressing their autonomy, just through an autonomous interest that they’re having. They’re looking at something, they’re doing something that isn’t directed at us. And most of us don’t know—I didn’t know until I had my education with Magda Gerber—to recognize that and honor it and make space for it with our child. Because they are showing signs of independence and separation from us, even as tiny infants. So we want to nurture those moments if possible.

Another one is a very controversial subject. People will say that it’s impossible for a baby to do anything towards self-soothing, but the experts that actually observe babies, like T. Berry Brazelton, Heidelise Als, Dr. Kevin Nugent, they notice that even preemies are attempting to settle themselves. Not because the parent or the nurse in NICU abandoned them and they have no choice. Self-soothing is a choice that a baby makes to try to find their thumb. And when we observe, we can see babies wanting to do these things. Sometimes. A lot of the time they need us to help calm them down. And even when they’re self-soothing, they need our help and support. To be emotionally there for them, to be physically there, encouraging them by letting them know that we’re there, we’ve got their back, and we’re not going to just leave them to do it on their own. We see them and we see that they’re in a process of trying to do something and we don’t want to interrupt that. That’s what healthy self-soothing is.

It’s a very tender process that happens bit by bit. And it’s something, again, like having those play moments where children are just paying attention to something else, that we can nurture by allowing them, by giving some space for that when we see it happening. And of course that starts with observation. Being sensitive observers whenever possible. That’s how we can see what our child’s interests are, what they’re working on, what skills they’re developing. We can’t when we’re always doing everything for them, assuming their needs a little bit more. So we want to try to see our child as a separate person as early as possible, that’s capable of doing some separate things.

And that sounds easy when I say it, but it’s not easy. In fact, here’s a quote from T. Berry Brazelton: “In my experience, learning to separate and to give the child critical independence may well be the most difficult job in parenting.” So this is challenging. It doesn’t feel natural to a lot of us, especially if we’re worriers, if we are sensitive and we’re fearful, maybe, sometimes, of not always being there immediately when our child needs us and doing everything that we worry they need us to do. This is one of the reasons I love Magda Gerber’s magic word: Wait. Just wait a moment to see what your child is actually doing. If they can do that themselves or get a little closer to doing that themselves. If they’re doing something, maybe, that’s really valuable, that is so easy for us to interrupt with our best intentions, but maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe it’s better if we wait a moment first and really observe. This is challenging, right?

And then the other part of being able to separate like this parent wants to and have her daughter be able to play independently. This part I think is even harder than noticing when our child is being autonomous and not interrupting that. This is even harder, because it means being independent of them ourselves. And this is also what Brazelton is talking about in that quote. Being independent of them so that we can be interdependent as two autonomous people. That’s what we’re going for, right? A relationship of interdependence where we rely on each other, but we are two separate people, we are autonomous. That means tuning into ourselves and being able to say, I don’t want to do that. This is what I’m going to do. Because what can happen is that we unintentionally give a message to our child that they need us to do what they want. That that’s a need instead of a want.

I think that is part of what’s happening in this note. I’m going to get to the details in a minute. This idea that our child seems to want us always next to them, so we go along with it. And then it’s like that idea I talk about a lot here about accommodating. By accommodating that, we’re giving our child the message that we agree that they need our attention all the time, that they can’t be okay without us, in this case, playing with them. We’re only trying to do the right thing, but we’re giving our child the impression that we don’t trust them to be able to be separate. That’s the kind of feedback loop that happens here that none of us want, right?

In RIE parent-infant and parent-toddler classes, we do this really helpful thing that comes from attachment theory. In attachment theory, Bowlby and Ainsworth talked about being a secure base. Because babies need—and as they’re developing, children continue to need—that secure base, us, that they can leave to be free explorers, coming back as needed. A secure base isn’t forcing you to be independent. The way that we play this out in the classrooms is we ask the parents to please find a spot on the floor, there’s these backjacks to sit on. And please stay in that spot as much as possible and let your child be the one to move away from you. So the children have a choice, always, of being with us in our spot or venturing out to engage with other children, to engage with some of the toys that are there.

The RIE center where I mostly have taught has indoor/outdoor choice. Usually the parents are sitting indoors and the babies one day start to crawl or scoot on their tummies and they’re able to move out into the outdoors. And maybe they’re moving around the corner where the parent can’t even see them from where that parent is sitting. The facilitator, which would be me or whoever the teacher is in the classroom, can see them and make sure that they’re okay. It is a safe space, so there aren’t many ways that they could get hurt. But we can keep an eye on them and maybe we’re the ones that move around.

And then if two children are coming together or maybe a child is starting to climb on something that we haven’t seen them handle before, then we go close and we’re able to demonstrate for the parents minimal interventions. Interventions that allow children to develop their sense of competence and autonomy and develop their motor abilities or their problem-solving abilities or their creative abilities with play. So we’re there as backup to make sure they’re safe, intervene as minimally as possible to give them the most encouragement and confidence in themselves.

We recommend the parents do this at home too, of course. When they’re enjoying playtime with their child, that they plant themselves, allowing their child to move away from them and explore in safe areas. Sometimes when parents come into the classes when their child is a toddler, they haven’t been there since their child was an infant, so they’re coming in with their child as a toddler. And oftentimes the toddlers will try to bring the parent with them around this room to look at things. Of course, we never insist parents do it a certain way, but we suggest, we recommend that the parent insists that they’re going to stay there. Very kindly and not intensely, but just confidently. “I’m going to stay here. I’d love you to stay with me. You could sit on my lap. You could sit next to me. Or you can go look at the toys.”

I’m not trying to coax you to leave me and be “independent.” I’m not uncomfortable if you’re staying with me that, Oh, there’s something wrong and I really don’t want you to be here, because children pick up that vibe from us. Do they ever! And that makes them want to cling even more, when they feel that we’re not comfortable with them staying there. What works best is to be totally welcoming of your child being there. Children don’t want to sit on our laps for their whole life. It’s somebody like me, with the grown-up kids: It’s nice to have children want to be with you. And so they have that option.

But then sometimes the parents will worry, Oh, my child is getting upset that I’m not coming around with them. And that’s where we may have given a child that impression, because we’ve just tried to go along with things and be a good parent, they’ve gotten the impression that they need us to be there. When in fact they just want us to be with them. But what we want is for them to be free to explore and engage with other children without a parent looming over them.

It’s this interesting model that we can all learn from and that really helps children’s play to thrive and their social skill and everything else, all of their skills. And what I recommend to parents is that they do this everywhere that they go with their child that’s really a place for their child to explore. If they’re just on a playdate, at a birthday party, going to the park, this parent said she’s doing classes. Plant yourself, this is what I recommend, plant yourself somewhere as the secure base. If your child wants to drag you around with them, kindly say, “No, but I’m here for you. Whenever you need me, just come. I’ll be here.”

In the classrooms we do that also, because sometimes the children will be getting very involved in things and then they turn around and they want to know where their parent is. And if the parent’s moving around, then that’s discomforting for the child. It distracts them, they can’t focus on what they’re doing. That’s another reason we recommend staying put and being that secure base. Stay put. Insist on it, kindly.

Your child will maybe get mad at you and resist the first few times and try to coax you and act like they can’t do it without you. And this is the hard thing about all of this—and again, I’m going to get into this parent’s specifics—but the hard thing here is that if you’re a person who’s easily guilted, like me, or you go into that place of worry, then children are amazing the way that—I believe this is them wanting to shape us up, unconsciously, I believe that’s what they’re doing. But on the outside, it looks like they’re just not going to survive if we don’t follow them into a playground where all the children are and hold them by the hand. If we dare to be somewhere separate, they can make it seem like we’re doing this awful, awful thing to them. And we can fall into guilt about that, Oh no! Just as with children, when we’re in that feeling brain, when we’re in that less reasonable brain, we lose reason. Just like children do.

When we can get out of the fear place and the guilt place and see this from a place of reason, we notice, Well wait a second, I’m right here. I’m staying in this spot, I haven’t left. And they have a choice to come be with me anytime. So why does this feel like I’m doing something so wrong and abandoning my child? Just because I’m setting this boundary that I’m going to stay here. Whenever they need me, I’m still there to give them my attention whenever they need me. Children can take us to these places where we lose reason. It’s happened to me a lot of times, so I do relate to this. But we’re not doing our child favors when we do that.

Another way to think of the word independence is freedom, right? So it’s not like we want our child to be independent because we don’t care and we need them to take care of themselves. We want them to be free to explore their way, to create play that comes from inside them, to be able to thrive in all these situations. That idea helped me a great deal to get over the hump to setting the boundaries that I needed to set, allowing myself to separate.

I’m not talking about necessarily physically separating in another room, but just separate as a person, holding my own. This is what I’m doing. You can want me to do something else, but this is what I’m doing. And it’s okay if we’re in conflict. It’s normal to be in conflict in life, and I can love you through conflict. We’ll survive it. That’s part of being in relationships, that’s part of life. It’s interesting where children can take us in our minds because we love them so much, really.

These are the two aspects to work on when we want to encourage our child’s independence to emerge and for them to be able to be separate. The two things are to notice it when it’s happening. Those little things our baby even does, those moments our child has where they do have an idea. And it’s really hard not to jump on that sometimes and say, “Oh yeah, you can do it this way or that way,” and put our own two cents in, I always want to do that with play. But to hold back on that, to wait, use that magic word, wait, and allow it to be. So there’s that aspect. And then the other aspect is the boundary aspect, where we’re taking care of our independent self.

Now I’m going to talk about that and how it works with the particulars this parent has shared with me. It’s interesting. She describes her daughter as a “bright, busy, extroverted girl,” and that doesn’t sound like a child that wouldn’t be very independent as well, right? That’s the interesting thing is oftentimes it’s these extroverted children that are wanting to lead us as well. But underneath it all, they’re hoping that they don’t have to, because they know they’re only four years old, and that’s a big burden on them. That doesn’t free them, it does the opposite. Instead of playing the way children can play, now I’ve got to keep seeing if she really means it. Is she going to stick by what she said or is she going to melt for me like she sometimes does? They go to that place. So it’s very often these strong personality, intense, dynamic children that are the ones that can seem the most clingy and needy. That’s interesting, right? And when we go to that reasonable brain that we have, it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t add up.

This parent tries to give her as much attention as she can, but she’s an introvert with ADHD, and she gets overstimulated and irritable from constant interaction. I can totally understand that, and I think a lot of parents do, even when they don’t have ADHD, because that’s not a natural situation with two people in a relationship. It’s not natural for us to be interacting all the time, so it’s not going to feel right and it’s not going to feel comfortable.

She says, “she seems to get anxious and takes it as a personal rejection when I tell her that mommy needs some time to herself.” One thing I would do here, because it will help us to be that autonomous person with her and see her as an autonomous person. Start using first person with her, instead of saying, “Mommy needs time to herself.” That’s not very direct. Children like this, and most children, really need that exchange as two people. “I’m going to do this now. I want to be by myself. This is what I’m doing.” I believe it will help you, it helps me, to believe that I’m talking to a person when I’m not talking about myself as mommy. When I’m saying, This is me. I have wants. You have wants. Of course, I’m always going to be there to take care of your needs as best I can, but I’m not going to take care of everything you want because sometimes it’ll be in conflict with what I want. It’s so much easier to do that when we’re in the habit of being you and me, two people.

In terms of her daughter being anxious and taking it as a personal rejection, I think that might be a projection on this parent’s part. Because how could this child feel personally rejected when we give them plenty of attention and now we’re just asserting ourselves? She may be acting like she’s rejected, but in her heart, she knows she’s not being rejected. She knows you’re being a leader, and the leader that she needs. And anxious. I mean, that may be there. And it might be a reflection of this parent feeling anxious about standing up for herself. That’s how tightly we can get involved in these things emotionally with our child. It’s really easy to do, we all do it to some extent about some things. To try to extricate ourselves from, Okay, I’m kind of anxious. Now that’s going to make her more anxious. And when I see her anxious, that’s going to make me more anxious. It goes back and forth, back and forth like that. And it doesn’t help either of us. Of course, it doesn’t help our child, it doesn’t help us, and we can get caught up in it and it just keeps kind of building on itself.

We usually have to be the ones to get into our reasonable brain and see our way out of this. It usually can’t be our child first. It needs to be us. So consider the reasonableness of what you’re picking up, the impression that you’re getting. Think about all the time that you do give her and that she’s this extroverted girl. I mean, you can’t be an extroverted girl and be that anxious about rejection because that would not make you an extroverted girl. So it doesn’t really go together. And there are other things like that. I’m sure that when this parent reflects, she can consider whether this is the truth or a reflection of her fears of what might be going on. Feeling maybe guilty, that she doesn’t deserve to take care of herself and do what she wants, that she has to give her whole self up to her child. Take your time to yourself. Say it confidently. Know that you’re going to get pushback.

She says, “If I tell her I’m taking a break and she’s going to play by herself for 15 minutes, I have about five minutes before the bids for attention start coming.” So when you do this, because you know her very well, expect that you’re going to get every bid under the sun for attention. Every clever way, every dramatic way, every upset way, every guilt-inducing way. She’s going to have to go there. She has to, to make sure that she can really be free of you. I mean, that’s the way we have to look at it underneath this. And I believe that. It’s not just something we have to tell ourselves to make it work, it’s the truth. So expect “I’m hungry,” “I need help with this,” “Come look at this.” And just answer from that place of I’m independent, I’m confident, I deserve to separate. She will be free when I do. When she knows that I can, it will free her. There’s only positives here in what I’m doing.

So, “How many more minutes?” “You know, I’m not sure. Five or 10, I think.” “I need help with this.” “I’m sure you do, and I can’t wait to help you when I’m done. I will when I’m ready.” “Come look at this.” “You know what, I’m not going to right now.” And it’s okay, also, if these statements are coming at you like rapid fire. Just let a couple of them go, holding your own pace. Don’t get caught up in her pace. Her pace is going to be urgent and persistent. Your pace is slower. It’s centered. It’s not reflecting her energy. It’s holding your energy. With practice, this gets easier, but it’s really important.

When you respond, you don’t have to respond right away. “I’m hungry.” “Oh, okay!” “I’m hungry.” “Oh, you must be getting ready for dinner soon. We’re going to have it soon.” “I need help with this.” “Well, let’s put it on hold for a little while.” Then she says, “Come look at this.” Maybe you just let that one go for a minute, because she knows, she knows what she’s doing. She knows that this can get to you, so don’t let it get to you. See this as her path to freedom. It’s a bumpy, bumpy path, right? Let her have her path. You hold your own.

“If I tell her that I’m on a break and I’ll help her when I’m done, she’ll keep asking, ‘How many more minutes?'” So let her ask, let her ask, and then, “Oh, you asked how many more minutes? I think it’s about 10.” And then let her ask. You don’t have to answer every time, but this parent says that “completely defeats the purpose of a break.” Yeah, it does. But it’s a temporary situation, if you can commit to your role. Not to that you have to say certain words or certain speech. Just consider it an improvisation, where all you know is your role and your role is to be inside yourself, strong, this kind of hero for her. That can be separate, that can take care of yourself, giving her incredible positive messages. And again, freeing her to be able to entertain herself and play by herself.

And then she talks about the craft project and that the parent said, no, she wasn’t going to do it with her right then, and her daughter had a meltdown. Yeah, those meltdowns, those are releasing control, meltdowns, oftentimes. And if she’s having a meltdown over that, think about it, she needs to have a meltdown, right? If children are having a meltdown over these inconsequential things, that means it’s not really about that. It’s some release that she needs to have. So try to trust that. It’s the truth.

But then here’s the part I want to help this parent with. She says, “she had a meltdown and then reached for her iPad.” So when I’m talking about boundaries, the first boundary that I recommend for this parent—this is going to give her some practice for the next one. The first one is boundaries around the devices, because a lot of reasons. But studies show that giving children free access to tech devices, it interferes with, among other things, the development of self-regulation. And that’s a big part of what you’re working on here. So children aren’t able to process uncomfortable emotions as they need to to build resiliency, because every time they’re going there, there’s a distraction for them. There’s this very powerful and potentially addictive distraction for them that allows them to avoid all the natural, typical feelings that children need to have, that they need to experience, and learn, with our support, that these are normal. Frustration, disappointment, boredom, anger, sadness. Life gives children all of these natural opportunities for this. Like her mom saying, no, I’m not going to do a craft project. It’s important that she has a chance to experience that all the way. Experience that meltdown, experience all those feelings, and get to the other side of them, without having this very potent distraction to lose herself in.

And then just on a practical level, using devices as the consolation prize for our attention, that means that we’re setting up a situation where they’re going to be wanting to be on devices whenever we’re not paying attention to them. There’s no time in the day for her to be freed up to pass through that empty, often uncomfortable, space needed to be able to initiate her play, to have all the wonders and the freedom that we want to give her of the free exploration and the play. The devices are getting in the way with us being able to be a secure base and her being able to be the free explorer. Except in this case, she wants us to be the explorer with her and we’re saying no. But now she’s got this other thing that she’s going to go to that has nothing to do with all the places we want her to be able to go, which is to be comfortable and even enjoy being with herself. That’s such a lifelong gift, so valuable. And it’s not likely to happen when she has the option of either the parent’s entertainment or an entertaining device.

I think we can all relate to that, just what our devices do to us as adults, that we don’t have those moments of boredom. At least for most of us, we were able to develop our abilities to entertain ourselves. But children are in the development stage, this is much more important for them even than for us.

So that’s boundary number one that I would set. And I’d prepare myself for a lot of blasting about this, and all the questions. So be really clear, set out times: These are the times you’re going to do it and not the rest of the time. If you leave that as an open question, then you’re going to have to be setting a boundary all day long. Not now, not now, not now. So set it out ahead of time: these times every day, or these two times a week, or not at all, or whatever you decide. Set it up that way so you’re not constantly having to set this boundary, because it’ll be easier for her and easier for you if it’s established early and established clearly and solidly, with all the noise she’s going to make about it. Oh, this girl is intense. She’s got a lot of pushback that she’s going to give you, so get ready. Maybe she’ll be persuading, she’ll be pleading, she’ll be vulnerable. Let her go there. Remind yourself it’s safe, if you can hold your center, knowing that what you’re giving her is actually freedom.

After that boundary, then the boundary of you saying no. That’s the order I would work on these. Because maybe if you allow that process with that boundary and all the grief you’re going to get about it to work, then it will give you more confidence to set this other boundary. Which is, for a lot of us, it’s even harder, because, as this parent said, “I love that she wants to engage with me.” Yes, and we’re not going to taint that at all by putting parameters around when we’re going to engage with her.

She says, “I worry that her constant need for my attention means that she feels insecure about her bond with me.” I think that’s, again, a fear place that this parent is going to. Because she actually said it, “I love that she wants to engage with me.” Yes, she wants to engage. “But I worry that her constant need for my attention. . .” So that’s where we can get hooked in and guilted and worried, when we see it as a need for attention. She was correct, I believe, in the first part of the sentence: wants, she wants to engage. She wants constant attention, she doesn’t need constant attention. What she needs is a parent who can be honest with her, who can be a leader, who isn’t afraid of her feelings.

That’s such a gift we can give children, that they’re not going to thank us for right there, but it is huge. To show her, You know what? You can melt down and I’ll have all the empathy in the world, but I’m not trying to change your feeling. I’m not trying to fix it. I know you’re safe, I know it’s healthy, and I know on the other side of this is freedom. And that’s what you really need from me.

I know this is a difficult reframe, so many people have a hard time with it. And we do play a big part in this. And that’s good news, because that means we can make this shift. But we have to be committed, as with everything with children, we have to go with it and believe in it. So that’s the part to work on even first, before you work on the boundaries with the tech device or with your attention. Working on why. Why are you doing it? None of it is selfish. It’s far, far from it. It’s being heroic. It’s doing the hard things because we love our children so much and they deserve the very best that we can give them. They know it’s easier for us to say okay, they already know that. And they know that real love is the hard things.

I believe in this parent. I believe in all of us because if I could do this, I feel like anyone can. Thanks so much for listening. I really hope this helps.

And for everything about boundaries, I hope you’ll check out my No Bad Kids Master Course at And also my books, that are going to be re-released now with a new publisher. They had been self-published for years, and now they’re going to be with Penguin Random House. Very exciting! They’re now on pre-order, but will be available at the end of this month.

We can do this.


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

  1. Thank you SO MUCH for this! It reminds me to be consistent in what I’m already doing, and be stronger about hiding my exasperation and overwhelm because that doesn’t need to be her problem to solve.

    1. My pleasure, Sarah! I’m sorry to hear you are exasperated and overwhelmed. Do you think it’s because you haven’t felt confident about saying “no” and letting her be mad, sad, etc., about that? I would love to help you feel less overwhelmed so you don’t need the pressure of trying to hide that.

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