4 Ways to Help Kids Ask for Attention (Without Driving You Nuts)
“Daddy, Daddy, Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaddddddddy… Just one more book? I want another hug… Can I have two more songs and a hug? …And a kiss, too?”
Wanting your focused attention—and a lot of it—is perfectly natural for pre-K kiddos, and it’s a good thing! “Children thrive on consistent, loving connections with their parents and they learn to seek attention through the responses we give to their interactions,” says Celestte Dills, an Inclusion Services advisor at KinderCare Education who helps teachers and families address all kinds of child development questions and challenges.
But sometimes even the sweetest little cherub’s attention-seeking antics—like shouting “Mommy!” over and over again while you’re on the phone—can become excessive, disruptive, or just plain annoying. So what should you do when your child’s actions are getting in the way of her actual goal: to make a positive and meaningful connection with you?
Take a deep breath, be patient, and use the moment to teach your child how to express herself in more positive ways. Check out Dills’ take on these four common attention-seeking scenarios, with loving solutions included:
1. Just got your fifth ask for “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”?
Sure, her end goal might be putting off bedtime, but in the moment she’s just trying to get more cozy together-time. Besides, you know from experience that saying “no” will likely lead to tantrums.
The fix: Together, decide on a nice bedtime routine and keep it consistent.
For example: bath, jammies, brush teeth, book, song, hug and kiss, and lights off. Write a list of bedtime steps and post it in her room; if she isn’t reading yet, write in different colors or draw little pictures next to each step. When she wants to extend bedtime into the wee hours, remind her that you’ve finished all the steps together, and you can play more tomorrow, and then say “night, night.” There may be some fussing at first, but eventually she’ll understand that it won’t get her the attention she wants.
2. Just got a love chomp?
Anger and frustration aren’t the only reasons that toddlers bite. If you and your tot have been happily playing together and he bites you—with a smile—he could be expressing excitement and happiness about playing with you.
The fix: Give ‘em some space.
Toddlers aren’t able to fully grasp the meaning of your words and intent, so resist the urge to hold him gently and sweetly explain why he shouldn’t bite—those actions will only make him think that when he bites, he gets positive attention. Instead, gently and firmly set him down or step away. Use your words to reinforce your intent. Try calmly saying, “I see you’re feeling excited—let’s try playing with some blocks instead.” The goal is to acknowledge his emotions and ignore the behavior—not the child. If he asks you to play again or starts playing on his own, join him! He’ll learn that you do want to play with him, but not when he bites.
3. Just got on the phone and she won’t leave you alone?
Toddlers often don’t know what’s going to happen from moment to moment in their lives, which can lead to confusion and frustration: She may feel like your phone call will never end and that she’s not being heard or understood since your attention is elsewhere.
The fix: Fill her in on what to expect.
Try setting a time limit for phone calls so she knows you won’t be on the phone forever: “I’m going to set this timer while I make this call for work. When the timer dings, I’ll get off the phone and I can read you a book.” If you’re in the middle of a call when she starts tugging at your skirt, pause to explain what is happening now and what will happen later: “Okay, I can see you would like to play—I am going to give you a big hug right now and then I need to finish talking to my boss. After I’m done, we can play trucks.”
4. Just sat down with your friends and now your little guy’s doing the cha-cha on the coffee table?
He might be trotting out his dance moves because he’s bored or feeling left out. Ignoring him will likely just fire him up for a flashier performance.
The fix: Offer him an appropriate replacement activity.
Try agreeing to watch one “show”—but not while he’s standing on the furniture, and with the caveat that afterward he will go back upstairs and build a castle with his sister. Or try saying, “Right now I am talking to my friends—why don’t you go upstairs and plan a special performance with your sister that we can all watch in 15 minutes?” Set the timer, and get ready for the show!
“Remember that learning appropriate social skills and how to express yourself takes lots of practice, just like learning math or spelling,” says Dills. And parents, take this to heart—the connection your child craves needn’t be extraordinary. Cuddling up for a story, playing trucks for a couple minutes, giving her a looooooooonnnnnnng hug … you have all the tools to give her exactly what she needs.