This week’s question is from Nana,
“My four-year-old daughter hits, climbs on people’s bodies, screams, and does all kinds of physical behavior when she wants my attention. This happens whenever I’m talking with someone besides her. Sometimes she’ll even scratch or hit me. I’m not sure about the best way to handle this.”
In this episode, I will address the insistent and sometimes physically aggressive behavior that kids exhibit when they want our attention. We will talk through what is normal, how to proactively address it, what to do in the moment, and long-term ideas to work on for behavior change.
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Why do kids use aggression for attention
- All parents deal with kids inappropriately interrupting (may include physical aggression/acting out); especially typical for younger kids or those with neurodevelopmental challenges or anxiety
- Kids go through at various ages and stages, for a variety of reasons
- Occurs when they are struggling with managing uncomfortable feelings and acting out; feelings of really wanting something in that moment and the discomfort of not being able to have it
- Best to acknowledge their feelings and allow space for them to have their feelings, but that doesn’t equate to responding to those feelings every time they come up
- Problems arise for everyone when caregivers take on the role of managing a child’s feelings
- Kids need to learn to manage and work through big feelings
- Caregivers can become worn and resentful
- This is self-perpetuating causing persistent insistent behavior when a caregiver takes on this responsibility
- Be clear about the child’s role and our role: all people are allowed to feel what they feel, but it’s not the caretaker’s job to make them feel okay
How to proactively respond to insistent behavior
- Most important: stay calm when the child is interrupting and wanting immediate attention for non-urgent matters
- Use self-talk to remind yourself it’s not a catastrophe and not let them derail you
- Be proactive before the behavior arises, let the child know ahead of time that you will be busy and set them up with something to do or address their needs
- If they interrupt, they will be reminded to wait; use age/developmentally appropriate language
- This previewing/warning can be helpful for some kids: “If X happens, Y is how I am going to respond”
What to do in the moment
- Give a non-verbal signal (finger or hand up to wait)
- May need to also give a simple verbal reminder in a calm voice, then return to your activity
- If they start to act up, continue to give a non-verbal signal to wait but do not verbally engage
- If there is a pause in your activity, you can then engage “I’m now ready to hear what you wanted to tell me”
- If they start to get aggressive or disruptive, set a clear boundary: “Listen, you are allowed to feel how you feel, but I will not allow you to hurt other people or to engage in aggressive behavior.”
- Remember, this is more about them wanting something, not getting what they want, and struggling to handle that
- Make sure that you are spending enough quality time engaged with your child (not 24/7 because that isn’t healthy either)
- Understand and be empathetic if the child is going through a tough period of time. Review their schedule.
- Make it a point to respond to their “bids for your attention” when you are actually able to
- Make sure there isn’t a chronic pattern on the caregiver side for not being responsive/fully present
- Practice/pretend sessions can be helpful: “Oh, I’ve noticed you have a really hard time waiting when I’m doing something else, or it feels really uncomfortable to you when you can’t have me focused on you right now. We’re going to practice with that so that you learn how to feel those feelings, and that you learn that you can be okay with that.”
- Your child gets more comfortable with the emotional experience of waiting and of not having what they want immediately, and builds the trust that you will shift your attention when it’s appropriate
Caregiver self-care and awareness
- It’s really valuable to take some time away from your child consistently, even for short periods throughout the day if not already doing so
- The child will get more comfortable with not constantly being with you or constantly being the center of your attention
- Take time for yourself behind a closed door where you do not respond to your child’s bids for attention
- Set boundaries if you are noticing that you have shifted routines and the things that you would want to do, or prefer to do independently, or with some privacy, to having your kid there all the time because that’s what is comfortable for them
- Kids have to learn that they can handle the experience of wanting something and not getting it
Underlying issues to consider
- When proper strategies and consistencies aren’t enough, look at supports in the areas of nutrition, sleep, or other physiological things
- Nutrition and sleep are the top two common underlying causes for chronic irritability or dysregulated behavior that could be perpetuating these behaviors:
- Inconsistent eating, too many sugars or starches, fluctuating blood sugar, food sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies, etc.
- Sleep quality, quantity, and consistency
- Nutrition and sleep are the top two common underlying causes for chronic irritability or dysregulated behavior that could be perpetuating these behaviors:
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Listener’s Question … 00:01:04
Why Kids Use Aggression for Attention … 00:02:02
Responding to Insistent Behavior … 00:07:15
Steps for In the moment … 00:10:00
Longer-Term Strategies … 00:18:08
Caregiver Selfcare & Awareness … 00:21:15
Underlying Issues to Consider … 00:23:25
Episode Wrap up … 00:25:35
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole, and today I’m answering a question from one of you. I get a lot of questions about the big emotions and the behaviors that kids exhibit, whether they’re diagnosed with some kind of condition or issue or not. Today, we’re going to address behaviors and emotions in the context of kids who constantly seem to want attention. They’re interrupting, trying to derail anything that the parent might be doing that doesn’t involve them. This specific question comes from Nana, who writes: “My four-year-old daughter hits, climbs on people’s bodies, screams and does all kinds of physical behavior when she wants my attention. This happens whenever I’m talking with someone besides her. Sometimes she’ll even scratch or hit me. I’m not sure about the best way to handle this.”
Whether you have a child who maybe gets physically aggressive like that or not, all parents deal with this challenge at some point or another with kids, where they do a lot of interrupting. They don’t want our attention to be elsewhere. Developmentally, that’s really typical of younger kids, toddlers, preschool aged kids, but even for kids who have neurodevelopmental challenges, anxiety, some of those kinds of issues, these things can persist past those early ages. So let’s talk about, as I always start, with the big picture: What’s going on here in the big picture?
So when a child is doing these things, this is a situation where they’re struggling with managing uncomfortable feelings. They are having a feeling of really wanting something in that moment, and perhaps the uncomfortableness of not being able to have what it is they want, in this case, the parents attention. So they’re having these big feelings, they’re struggling to manage these feelings, and they’re acting out because of the feelings. And then we’ve got a parent who’s taking on the role of trying to make the child feel okay, and this sets up a really problematic dynamic that we find ourselves in lots of times as parents, especially if we’re not aware of it, where kids are having big feelings, they’re acting out as a result of those feelings, and then we’re making it our job to make them feel okay. And actually that’s not our job. Kids are allowed to feel however they feel. That’s okay. However they’re feeling is allowed. We need to acknowledge their feelings, we need to make sure that we allow space for them to have their feelings, but that doesn’t equate to responding to those feelings every time they come up or taking on the role of resolving that. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should allow a child’s feelings, even if they’re uncomfortable feelings, to control us. That becomes really problematic when we take on the role of, “Oh, you’re having these feelings. It’s not okay. It’s not okay for you to have these feelings. You need to be feeling better. I need to fix this so that you’re feeling better. That really creates issues. It creates issues for them. They’re not learning to handle their big feelings and that they can manage through them. It takes an impact on us because we’re allowing our child’s feelings and behaviors to control us, and we become really worn out and really resentful about that. So these are not good patterns to be in, and so as I read this question, one of the things that I’m wondering about is: Maybe this is a situation where the parent has taken on the role, across the board, with this child of feeling like she’s responsible for her daughter’s feelings and trying to resolve them, and it’s showing up more persistently in this issue of: Anytime mom is focused on somebody else, the daughter is being really insistent. But I wonder if this is going on in lots of ways across the board, because often I see that that’s the case. So in the big picture, we need to be clear about our child’s role and our role. She’s allowed to feel upset, distressed, ignored, whatever it is, and to work through those, and our role is to acknowledge and accept her feeling, maybe even provide some support around that, but not do the work to make her feel better in that moment. We can provide a safe space and a safe container for kids to work through their own uncomfortable feelings, but it’s not our job to step in and make them go away. So the big picture lesson that we are working with here is: You as the child can absolutely want things. It’s okay to want them. It’s also absolutely okay to not get what you want, and you can handle that as well. That’s, in the big picture, what we need for kids to understand. Now again, this may be developmentally-appropriate behavior, depending on the age or developmental stage of the child. We can expect more of this kind of behavior if the child is going through a period of change or transition in their life, if there are a lot of stressors going on, things like that, if the child struggles a lot with executive function skills or just regulation in general, we can expect that this kind of thing is going to come up and be an issue that we need to deal with. And when we can expect something and know that, “Okay, this is something that kids go through at various ages and stages, for a variety of reasons,” it helps us to stay moreccalm and in control too, because we’re not thrown off guard by it or feeling like, “Oh my gosh, what is so wrong with my kid that they’re doing this?” It’s like, “Okay, I understand. This happens sometimes. This is something that my child is going through right now.” I’m also answering this question, as we get into some specific strategies, based on the fact that this parent has said that this is a chronic, ongoing issue. This isn’t something that happens just occasionally, or we’re not talking about situations where a child might actually have an urgent need that requires them to interrupt or get attention.
Parents, you know the difference between those situations. Obviously, if there’s an urgent need, the kid actually needs something, there’s a problem going on, of course it’s okay for them to interrupt us, and of course, we’re going to respond to it. What we’re talking about here is something different. We’re talking about a chronic ongoing issue where, when the child is having a feeling of wanting something, they’re not getting what they want, they are trying to demand that and falling apart over that, and the parent is stepping in to try to make them feel okay about it. So it’s a different situation than the times when a kid actually does need us to stop what we’re doing and focus on them. So in the moment, what are our strategies that we can use when this is happening, when a child is interrupting us and wanting immediate attention? The first thing is, as with so many of these kinds of situations with kids, we need to focus on keeping ourselves calm. Easier said than done, but so critical for these situations. How can I keep myself calm? Okay. “This is to be expected. My child does this”, or, “We’re going through a lot of changes. She’s struggling more”, or “Yeah, this is something that I’ve been seeing more of during this developmental stage. Okay. I can handle that. This is not a catastrophe. I can keep myself calm. I can take deep breaths”, and we’re reminding ourselves here that we’re going to stay in our lane. “I’m not going to allow my child to derail me. I’m going to stay in control of myself, my emotions, my behaviors, and I’m going to continue focusing on whatever it is that I need or want to be doing in that moment, and she is allowed to feel angry, frustrated, distressed, whatever about that.” So that’s the foundation we’re setting for ourselves when these situations come up. Now, you can do some proactive things here if you know that you’re going to be entering a situation where she may try to demand your attention, where your attention is going to be on someone or something else. You can be proactive and let the child know ahead of time. “Hey, my friend is going to stop by for a few minutes. I’m going to talk with her in the kitchen. Let’s pick something for you to do while she’s here.” That would be a productive way of kind of setting them up with something, letting her know: “If you come to get me or want to talk to me, I’m going to remind you to wait until I’m done talking.” And again, you’re going to use language that’s appropriate for the developmental level of your child. More words, less words, depending, but you’re basically previewing that if you know that a situation’s coming where this is likely to happen. It doesn’t mean that the child isn’t going to have this challenge in the moment, but by previewing it, we’re setting the stage for ourselves, kind of reminding ourselves, “Oh right. This might happen. How am I going to deal with this?” And we’re also setting the stage for them, sort of inoculating them a little bit against what might happen, so that if it does happen, they’re reminded, like “Oh yeah, we talked about this.” There is at least some warning for it, and that can be really helpful for some kids, especially initially when you start working on this, for them to have some warning ahead of time. And again, this is what’s going to happen and just a reminder, here’s how I’m going to respond.
So in the moment she starts interrupting. So let’s say your friend has stopped over. You’re talking to her in the kitchen. Child starts interrupting. And again, we’re assuming not a real need or an urgent need in that moment. I would encourage you to give a nonverbal signal, like putting your finger up to wait, or your hand up to just let her know, “Oh, hold on. I’m in the middle of something, you’re going to need to wait.” And the first time, I think it’s appropriate to give a simple verbal reminder about needing to wait. “Oh, I see you want to tell me something. I’m talking to her right now, I’ll listen to you in just a minute.” Again, more or less words, depending on the developmental level and ability of your child to comprehend that. For some kids, the nonverbal signal might be what you use there, the finger, or the hand up reminding them to wait. And then you go back to what you were doing. So you give that calm but clear reminder, and then you go back to what you’re doing, which was talking to your friend. Now she’s going to whine, cry, whatever it is that she’s going to do. And you can allow that to go on. You’re going to work on not letting her emotional experience of that distress you and derail you, you can continue with your conversation. Now again, if this is a friend, you may warn her ahead of time, “Hey, we’re working on this, it might be a little bit disruptive with our conversation.” You can let people know: This is what we’re practicing with, and that can help too. But most adults who you’re going to be interacting with are going to recognize in the moment what’s going on. They’re going to have empathy for you, like, “Oh yeah, I get it…kids do this sometimes”, and they’re going to go with the flow. So you’re going to continue your conversation regardless of the complaining, the whining, the verbal attempts that your child might be using to get your attention. You continue to kind of hold your hand up, but you’re not going to verbally engage with her. Continue to remind her that she needs to wait. Now, when there is a pause in the conversation, or when you’re ready to pause the conversation or stop the conversation and turn your attention towards your daughter, then go ahead and do that and say, “Oh, now I’m ready to hear what it is you wanted to tell me.” What’s interesting is that a lot of the time at that point, kids will not even remember, or they won’t have anything to say, which is interesting, right? That lets us know that this isn’t really about them having anything that they have a really compelling need to tell us. This is more about them wanting something, not getting what they want, and struggling to handle that.
So now if your child begins to physically climb on you, so you now have given her the reminder, the verbal and the nonverbal reminder that she needs to wait, that you’ll be with her in a minute, and now she is verbally complaining, crying, whining, trying to physically get between you and your friend, trying to physically climb on you, get in your face, maybe even being physically aggressive in some way, there are a few things to do here: First, you stay calm and focused, not on making her feel better, but on what you need to do to prevent her from harming you and going back to your conversation. This is about a clear boundary of “Listen: You are allowed to feel how you feel, but I will not allow you to hurt other people, or to engage in aggressive behavior.” It’s a clear boundary. And in this case, you’re going to, hopefully, as non-verbally as possible, be clear about this boundary, because you’re going to continue with your conversation or with your attention on your friend, but it might look like firmly holding your child’s hands as you continue talking. Maybe you decide to firmly place her on your lap and hold on to her so that she’s not able to hit or pinch, or whatever she’s doing, and you continue with your conversation. The message you’re sending here is “I won’t let you hurt me, but I’m also not going to allow your distress and your feelings in this moment derail or control what I’m doing right now.” That’s a really important message to be sending. “I get it. You’re having big feelings, you’re struggling with those big feelings. That’s okay. You can have those feelings and I am not going to be afraid of your feelings, and I’m also not going to give them so much power that I allow them to control everything that I’m doing.”, a really important message for kids to receive. You may decide to move the child to a different space, depending on how out of sorts they’re getting, depending on different circumstances, and that might look like calmly pausing your conversation with your friend, saying something out loud like “I’ll be able to continue talking with you in a minute. I need to help her to her room first”, something like that. The goal is for you to stay calm, focused on what you’re doing in that moment, and not allowing her feelings to derail you. And then you bring her to her room. Maybe you will leave her there, close the door and leave. And I know that some of you, especially if you are followers of things like positive parenting, mindful parenting, gentle parenting, things like that, you might go, “Oh, no! We’re never supposed to leave our kid alone in their room.” Actually, I think that there are times and places for that, and this is one of them, where the child is clearly distressed, not over you or anything else that’s going on, but over the fact that they aren’t getting what they want, and that’s an uncomfortable experience for them. I think it’s okay in a situation like this to put a child in another space, to come back to quickly finish your conversation and move on from that, and then go back and connect with and address what’s going on with the child. These clear, consistent, firm boundaries need to be in place, and our kids need to sense in these moments, very clearly from us that we are confident about handling the situation, we are confident that their uncomfortable feelings aren’t going to hurt them, their uncomfortable feelings are not an emergency, and we need to be clear about that, because a lot of times, the reasons why these things persist is because we are feeling like the uncomfortable feelings our kid is having is an emergency that has to be dealt with right that second. Think about the message that sends to a child, in terms of how powerful those uncomfortable feelings are. And “Wow, those must be so powerful that I need to do something about them instantly.” That sets kids up for a lot of problems, right? Because feelings are feelings. We have them, we have them all through life and we need to make some intentional decisions about how much power we give those feelings. If we are sending the message to kids that every uncomfortable feeling they have is an emergency that needs to be dealt with and extinguished right away, it’s probably not going to be helpful for them or for us. So we need to feel and portray that we are confident and that we’re in charge enough to not allow every feeling they have to control us.I understand that this is easier said than done, but it’s really, really important. We’re sending the message that “These aren’t things that I, as your parent, get all worked up about, therefore they aren’t things that you need to fear or get totally worked up about either. You feel sad. That’s okay. Feel sad. You feel jealous because I’m paying attention to someone else. That’s okay. Feel jealous. I’m not distressed about your jealousy, your sadness, your big feelings, and you don’t need to be either. They can come, we can let them be there and it’s okay.” That’s the big picture here, and in those moments when we use these strategies and these tools and handle it in that way, we’re giving them practice with getting that message and working through that.
In the longer term, some things to think about here: One is making sure that you are spending enough quality time engaged with your child. That does not mean spending every moment of every day paying attention to your child. In fact, that’s really unhealthy. But you do want to look at if a child is going through a period of time where they’re doing a lot more chronic interrupting, a lot more, what we call getting bids for your attention, you may want to reflect on: “Have I been busier lately? Have our routines changed? Do I need to be intentional about setting aside some time to spend with my child?” That can be important. Also making sure that you are responding to her bids for attention when you’re able. What I notice happening here, and especially in the era of smartphones and things, is often as parents, we aren’t aware of how regularly our kids are giving bids for our attention and we’re not responding because we’re not even aware, because we’re busy on our phone or we’re distracted in our mind with something else. And so it may be that a child is trying to get our attention a lot of the time, and even when we are in a situation where we could turn our attention towards them, we’re not. And so we want to make sure that there isn’t a chronic pattern on our side as the parent of not being responsive to our child’s bids for attention, when we’re able to do that. I also think that some practice sessions can be really helpful here, especially if you have a child where this is not just a developmental phase of them being young or it’s not just a temporary thing that they’re going through, maybe because of some major changes in their life. I think it’s valuable to practice with this. So you can practice and tell your child you’re practicing. “Oh, I’ve noticed you have a really hard time waiting when I’m doing something else, or it feels really uncomfortable to you when you can’t have me focused on you right now. We’re going to practice with that so that you learn how to feel those feelings and that you learn that you can be okay with that.” So you can stage some pretend phone calls and tell them “We’re going to practice with this. I’m going to pretend to answer the phone. I’m going to talk to my friend. You’re going to practice waiting.” And you can set up different practice sessions. You can practice with talking to your partner or another adult who comes over, maybe a grandparent or something, and you tell them. You say, “We’re going to do some practice with this. She’s working on this. I’m working on keeping myself calm. She’s working on waiting and being okay with that.” You can do some practice sessions with other people. Keep them really short initially, where you’re talking to someone else, and literally, you have your child wait until you finish that sentence, and then you shift your focus to her to hear what it is she has to say or whatever. Then you extend it out over longer periods, so that your child gets more comfortable with the emotional experience of waiting, of not having what they want right that second, and builds the trust that you will shift your attention, you will pay attention to her when it’s appropriate, when you’re ready to do that. Okay. So practicing can be helpful.
I also think in a situation like this, it’s really valuable to take some time away from your child consistently, even for short periods throughout the day, so she starts to get more comfortable with not constantly being with you or constantly being the center of your attention. So that could look like something as simple as “I’m going to fold laundry on the bed, you stay in your room with your toys, or you can go outside with dad.” And if she’s not going to choose one of those other things, then you choose for her, and probably it’s sending her outside with dad who can keep her outside while you fold the laundry for even five minutes. This idea of: We can be separate from one another, I can be in control of my time and do the things I need to do. Being a good parent doesn’t mean I’m constantly attending to you and constantly focused on you, and constantly spending time with you every time you want to do that. Okay? Taking time for yourself behind a closed door where you do not respond to your child’s bids for attention. Some parents don’t even go to the bathroom or shower alone because the child wants to be around them all the time. This is not good for you or the child. So practice setting boundaries around going to the bathroom, closing the door and locking it, and then paying attention to them when you’re done and come out. Taking a shower, getting changed in your room. Maybe you go into your bedroom and close the door to have a phone call in privacy. If you’re noticing that you have really shifted a lot of the routines and the things that you would want to do, or prefer to do independently or with some privacy, to having your kid there all the time because that’s what is comfortable for them, I want you to analyze that and start to set some boundaries around that across the board. That’s going to help with all of these things, including the interrupting when you’re talking to other people. It’s so critical that kids understand that they may want to constantly have a parent’s attention, and it’s okay for them to want that, but they’re not going to get that, and that’s also okay. That they can handle the experience of wanting something and not getting it.
Two other quick thoughts, and I touch on this a lot in these kinds of episodes where we’re talking about chronic irritability, dysregulated behavior, these kinds of things: Always keep in mind the role that nutrition and sleep may be playing in these kinds of things. Often kids with chronic dysregulated emotions and behaviors, you’re using all of the good strategies, you’re being consistent, you’re managing your end of things well, and they’re just not improving with this stuff, you want to look at things like: Are we dealing with fluctuating blood sugar levels? Are there food sensitivities? Are there nutrient deficiencies? Is there something going on here at a more foundational physiological level that’s perpetuating these problems and that’s continuing them? So that’s something to think about, especially if, you know as you think about your child.” Yeah. My child tends to have a lot of starches and sugars”, or “My child tends to not eat consistently throughout the day”, or “My child tends to have reactions to foods.” Just be aware of the role that those kinds of things may play, again, when things are chronic and they’re not improving with time and with good, consistent strategies, you want to think about that, And then sleep also. So many issues that sleep can cause in kids from a behavioral and neurological level, so you want to look at if you know that your child is a child who struggles in some way, shape or form with sleep, or has other indicators that maybe sleep isn’t going well for them, that’s going to influence their emotional and behavioral dysregulation too. All the strategies that I talked about in this episode and that I talk about in every episode are all foundational and really important parenting strategies to utilize, but you’re not going to get the consistent improvement if you have something like a nutritional or a sleep issue, getting in the way. You still need to and should be using all of these good tools and strategies, but you may also need to look at some interventions or supports in the areas of nutrition, sleep, or other kinds of physiological things. So I just wanted to touch on that.
I hope that this has been helpful for Nana, and all the rest of you dealing with kids who become very dysregulated, maybe even physically aggressive when you aren’t totally focused on them. Remember, if you have a question you’d like answered on a future show, please feel free to email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can put “Podcast Question” in the subject line to help us out, and you just might hear that on a future show. Thank you, as always, for being here, and I look forward to catching you back next time.