My preschooler was an only child for two years and ten months. During that time, he held the additional esteemed title as the first boy born to our maternal side of the family for three generations. This, coupled with mommy and daddy’s fullest attentions, molded something of an unparalleled, unspoken privilege to everyone’s tending and affections. He could babble to mommy and daddy 24 hours a day. We videoed him every day to post to social media for faraway family members. He did baby swim class and music class with mommy. Jrue was, essentially, an only child with coveted only child perks.
Then, mommy and daddy ruined that for him when we decided to have a second child, then a noted project dubbed “J2.”
The J2 initiative was expediently successful.
Baby Jai is now 18 months old. I indicate that fact because it has been a long 18 months of us astutely observing what seems to be Jrue’s longing for those only child days, though, as time moves forward, we know he most certainly won’t remember what it was like. However, he has recently been increasingly haphazard and whiny. He has deemed himself pauperized somehow, constructing merciless problems in his brain for us to solve, regardless of the irrelevance of the request.
Of late, he starts right in at 7 in the morning with, “Mommy, watch this!” Being a mommy in continuous attempts to maintain peace as much as possible, I indicate intentions to focus on his invitation. He stands still and makes a face. Or strikes a vogue-like pose. Or merely kicks his foot. Anything for my reaction. I make more or less enthusiastic comments based on the creativity or energy put into the attempt, then reorient him to the task at hand.
Throughout the morning before school, Jrue runs a super-powered conversation concerning anything that comes to his mind: what he intends to learn at school, his favorite yellow car, the color of the moving clouds today. If I do not sustain both a close verbal contact and an invariant visual presence to Jrue, it becomes a repetitious yelling of my name that slopes downward quickly into a tearful wipeout. This could mean 15 questions, 22 observations, and 7 demands in a 30-minute scope of time…before we even get into the car to go to school. On a Monday.
This, in itself, is exhausting.
Alternatively, his attention-seeking behavior involves a load of “mommy kissing magic.” I have witnessed other children ask for kisses on boo-boos. I had to have made this level of proposal to my own mother as a kid. My kisses on boo-boos must hold some poignant hocus pocus, though, because, as soon as I physically nurse Jrue’s incessant “injuries,” he is immediately back to an otherwise normal state.
It’s not having to do the kissy face that has become bothersome. It’s the frequency of his traumas. And the places I am asked to “fix.”
Kneecaps are fine. Toes are fine. Pulling out a lower lip to kiss is…strange.
Butt cheeks cross a line.
I usually just go for his forehead to get him to move along. That method has not yet yielded a 100% success rate, however. Sometimes, I have to kiss my hand, then pat his bottom.
It’s just one of those things.
In between “Mommy, watch this” and “I’m hurt!” he gets into trouble with daddy for telling daddy to “stop talking” or for exclaiming other “big people” imperatives. He pushes Jai away from me or interrupts us when I am reading independently to her. He aggressively moves in between mommy and daddy when we sit together on the couch. Jrue screeches from a bedroom for a sippy cup of milk. Instead of trying to retrieve a lost toy, he cries for mommy to find it. He will even declare all-out war if there is something he wants and cannot get it at just that precise second.
It’s an honestly uncertain circus when it comes to what Jrue will do or say for our positive or negative attention. I am often at wit’s end and find myself enacting just the screeching I instruct him constantly not to do. I don’t know if he is losing his mind on various days or just putting up a great acting montage.
Apparently, this is a solid phase of preschooler development. Psych Central gives the big picture of how young children grasp a sense of attention. “By trial and error, growing children figure out what makes adults continue to give them attention and what drives them away. Since they are dependent on us, they do everything they can to get the love and nurturance they need. Usually their early experience shows them that when they are well-behaved, when they learn new skills, and when they are happy, they pull adults closer. When the adults react with interest, affection and approval, the children strive to please, to copy the big people, to grow in their social and practical skills, and to find a positive place in their family.” (Hartwell-Walker, “What to Do About Attention-Seeking Kids”)
This makes sense. Jrue is a good student, says his highly-attentive teachers, and a sweet, introverted spirit. When he is surrounded by his peers, he soaks in the learning atmosphere. When we pick him up from school, we revel in the songs and dialogue and dances he has gained from the day. Jrue is into the approval of adults around him and usually behaves well for that intimately positive reflex. We see this in the goofy dances he puts on for his grandparents when they are in town and in his holding up artwork-in-progress for my praise.
Here’s where, psychologically, we fall into a fragile grey area with Jrue. Dr. Hartwell-Walker writes, “But when children consistently can’t get a response, they get desperate. . .Lacking enough positive interaction, a child will develop negative tactics to re-engage the adults. Being scolded, nagged, reminded, and punished is far better than being ignored. By finding ways to be personally addressed by an exasperated or angry adult, the child makes sure that at least he isn’t forgotten. . . Some children just need more interaction than others. . . Spilling the milk, fighting with a sibling, or pitching a tantrum may not get love and snuggles but these antics certainly get the adults involved.” (Hartwell-Walker)
After reading this, I believe my son needs a continual degree of encouragement to get through his days. This may be his nature, at least, as a child. We will begin undergoing some speech therapy soon that will assist him in expressing his specific needs verbally, as opposed to screaming nonsense when he is upset.
At any rate, I recognize when he is griping for my attention when I am “busy” cleaning. We try to address legitimate needs, as at snack times and when he is bored. I take the time to give as many compliments as possible throughout the day, which I know he takes in because he gives the same ones back periodically. We are engaging and consistent in feedback and in discipline. If I say I will put him in his room for throwing, that’s just what I do, and that induces many tears during his 5-minute time-out sessions. It is also suggested that we simply ignore the behavior, but not ignore Jrue. This is difficult because he will walk right up and shriek into the face of the person he is seeking.
Another way to redirect tough behavior, suggested by Dr. B for the blog Mommy Shorts, is this: “You can break this negative cycle by observing what happens right before and after the challenging behavior to find ways to avoid your child’s triggers and respond in ways that don’t maintain or reward the negative behavior.” (Dr. B, 2011) We can also introduce alone time with Jrue for each parent when, say, the bullying towards Jai begins, a daily challenge. I detest when he bullies her because she has developed an aversion to his presence…she often runs away when he enters the room, particularly when she has a toy, for fear that he may snatch it away.
I never want them to despise one another. I feel that, per this behavior persists, it will become the norm for him to be a “problem child.” I will not tolerate that.
Crushing Jrue’s antagonistic, not-so-savory attention-seeking methodology may just come down to time and patience. I’m willing to put all hands on deck into practice to pushing time along just slightly.
Before I have to put him out on the front porch.
Dr. B. “10 Strategies to Deal With Challenging and Attention Seeking Behavior.” Mommy Shorts, Jun. 14, 2011, http://www.mommyshorts.com/2011/06/early-development-attention-seeking-behavior-in-children.html. Accessed Oct. 15, 2017.
Hartwell-Walker, Marie. “What To Do About Attention-Seeking Kids.” Psych Central, n.d., https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-to-do-about-attention-seeking-kids/. Accessed Oct. 15, 2017.