This post has been re-printed (with permission) in the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness Dec 2012. http://pathwaystofamilywellness.org/item/home.html
You don’t have to spend much time around parents or teachers, or experts, to hear the phrase… “They’re just attention seeking.” While tricks abound about how to suppress attention seeking, what continuously baffles me, is the lack of interest in what lies behind the behaviours. Yes, children can be irritating, rude and sometimes down right naughty in this state, but why. Biologically, what is going on for the child?
When we realise that so-called attention seeking is actually a child seeking to [communicate a need and] feel connected: all becomes clear. The need to feel connected is fundamental to our biology. Many of us have had times of feeling isolated and alone. In the past, to be alone would have meant death or at least to be in great danger. Children are biologically driven to connect with the significant adults around them. [Their survival depends us understanding their needs – if they feel no sense of connection, they have no faith in us understanding and meeting their needs.] The more disconnected they feel, the higher their levels of stress hormone – they will act up until they achieve some sort of connection: then their bodies can naturally calm again. Some disconnections are inevitable (some valuable), but how we handle them and, more importantly, how we handle the reconnection phase is fundamental to parenting. The more we muck this process up, the more often we have irritating, rude and naughty children. Fact.
(Some children are so suppressed behaviour wise that they appear to be managing. Of course they’re not if they’re emotionally disconnected. Revolting tweenies and teenagers or college and adult children who go ‘off the rails’ or ‘shut-down’ are signs this has happened.)
I now have to blog when the Butterfly is asleep. If I don’t, he is continually pulling on the mouse and tapping at the keyboard, and the noise he makes gets louder and more urgent. He is annoying, and as rude as a 17 month old can get, and yes, I could interpret his behaviours as naughty. Sometimes I find it difficult not to snap at him – often it would only take 10 or 15 minutes of concentrated effort to achieve what I want to achieve. His interruptions are damned frustrating! But he is showing his sense of disconnection: as soon as I reconnect – he’s quiet and calm again.
Unlike natural separations (they choose) children feel a sense of disconnection every time we force a separation: when we choose to be on the computer or speak to someone else; go the loo or have a shower without them; or even just by being on the phone. Many people treat these as times for discipline, star-charts or other training, when there’s a much healthier way to manage. It’s all in how we use our eyes.
When you greet your children first thing in the morning, or at the end of the day, or when you have just been concentrating somewhere other than on them try this:
1.Focus your eyes on theirs.
2.Stretch your eyesockets as wide as you can and,
3. Immediately afterwards, crinkle the muscles around your eyes to make them smile. (You might have to practise.)
4. Then enter their world for a few minutes. Let them tell you something, show you something or give you a hug. Just concentrate all of your attention, even your thoughts, on them.
If reconnecting properly (this is biology not opinion) is new for your children, they’ll initially not believe what they are experiencing, and it might take a while for you all to get used to it. Conscious eye-contact still feels un-natural to me, but for our children it’s now normal and the results are fantastic. Aside from everything else: they behave better.
There are three regular daily times of disconnection for most of us. Firstly, immediately after they wake: consciously reconnect, and it will be a smoother process getting out the door. Secondly, when on the phone. If you can see your children, use your eyes to keep contact: connect to them with your eyes (walk around phones are great). Even so, don’t spend too long chatting. If they’re out of sight, make it as snappy as you can without being rude. You’ll save yourself a lot of bad-behaviour and bother by making this little sacrifice. Truly serious phone calls happen rarely.
The other common disconnection happens, particularly for small children, when you’re on the loo or in the shower. For these times, please consider putting aside your discomfort and allowing them in the room with you. They are going to feel anxious otherwise, and most children will do a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g to get you to reconnect. If they appear to be managing, what’s their behaviour like afterwards? Well trained children, show their stress after an event, not during it. They’re still having the same biological reactions – it just manifests at a different time or in a different way – sometimes even as a health issue.
(Besides, with all the anxiety around bodies, the better it is – the more normal, misshapen, baby stretched ones they see.)
The younger the child, the shorter the amount of time it takes for them to experience disconnection and the longer could take them to feel reconnected. [They instinctively know they could not survive without us, any time we are ‘absent’ they experience it as disconnection.] It’s like everything else with parenting: the better the results over time, the bigger the right sort of commitment in the early years. (Hint: if it involves the words ‘training’ or ‘self-esteem’…it’s not the right kind of commitment.)
And temperament matters. Our highly sensitive Owl has a much smaller tolerance for separation from me, and he generally needs longer to reconnect than our more sociable Butterfly or Hare. We could train him not to show us his stress – with stickers, praise or punishment – but then it wouldn’t go away, it would fester. Rather we choose to use the above technique alongside Boring Cuddles (Quick Way to Stop Children Fussing) – so he knows we’re there for him and he learns to manage his emotions for himself.
There are two keys ways to tell if children are well-connected and, therefore less likely to show attention seeking behaviours. Firstly, by recognising how excited they are when they greet their parents after daycare, kindergarten or school – the more excited the better [with the caveat that a more ‘shy’ Owl child could be less demonstrative than others, and that might just be them]. And secondly, by checking how easily they make eye-contact with their mothers: calm, steady and expressive, and all is well.
[The bits in square brackets I’ve added since I first posted, after hakea’s comment, I realised I needed to clarify further. Thanks, hakea.]
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