Guest Post: Written by: Amelia Bowler, MADS- Board Certified Behaviour Analyst
Question: How can you divide your time equally between your children?
Answer: You can’t.
And that’s okay. I would never try to set you up for a goal that’s impossible. Besides, even if you could make sure your time was evenly divided and perfectly fair, there would be unwanted side-effects to this kind of mathematical approach.
Children need us differently at different times in our lives, so our levels of attention must change depending on age, ability, special needs, academic demands, and emotional sensitivity.
We also want to make sure we’re not encouraging our children to compare or measure the attention we give. Sure, they will notice when there is a difference, but we can’t promise that everything will be equal (unless we are willing to use a ruler to pour juice and a spreadsheet for sharing the toys).
So, knowing that it is impossible to divide our time and attention equally, what do we do about a child who can’t seem to get enough attention, or who pounces on us whenever we try to spend time with another child?The most effective strategies are the ones you can use BEFORE anyone starts acting out!
Here are three ways to set your children up for success, so they aren’t so tempted to tease, beg, or harass.
1) Pour it on thick. Start strong!
The best way to prevent attention-seeking behavior from becoming a problem is to start with an abundance of attention! Make time to really connect. You might be groggy in the morning, but if you can, start the day with as much kindness as you can. If your child is a bit of a bear in the morning, you can still lay out the welcome mat—what about an extra-special breakfast? Chocolate chips sprinkled on oatmeal? A frozen pancake warmed in the toaster? It’s a little extra effort that will often be paid back in huge dividends.
If you need to get up early to make those lunches before the kids roll out of bed so that you can scoop them out in a cozy hug, this time is still a worthwhile investment. Remember when we were told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Give your kids a heaping “bowl” of attention for breakfast, and it may help regulate their “appetite.”
If this is tricky to do with both children at once, it might be possible to soak them in that love one at time. Can you and your partner coordinate? Can you stagger the wake-up times? Can you plan some activities ahead of time so that one child is occupied while the other gets your full attention?
2) Send clear signals.
Mom? Mom? Mom? Mom? Short little bursts of attention throughout the day can be draining. Without clear signals, your child never knows quite when you’re available, so he or she checks in frequently (just like you might check your phone, just in case)!
Here are some ways you can signal your availability, so your child has a clear idea of exactly when to ask for your attention.
- Narrate! Say it out loud, so your kids know what to expect, e.g., “I’m going to help Rowan with his helmet, and then I will help you look for your socks,” or “It’s time to help Piper with her homework! We’re going to working until the timer goes off. Fynn, want to sit with us and color, or go help Dad in the garage?”
- Stay consistent! If you’ve decided to focus on one person or activity, gently remind your child with a “When… then…” phrase, such as “When April and I are finished nursing, then we can go ride bikes!” Be predictable, and you should see a decrease in whining and begging (although this may take some time!)
- Use timers and visuals. For best results, start with an intense burst of quality time, and set an alarm or visual to let your child know that you will be transitioning to another activity. If your child finds this difficult, role play this so that your child is in charge of the timer, and model the right way to respond. This kind of strong signal can help your child understand what to expect, and to learn that even when he or she is not the focus of attention in that moment, you’ll be back soon to shower them with more! I’ve used this with children as young as two years old, and it can be really effective.
3) Team effort!
Group activities can give you a break from the feeling of being stretched or tugged between children. Try a whole-family game of hide-and-seek, or a ride in a wagon outside. Some activities that require taking turns or cooperation, like cooking together, are worthwhile but challenging because they require require a lot of patience and negotiation. The same is true of activities where the materials are limited, like play-dough or race cars. The best and easiest activities are the ones where everyone can join in together, or the children can team up against the parents! There’s something about going outside that just eases the tension and energizes you for the next time you need to be in the ringleader in a circus full of monkeys.
Remember: Every family is different, and the sibling relationship will continue to change over time. If you’re in a hard spot, or you have just had a draining day, there’s always another opportunity to start creating new patterns, and finding some positive moments. Every little moment of joy and cooperation is a way to practice and build those relationships.
About the Author:
Amelia Bowler has a Masters Degree in Applied Disability Studies specializing in Applied Behaviour Analysis. She is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst, teacher and blogger, who provides weekly creative behaviour strategies at AmeliaBehaviour.com, and posts daily on Facebook, journaling her adventures with her own little monkeys.