Undue Attention vs Real Needs?

Dr. Laura-

My youngest daughter, who just turned 6, has become very clingy to just me, especially over the last several years. She's very social, happy, friendly, & seemingly well-adjusted, gets along well at school with friends & teachers, & gets along well with family members, but is extremely possessive of me & my time. She insists on sitting next to me (or on me) for everything, if I'm in the house she wants only me to help with her activities, bedtime routine, etc. She comes in our room every night & sleeps on the floor on my side of the bed. And so on. My husband (her stepfather) thinks she is too dependent on/attached to me. I don't know that I agree with that, but I do agree that some of her behaviors do seem to be an attempt at "undue attention" (from Jane Nelsen's Positive Discipline books) however she can get it. Is this a need or is she just seeking attention in negative ways? I have to be missing something on how better to handle this. Thanks! -- Ashley

Dear Ashley,
I love your question!

You say that your daughter is extremely possessive of you in the past few years, and that your husband, her step-dad, thinks she's too dependent on/attached to you. You aren't sure you agree, but you do think that some of her behavior is an attempt at getting "undue" attention.

The reason I love your question is that it's one we've all had. When our child gets needy or clingy, is that ok, or is it too much? How much attention is enough? If they're being demanding, should we be rewarding them with attention?

Bottom line, I don't agree that there is such a thing as "undue" attention. If our child is asking for our attention, she needs our attention.

Does that mean that she runs your life and gets everything she demands? No, of course not. You're a person too, and you need to take care of yourself and your marriage if you want to keep your own "love cup" full enough to share with your daughter.

But it does mean that we can start from the premise that your six year old is expressing something valid that we can respect, even when we can't always fulfill her requests.

You mention that your daughter has gotten more clingy in the past few years and that she has a step-dad. You don't mention the timing of the step-dad's entrance into the family, and you don't mention a dad, but I would suspect there's a connection here. If there has been a divorce, then your daughter is reacting to loss. And there are very few kids of any age who don't perceive stepparents as competitors for their parents' love. ("Mommy stopped loving Daddy. Now there's this new guy. Will Mommy stop loving me now?") The usual reaction to that kind of competition is to cling, demand, etc.

Even without this special circumstance, many six year olds go through a clingy phase. They are making so many leaps -- learning to read, starting real school, learning to ride bikes and tie shoes, etc -- that often they need the reassurance that Mommy is still there for them. They may seem confident and happy in the world, but even a well-adjusted six year old has daily experiences that are scary. These are things we wouldn't even notice -- going on a playdate without a parent, the disapproval of a teacher, not being able to find the bathroom in a new school, an alpha-kid at school refusing to let them play.

All of which is simply to say that your six year old will go through phases where she needs more closeness to reassure her. Evaluating whether she is "too dependent" doesn't seem constructive. All kids move from dependence to independence on their own schedule, and by the time she's thirteen you'll wish she wanted to spend time with you. In the meantime, the more you meet her need for connection, the more secure she'll be as she experiments with independence. So I have to disagree with your husband that your daughter is "too attached."

As for Jane Nelsen, I'm not sure which book you are referring to, but it is my perception that Jane's approach evolved considerably over the years. In her earlier books, for instance, she recommends "consequences." When I interviewed her on my radio show two years ago, she told me she no longer recommended consequences because parents use them as punishment, and even if they don't, kids perceive them as punishment (unless the parent is not involved in the consequence, such as the child being hungry because he forgot his lunch.) So I am surprised to hear that Jane Nelsen is suggesting that kids who want to be close to their parents are seeking undue attention, but if indeed that is what she said, I have to respectfully but forcefully disagree.

I do agree that kids sometimes act in ways that most adults would perceive as "demanding" or "difficult" or "impossible." That is always a sign of unhappiness. I can't tell from your letter if this is true of your daughter, or if her preference for your company is expressed with affection and enthusiasm. You do say that she seems to be seeking attention in negative ways, so if, in fact, she is threatening, difficult and demanding, that would be a cry for help. In that case, she needs your attention even more than ever, but she might need a different sort of attention than she is asking you for. What she really needs is a chance to let out some unhappy feelings. How?

A. Love her through those feelings
B. Help her play the feelings out

Let's take these in turn.

A. Love her through those feelings

1. Set a reasonable, loving boundary. If there is something that you need to set a limit about -- for instance, you and your husband will be going out to dinner and she doesn't want you to, even though she will be with someone she knows well and enjoys -- go ahead and set that limit. (This needs to be something you feel clarity about -- as opposed to guilty -- so that you can stick to your limit.) Tell her kindly what will be happening.

2. Empathize with your daughter's unhappiness about your limit. Whether or not you agree with her feelings isn't the point; she's allowed to have them. "You really wish I wouldn't go."

3. Let her cry and rage. Most likely, if she has indeed been expressing unhappiness through her demanding behavior, she will over-react. Of course, it isn't an over-reaction, she is tapping into the reservoir of fear and sadness that's been driving her behavior.

4. Love her through it. It's your tenderness that allows her to feel safe expressing all those yucky feelings. Stay with her and let her vent. Don't take it personally.

There's a more elaborate description on my website of how to love your child through her upset in this letter about an angry five year old.


B. Help her play the feelings out

Kids need to express their feelings and work through their issues in one way or another . I've already described helping your daughter to cry and rage. But humans, particularly children, can also use play very effectively to work through our emotions. I would strongly suggest that you play some games with your daughter that allow her to "act out" her desire to possess you. You'll notice that these games also help her work though the other things that are most likely driving her, for instance, her fear that if she doesn't constantly pursue closeness with you, you'll just vanish into the arms of your husband. Here are some specific games to help her work through these issues:

1. When she is annoying you by being demanding of your attention.

"Are you out of hugs again? Let's do something about that!" Grab your child and give her a LONG hug -- as long as you can. Don't loosen your grip until she begins to squirm and then don't let go immediately. Hug harder and say "I LOVE hugging you! I never want to let go. Promise I can hug you again soon?" Then let go and connect with a big, warm smile, and say "Thank you! I needed that!"

2. Give her the power.

When she wants to climb on top of you, make a game of it. Tell her jokingly "No, no, don't climb on top of me...you're too big...you might squish me....Oh, no, now you're on top of me...I can't move...I can't get up... I have to stay right here with you no matter what....I am all yours...Nobody else can even see me.....You're in charge of me...."

3. Let her experience you pursuing her, so she gains confidence that she can stop pursuing you constantly and you will stay close.

You play the bumbler as you chase her, hug, kiss, let her get away and repeat again and again: "I need my Chloe fix....You can't get away...I have to hug you and cover you with kisses....oh, no, you got away...I'm coming after you....I just have to kiss you more and hug you more....You're too fast for me....But I'll never give up...I love you too much...I got you....Now I'll kiss your toes....Oh, no, you're too strong for me...But I will always want more Chloe hugs...."

4. Let her win you away from your husband.

Enlist your husband in this game. You sit on the couch. He should get between your child and you, and boast "You can't get to Mommy! You are all mine! Only I get to be with you! I will keep you from getting to Mommy!" As she tries to get to you, your husband should grab at her, but bumble and be unsuccessful. You should cheer her on, expressing your clear preference and confidence that she will be able to get to you. When she reaches you, laugh and hugs her. Your husband needs to make sure he is not scary to her, but instead gives her just enough of an obstacle that she actually pushes her way past him while he ineffectually bumbles. He should boast and challenge your daughter and keep and trying to grab her. Exaggerate your boasting. "You can't push around me to get to Mommy!" and then bumble and let her push past to you. I suspect your daughter will giggle and giggle, which means that she is releasing fears and anxieties about wanting you to herself.

5. Help her giggle those feelings out instead of having to cry them out.

Here's a description on my website of the Escape game.

After a play session of one of these games (I would just do one in a session, but don't be surprised if your daughter begs to repeat it many times, and for many days), your daughter is likely to relax more in her connection with you. They're like magic! Please do let me know which ones you try and how they work out.

In closing, I want to commend you. You are clearly doing something right to have a daughter who is "very social, happy, friendly, & seemingly well-adjusted, gets along well at school with friends & teachers, & gets along well with family members." She's doing just what she needs to do to meet her developmental challenges in a healthy way. You are also letting your daughter come into your room and sleep near you when she needs to in the night. Clearly, you're working hard to meet your little girl's needs. I know it can seem like a lot right now. You mention that she's your youngest, so you have seen how fast your older child or children have grown. You will never be sorry for the foundation of loving support you're giving your daughter. Enjoy her while she's young!

I wish you every blessing.
Dr. Laura

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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