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“Mummy, can I tell you something?”

I was struck the other day when in the morning busyness of getting my three kids up, dressed and ready for nursery/school my three-year-old came to me asking if he could tell me something sitting down, with a sense of urgency. I had a word with myself to put down the lunchboxes, toys and laundry I was sorting and made a conscious effort to be present in the moment with him. When we sat down, he proceeded to tell me that he “really, really really, reaaaaaaally REAAAAAAAAAALY likes getting into trouble”

As a mother and psychologist, this totally floored me. “It’s not good to get into trouble,” I explained, “…as it means people aren’t pleased with your behaviour. There may be consequences,” I gently told him, “which often takes the fun away”.

Meanwhile, he looked delighted to have succeeded in capturing my time and attention during what is usually the most chaotic moment in family life. He nestled right into me on the sofa with glee, hanging off my every word. I then thought rather than continuing to give my views about why this wasn’t a helpful thought to have, I needed to understand from him why he feels this way.

This situation made me think about the fact that my middle child is coming up with increasingly creative and intentional ways to grab one-to-one parental attention. I put my psychological hat on to try and navigate the rest of this conversation. I was grateful on this occasion that my son sought my attention in a calm, considered way (he doesn’t always!) through conversation before resorting to more negative or destructive ways of gaining my attention.

It is important to recognise that not all children will articulate their wishes or motivation for undesirable behaviour verbally and it is helpful to view challenging behaviour as resulting from one of the following motives:

  1. A desire to avoid something (e.g. doing homework)
  2. A desire for attention at inappropriate times
  3. A misunderstanding, lack of knowledge or information, poor communication
  4. Psychological or physiological basis
  5. Lack of agreed or shared values

So what should you do when your child shares surprising statements with you, or behaves in a way that you wouldn’t want or expect?

  1. Find out their point of view on the matter being discussed e.g. by asking open and tentative questions such as “tell me what’s on your mind” or “what did you want to talk about?” or “what do you mean by that?”
  2. Think about your body language as you are talking with your child;
    • Get down to the child’s level
    • Turn towards them
    • Show interest through eye contact, nodding, smiling etc to encourage them to keep sharing what they want to say and help them to feel valued
  3. Stay calm, talk less and listen more
  4. Praise or thank them for sharing it with you
  5. Reflect for yourself on why they may be sharing this with you at that point in time. I sometimes find it helpful to think “what are they really trying to tell me?” In my own situation I think my son was subconsciously saying “mummy, can we sit together for a quiet moment, just us?”
  6. Rather than asking ‘why’ the child thinks or did that, ask ‘how were you feeling?’ (when X happened/you asked me Y?) and see if that opens up the dialogue to more of an emotional level.
  7. It’s hard to re-prioritise at times, but the to-do-list will wait for you! Try and respond to your child initiating an interaction with you and be present in the moment with them. If you can, set other siblings up with a simple, brief activity (e.g. book/toy/ snack/ TV) for a few minutes to protect some one-to-one time with the child who has sought your attention.
  8. If your child isn’t able to engage in conversation on an emotional level at that moment, ‘wonder aloud’ to help model emotional vocabulary for them. E.g. “I’m wondering if you asked me to sit down because you wanted some quiet time with me before school?”

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“Mummy, can I tell you something?”

I was struck the other day when in the morning busyness of getting my three kids up, dressed and ready for nursery/school my three-year-old came to me asking if he could tell me something sitting down, with a sense of urgency. I had a word

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