A father recently shared that his young son was calling him by his first name. The father didn’t like it, so he reminded his son to call him “daddy” but it didn’t always work. Upon further reflection and awareness, the father realized what was happening:
When his son needed to get his attention, he would call out, “daddy!” several times before finally yelling, “John!”. When the father heard, “John!”, he would look at his son, remind him to call him “daddy” and then find out what his son wanted. John’s son was learning that if he wanted his daddy’s attention, this was the quickest way to getting it.
John realized that he had been inadvertently ignoring his son. This usually happened when he was watching television, looking at his phone or checking his email. John was tuned out to his son’s needs and didn’t realize his son was calling for him until his son yelled, “John!”. Then he ended up reprimanding his son for calling him by his first name.
John loves his son very much and frequently tells him how much he loves him. His son knows he is loved by his father and loves to hear his dad say the words. And yet, in moments such as the one described above, it would be understandable if the son wondered if he was as important as the thing dad is paying attention to.
From a child’s perspective, the need to share something exciting or scary is immediate. A child wants our attention and connection immediately because we are the most important people to them and because their biological need to attach is strongly urging them to check in with us.
Does this mean that we should drop everything we are doing every single time our child calls us? Of course not! It is important, however, to understand what our children need from us and reflect on times when our actions may not match up well with our words.
Below are some examples of opportunities we have to show our children we love them.
Be present with your child. It is so easy to get distracted as a parent. There are a thousand chores and adult responsibilities each day. Our children need us to be present to them consistently throughout the day. This isn’t the same as being constantly available throughout the day. Look for short periods of time to particularly tune into your child and spend time together without any distractions. This can be especially helpful after separations, such as the 10 minutes after you get home from work or they get home from school. Or just before separations, like bedtime or before the babysitter shows up.
Be aware of the bottom half need to connect. If your child is calling you, they very likely want to check in briefly to make sure you are still there. Spending 30-90 seconds letting them know you are there and interested will allow their attachment system to settle back down. Then you can support them in returning to the top half of the circle.
Play! Get in there and play together! Go outside and run around, pull out the messy art supplies, get down on the floor, pretend to be animals, toss or kick the ball around – do the things your child enjoys doing. Children love it when an adult is willing to be silly with them (plus, it’s a great stress reliever for us!).
Cuddle, snuggle, hug, high-five, tickle, kiss – love on them. Children (and adults) need a lot of physical connection. In our busy lives, it can be easy to overlook how often our children need our touch. Get intentional about initiating this type of connection. Your child will let you know when they’ve gotten enough!
Make decisions and set boundaries in a loving and firm way. When you do have to set a limit, make sure there is structure and patience involved. Let the child know what the expectations are (“we can wrestle for ten minutes and then I need to get back to the dishes”) and know it will be hard for the child (“It’s sad for me too when we have to stop doing something fun but our play time is done.”). If you allow the boundaries to get pushed out too far, you will lose your patience, which will likely make the situation harder on both of you.
Give yourself a break. This may sound counterintuitive, but if you don’t have time to yourself, then you are probably more likely to tune out here and there throughout the day. Don’t wait until your own cup is empty. Find moments to take some time for yourself…. use the drive home from work to listen to your favorite songs, walk to get a cup of coffee, grocery shop by yourself, take an extra 3 minutes in the shower to breathe. Build in some time for yourself as consistently as possible so you will have enough in reserves to prioritize your children throughout the day.