Everyone at every age needs attention! It feels good when someone focuses his or her full attention on you. Being attentive also feels good to your infant or toddler (and older children). For children, getting attention is even more important than for adults. Children need attention in order to grow, develop self-esteem and a positive sense of identity, and to flourish and succeed. There’s even research showing that parental attentiveness has a connection to releasing children’s growth hormones.

Of course, you want to give your child attention. Sometimes though, it seems they need lots and lots of attention and time, more than perhaps you feel you have. You don’t have to be there every minute of every day, but do consider when to give them attention, how much to give, and what kind of attention works best.

The Basics

When your infant or toddler cries because they are hungry, physically uncomfortable or sick, for example, it’s critical you respond to their immediate physical needs. Your response also shows them your love and teaches them they have an effect on the world. Your infant or toddler has many emotional needs too.

Be attentive to your Child’s emotional needs by

  •  Smiling
  • Hugging, kissing or cuddling with them
  • Talking in a gentle and soothing voice (even if they are not talking yet)
  • Singing and reading to them
  • Holding their hand so they feel safe when you are out in the world

Be There Fully

You can’t be there all the time, but when you are there make it count!

Some experts say with 15 minutes of fully-focused attention, children will feel satisfied and independent for the next half hour or so. You can be fully attentive to your child and then attend to that work email or the dishes.

How to make the time count

  • Put down your phone, tablet or other device.
  • Avoid vague judging words, even if they seem positive, like “good job.” Instead respond specifically and descriptively – “You made a really big ball with that clay.”
  • Try being at eye level with your toddler. If you are from a culture that looks at people directly, look your child in the eyes when engaging with them.
  • Take cues from your child. Use what’s called “Incidental Teaching.” On the coast and tired of answering a million “why” questions about the ocean? Ask your child “How deep do YOU think the ocean is?” Likely, they’ll have no idea, but you can spark their imagination and maybe even stop the current round of why questions while they learn. And you may be amazed with what they tell you!

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

If you give your child attention for negative behavior, they can get the message, “If I want mom’s attention, I can throw this dish on the floor.” What can you do instead?

Instead of giving your child attention for negative behaviors, try:

  • Emphasizing the Positive. If your child often pulls the cat’s tail, but you notice a time when she is petting him, let her know you are paying attention – “The cat really likes it when you pet him so carefully. See how he purrs. I love how gentle you are.”
  • Helping your child name feelings: “You look angry that the cat won’t play with you.”
  • Suggesting alternatives and distractions: “The cat won’t play with you now. Let’s take the dog up Skinner Butte. She’ll like that.”
  • Trying to discover what may be behind the behavior. If negative behaviors persist, even for a short time, there may be something else going on. Your child might be in the early stages of an illness before they show any obvious symptoms, for example. They may not feel well, but don’t know how to express it. Perhaps they had a disappointment at child care that is making them feel insecure or frustrated.

Be patient. Remember your child is trying to get their needs met in the best and often only ways they know.

Put Away the Cape!

Not even Supermom or Superdad can be attentive to their child 24/7. You don’t need to be a Superhero. You can, however, give your child focused and necessary attention. Remember to smile at them and hug them and sing to them and listen to their interests. When you do, your child will know and trust that they are loved and cared for, and learn to be self-confident and independent too.