When it was almost time for school to start this year, I finally went through the grocery bag of my daughter’s stuff we picked up from her school in May. And I had a bit of a meltdown when I opened her little pencil box and saw all the familiar debris of an elementary student’s desk (ripped off crayon wrapping, eraser rubbings, dull pencils, bits of paper), as I pictured her hurriedly shutting it on that last day of school (which was her birthday, incidentally) and not knowing she’d never open it again while sitting at her desk in her beloved first grade teacher’s room. I recently saw a meme describing how one day in March our kids came home from school on a Thursday and then never returned. Their world as they knew it then is almost unrecognizable today.
Our children are going through so much right now.
It’s no wonder my kids’ attitudes have deteriorated rapidly over the last six months. I mean mine has as well. Behaviors I haven’t seen from them since they were toddlers adjusting to a new sibling, and the upheaval that brings, are suddenly resurfacing or manifesting in new ways. I’ve found myself turning to the only strategy I had any success with during those periods: increased one-on-one time with each of them.
Ultimately, I have noticed that most of my children’s worst behaviors are attention seeking, aimed at reestablishing a connection with me that they feel is in jeopardy. It was this way when we brought home new siblings that were suddenly an additional demand on my time and it’s been like this again recently when everyone has been home together, sharing a small space and limited parental resources while also feeling anxious, confused and in need of reassurance. I am currently homeschooling my second grader while also trying to be everything and do everything for my preschooler and toddler.
It’s a lot.
Most evenings and weekends I just want to check out once my husband is home, to retreat to my room with a book or step into a hot shower. There are plenty of days I do just that, but I am also trying to be more intentional and creative about ways I can snatch a few minutes of quality time with each of my babies. While my husband is bathing our toddler and my second grader is showering in the other bathroom, I can snuggle the preschooler on my bed with a book he alone gets to choose. When my oldest daughter gets up, saying she’s hungry, after I’ve finally gotten everyone to sleep for the night, I can hand her a few of the pretzels I’m eating and let her watch 20 minutes of a (kid appropriate) TV show with me that her younger siblings wouldn’t be interested in. While my husband takes the older kids to ride bikes, I can lay with my toddler on the couch for 20 straight minutes letting her go back and forth, nursing on both sides over and over as many times as she wants.
Though these little moments aren’t like the mommy/daughter or mommy/son dates we’d have before Corona where they’d get to choose an activity for a Saturday morning and a lunch spot after, I really do see an impact on their behavior during the following days. They are happier, less snappish with their siblings, less belligerent with me and quicker to fix mistakes and correct poor behavior when I ask. And I feel better too. I remember my sweet babies are dealing with so much. I get to enjoy them and their personalities individually, and separate them as people from the behavior that is problematic. I have more patience to draw on and a better understanding of where they’re coming from or what is bothering them.
I know there are many thoughts and opinions on how to handle attention-seeking behavior. Many believe that giving children attention after a meltdown reinforces their actions or means they’ve successfully manipulated us. Programs advise extinguishing the behavior by giving attention to the other person or even object the child is acting out with, refusing to “reward” the kid with any acknowledgment, lest they feel successful for having attracted negative attention. But I believe with all my heart that respecting our children as little humans with complex emotions and needs is always going to be the best strategy for dealing with issues.