The demanding child. Almost every family has one. Very often the eldest in the family, but not always, the demanding child makes you want to tear your hair out.
I’ll never forget that phase in time (it seemed to last forever) when my two-year-old son would wail “Caaaarrry me! Caaaarrry me!” demanding to be held at times when it was simply impossible. For example, I’d be making dinner, holding his baby sister, and handling a phone call from work, and all the while his voice was ringing in the background with the familiar refrain “Caaaarry me!”
This seemed to go on all the time, and I actually believed it would never end. It did end, though, and now, although he is a spanking, handsome, well-groomed seven year old, I still look at him sometimes and wail “Caaaaaarry me!”, and then the two of us have a good laugh.
Even back then when he made my life chaos, I knew my demanding child was very bright. He was highly articulate for his age, and wooed everyone with his adorable smile. Whenever I took him out I got comments “what an adorable boy! So smart!”
And yet at home, he was incessantly demanding, difficult to please, and overly emotional. As a first-time mom, I was easily overwhelmed by his demands, thinking that I simply could not handle him, that I was just not cut out for motherhood because things would be this way forever. I know better now.
The demanding child is one who presents some or all of the following characteristics:
- Easily bored, has difficulty entertaining him or herself
- Highly intelligent
- Highly sensitive and reactive to your moods (i.e. becomes irritable when you’re irritable)
- Purposely engages in negative behaviors to elicit a parent’s reaction (i.e. climbing on the table to make you say “No”)
- Enjoys being read to, and played with, and persistently asks for you to engage with him/her in these activities
- Demonstrates strong persistence in trying to obtain things s/he wants (i.e. “carry me!”)
- Presents a cooperative, easygoing manner in outside environments, and a difficult nature at home
If you are nodding your head “yes” and exclaiming “That’s my child!” then you are the parent of a demanding child.
The source of the child’s demanding nature is not a desire to be “bad”, is not that the child is spoiled, or ill-mannered in any way. Rather, the demanding child behaves the way s/he does because of his or her unique, bright, and inquisitive nature.
As the parent of a demanding child, you will find it useful to know that what the demanding child craves and needs more than anything else is structure. This child needs to be busy and engaged, every waking minute, otherwise begins to feel a sense of boredom that is extremely powerful, and extremely unpleasant to the child.
The best way I can describe this emotion is that it feels similar to what an adult would experience as panic and anxiety. The demanding child does not know how to fill the void of ‘what to do now’ and experiences this panicky emotion as a result. In response to that emotion, the child plays on the adult caregiver, demanding that s/he fill the void and end this panicky sensation.
This demonstrates itself as persistent unreasonable demands for the caregiver’s time and attention which the parent finds so frustrating. The child may also engage in negative behaviors to elicit the caregiver’s reaction. Strong emotional reactions such as “NO!” and “Stop that!” may be negative, but they alleviate the boredom/anxiety experience for the child.
So how to handle the demanding child? The answer is that it is not always easy, but understanding that boredom anxiety is triggering these behaviors is often key. Here are some pointers to help you cope with your demanding child.
- If you can, enroll your child in a structured day care or preschool program for at least a portion of the day.
- If you are a stay-at-home mom and your child is with you, create a highly structured routine in which your child will be less likely to experience boredom anxiety. For more on how to create a daily routing, see my archived article, Routines Rock-and Your Baby Needs Them.
- Prepare “busy-work” to keep your child occupied during times when you will be unable to entertain him/her, such as when you are cooking dinner or attending to other responsibilities. Busy work activities can be done independently by the child in a high chair or at a toddler table. Things like play dough, a sensory bin, coloring, or using stickers can all be rotated to keep your child engaged.
- Get out of the house. Going for short walks and then returning home relieves some of the boredom anxiety for your child. S/he is more likely to be calm and engage in play with his/her toys after leaving the house, even for a brief time.
Remember that the demanding toddler will likely grow out of this stage by the age of four or five. However, this child is likely to have a more anxious, highly-sensitive nature than other children. It is just a part of his/her package that makes him/her unique. Celebrate the positive and beautiful parts of his/her personality. And accept that sometimes anxiety comes along with giftedness.