Why Kids Misbehave
"Pay attention to me!"
Kids naturally seek attention. The desire sprouts from two main sources: Either they want you, you, and more you than you can possibly provide (resulting in nagging, whining, or fury that you won't pretend to be the baby again), or they note that they don't have you from the get-go -- you're on the phone, you're trying to make dinner, you have a friend over and actually had the temerity to attempt a conversation -- and seek to remedy their perceived emotional exile by doing something sure to pique your interest. Like squeezing berry punch out the straw of a juice box and onto the floor.
If she craves you, she's likely to take whatever she can get, even if it's yelling rather than hugs. Why? "Because love," Airhart says, "is a primal human need. Children like to know someone cares about them." And young kids aren't very good at deferring gratification.
What to do: As your child gets older -- around preschool -- he'll get better at seeking your affection at appropriate times, but until then you can try to prevent the worst hounding before it starts.
Feed the meter. Provide small doses of praise throughout the day, and you're less likely to end up with a big fat attention-getting blowout, Dr. Karp says. "It can be as simple as noticing: 'I see you cleaned up your room today. I'm really proud of you.'"
When you can be present, be fully present. It's all too easy to fall into the pattern of answering your incessantly chatty 3-year-old with a distracted "mmm-hmm." But when you can, just take a minute to really listen, even getting down to eye level. When your child demands attention and you think you can't provide it:
Give in. Babies and some younger toddlers just won't understand why they can't be held when they want to be held, so just be the parent and scoop up your needy baby.
Use your wiles. Distraction -- anything from a quick snack to the miracle of Teletubbies or Blue's Clues -- may buy you a little time with a child 3 and older. You might also try a surprise plaything, like a big stack of Tupper-ware or a handful of spoons.
Be specific. Tell an older child, from around 4 on up, when you will be able to talk to her. Maybe set a timer to go off when you'll be ready to give 100 percent of you. But stick with what you say. If you promise to "be right there" but are still on the phone 15 minutes later, you're asking for trouble.
Explain clearly, then ignore. If your child is in full revolt, stop what you're doing, explain that you have to cook/talk/work right now and that you'll play with him as soon as you're done, and then just ignore further entreaties. This will be hard, especially if he's a loud entreater. But if he's dry, fed, warm, and safe, it's really okay.