Whining, clinginess, tantrums — every toddler has their moments. But those “normal” toddler behaviors that you witness on a day-to-day basis may actually be signaling more than you think. In reality, acting out could be a sign your toddler needs one-on-one time with you.
“Crying, fussing, making noise, throwing a tantrum are all ways toddlers communicate that they need attention,” licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Catherine Athans tells Romper. “Often toddlers cannot express what they are feeling; however, they know that they are not feeling ‘good.’”
Especially if you work from home or are a stay-at-home parent, it may feel like you never get a break from your toddler. How could they possibly need more of your undivided attention? The reality though is that distractions can pile up and that special one-on-one time may fall by the wayside even when you and your toddler are together most of the day. Since they likely won’t have the words to let you know what’s going on, look for the following signs and take steps to reassure and connect with them.
1. Dramatic Toddler Behavior Changes
“In my experience some of the more obvious signs a child is seeking more individualized attention will be dramatic changes in behavior,” Tim Carter, owner of Discovery Tree Academy, a childhood development center with locations in Springville and Payson, Utah, tells Romper. “As providers we often notice almost overnight that children will go from working well in a group setting to not wanting to participate or even intentionally separating themselves from the group.”
You may see this happen within the walls of your own home as well. If your toddler suddenly shies away from or is at odds with siblings, pets, or other family members, this could mean they need more of your time.
2. Trouble With Transitions
“We have also seen a child [who needs more one on one time] exhibit more frequent and unprovoked emotional outbursts when doing simple tasks or transitioning to activities, like inexplicable crying, screaming or yelling over minor situations, or shutting down to authority figures,” Carter says.
My youngest son has dealt with this since toddlerhood. Although he’s nearly 7 now, I can still tell when he’s not getting enough one-on-one attention when he gets overly emotional about things like picking up his room or getting dressed for school.
3. Toddler Tantrums
It’s sometimes hard to distinguish regular fit throwing (out of frustration or being tired, say) from a toddler expressing an actual, specific need. “When toddlers do not have the language abilities to communicate what they need, they may throw tantrums or misbehave — all with the goal of eliciting attention — positive or negative — from the parent/caregiver,” Dr. Sarah Schaffer-DeRoo, a pediatrician at Children's National Hospital, tells Romper.
When a toddler experiences a tantrum, it’s often classified as displaying an “attention-seeking behavior,” which happens as a normal part of child development. “Attention-seeking behaviors can be a sign of an unmet need, whether that is need for a parent’s attention, hunger, or a need for sleep,” Dr. Schaffer-DeRoo says.
4. Your Toddler Shows Aggression Toward Others
When your toddler isn’t getting enough time with you, they may wind up taking out their emotions on the people they’re around. From other students at daycare to other caregivers, anyone can become a target. “Another common behavior change is acting out in a more aggressive manner,” Carter tells Romper. “A child might ‘be mean’ to another child that they in fact really like to spend time with. Or they may start to do or say things to authority figures that isn’t typical for that child to do.”
5. Communication Shifts In Your Toddler
Caregivers who work with your child daily can be a great resource when it comes to noticing shifts in your toddler’s ability to communicate, which can sometimes be a signal that they’re in need of more one-on-one time with you.
“In cases where the child may be a little older and can communicate their feelings, we will hear the child share their perspective on events or life experiences that may seem ‘beyond their years’ for a child of that age to experience,” Carter says. “When our team of providers sees these behavior shifts happen in young children, we adjust our daily routine so we may provide that child more one-on-one time. We will then work with the parents on ways they too can give that child extra attention.”
6. Toddler Regression
“In many cases this will be a very telling sign of emotional distress requiring extra attention from parents and providers,” Carter says. “When a child does regress it can be difficult to pinpoint the reason, because regressions are a natural part of development. We as providers along with the family will sit down to identify if any outside factors could be the trigger of the regression.”
Whether your toddler’s regression happens with potty training, their sleep habits, or their ability to control their emotions, it’s important to address the regression with positive attention so that they can regain any lost skills. “These behaviors can also indicate a feeling of shame about something,” Dr. Athans tells Romper. “Talk to your child. Try to discuss activities of the past few days to see if your child has had a misunderstanding. Be patient. If these behaviors continue, speak to your pediatrician.”
How To Address Your Toddler’s Needs
When it comes to remedying your toddler’s need for one-on-one time, the clear-cut answer is to simply spend more time with them, right? That’s sometimes easier said than done, though. Especially when you’re juggling work, other kiddos, and a whole household, it can be a struggle to dedicate enough time to meet everyone’s needs.
Dr. Schaffer De-Roo tells Romper that parents may find it helpful to work toward “devoting time to their toddler at set times during the day/week that are predictable and routine so that the child can anticipate when he/she will have dedicated time with that parent.”
As for what to do during one-on-one time with your toddler to reassure them, Dr. Athans tells Romper that parents should be distraction-free and down on their toddler’s level. “Hug them. Kiss them. Let them know that you love them. Plan special times during the day to play. Sing with them. Read to them. Play games with them,” she says. “Tell your child, often, that they are special. Tell them that you are proud of them and that you are happy that they picked you to be their parent.”
Dr. Catherine Athans, PhD, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Los Altos, California, author of The Heart Brain.
Tim Carter, owner of Discovery Tree Academy
Dr. Sarah Schaffer-DeRoo, pediatrician at Children's National Hospital