My toddler wants all my attention all of the time - help!

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Q: My daughter is only 18 months old, but I'm starting to worry that she's the one in charge.

She is super mummy-focused and loudly opinionated. At this age, I know separation anxiety can be high, so I don't want to push her away.

But she is constantly trying to control my every move. Mostly, I am just supposed to always hold her, but often there are demands on top of that. And sometimes I need my hands!

She is much more subdued with my husband if I am not around. And she does great at daycare. Any advice?

A: Children being in charge of their parents is a major problem, and I see it frequently in 4-year-olds and up. But 18-month-olds? This is a different story.

You are noticing all of the age-appropriate behaviours for your 18-month-old, so let's go into why an almost-2-year-old becomes so "mummy-focused."

Your daughter biologically needs to stay close to you, and her body and mind are built to keep you close. The following, the crying and the demands for you to hold her are not manipulative.

Her brain sounds an alarm that says, "Stay with Mum, stay with Mum, stay with Mum." Although it seems as if she is easiest to handle at daycare and when she's with your spouse, all this neediness means that she is most attached to you.

So understand that she is not trying to manipulate you. This is a crucial shift in your thinking, and it can help your feelings go from resentment to empathy. If you resent her reaching and cries, it will usually lead you to wanting to teach her a lesson or nip this kind of behaviour in the bud. And while shame, punishment, time outs and yelling may work in quieting her, these tactics are not addressing her deeper needs.


The fact remains that when she is in daycare and away from you, she misses you. She cannot voice her feelings (there is not enough language), and she cannot moderate her feelings (her prefrontal cortex is too immature to filter her emotions into feelings, where she can then reflect on them herself). Essentially, you are parenting a young child who desperately wants you.

Does this mean that you should quit work? Drop everything you are doing and hold her until your arms fall off? No and no. This is not practical, not good for your daughter, and not even what she wants and needs.

Does her behaviour mean you need to make some small and conscious changes to your parenting behaviour? Yes.  

This is a stage, and you and she will move through it. I can (almost) promise it.

Here are some ideas to lessen the pain of this stage:

1. Take some things off your plate

For example, can you make most of your meals simple? I'm thinking crockpots or rotisserie chicken types of meals. This will free you up from chopping and sauteeing and give you more time to sit with your daughter.

2. Carve out moments for special time

Simply put, you are going to put everything down (especially any technology), set a timer and lie on the floor with your daughter. You can roughhouse, read books, play with toys, pretend to be animals, go outside and run. It really doesn't matter. All that matters is that you are focused on her, you are smiling and having fun, and you are keeping boundaries and routine.

3. Don't be afraid to put on Sesame Street if you feel her neediness is becoming too much for you

I would rather have you snuggle her on the couch and watch one episode of Elmo's World than push her off you for an hour.

4. Use bath and bed time as a way to connect

Use relaxing smells, laugh and play quiet games in the tub, massage her feet, and really cuddle her up.

Of course, despite all these strategies, your daughter will still cry for you. This is part of the gig. Our job is not to stop the crying, per se, but to roll with it in a loving way. The crying is a sign of adaption, which is to say that the brain is accepting what it cannot change. The only caveat here is if she panics and becomes hysterical. This is a sign of true disturbance, which is not healthy for her brain and her emotions.

So allow her to cry. You can mumble sweet nothings or sing to her, and you can return to her as soon as you can. There is little difference between what you are doing whether you are resentful or peaceful; the difference is how it feels.

If you are resentful because she is too attached, your body will be tense, and your eyes will not be soft. If you understand that this is normal and that you can handle it, your posture will be loving, your jaw relaxed, your mouth smiling and your eyes shining toward her.

She is a sponge for your energy, so take very good care of yourself so that you can take very good care of her.

Meghan Leahy is the mother of three daughters. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and secondary education, a master's degree in school counselling and is a certified parent coach.

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