A demanding child may want all of your attention all of the time, which can be exhausting! If you’re noticing your child becoming increasingly demanding, sit down and talk to them in age-appropriate speech about demands and requests. Teach them how to make polite requests and accept “No” for an answer. Above all, remain consistent in your enforcement and consequences. Find ways to praise the child’s positive behaviors and let them know that you appreciate positive behaviors over attention-seeking behaviors.
Part One of Three:
Talking with Your Child
Talk about demands versus requests. Sit down with your child and talk about behavior. Show them the difference between a demand and a request, and why a request is better. Say a few examples and then ask your preschooler for some examples or demands and requests.
For example, say, “Let’s say you are hungry. Should you say, ‘Mom! I need grapes, go get me grapes!’ or, ‘Mom, would you please help me with the grapes? I’m hungry.’?”
If your child makes a demand, say, “Can you try that again?” or, “Can you make that a request and not a demand please?”
Tell them that some things are yes and others are no. Talk with your child and let them know that sometimes the answer will be yes and other times the answer will be no. A “No” is okay, even if the child is upset. Explain that even if the answer is no, that you still love them and want what is best for them.
You can say, “I know there are lots of things you want to do, but some will be yes’s and others will be no’s. Even when I tell you ‘No,’ I still love you.”
Teach manners. It’s never too early to start teaching manners to children. Explain the powers of using the words “please” and “thank you.” Use opportunities for your child to practice their manners and use gentle reminders in the moment.
Games and videos can be very helpful in teaching manners, as they will engage your child and make it easier for them to remember what they’ve learned. Search online for videos about manners (there should be no shortage of these) and play games that help reinforce good manners.
For instance, you can help teach your child table manners by choosing one topic every night (chewing with your mouth closed, saying please and thank you, holding silverware properly, etc.) and discuss the dos and don’ts. Then have your children design badges and paper tickets, and let them take turns policing manners at dinner time. The child can issue tickets to those who are breaking the rules. Whoever has the fewest tickets at the end of the meal gets to choose dessert (or the movie you will watch or some other reward).
Show how you can add “please” to a request such as, “May I have my teddy bear, please?” Tell your child that this is a much nicer way than saying, “Give me my teddy!”
Model polite manners by using “please” and “thank you” in your own speech. You can also point out when other children are being polite and praise them.
Create behavior rules. Help your child understand your expectations for them by having house rules. For example, you may choose to say that you no longer respond to demands, only to requests. If your child makes a demand, redirect them or use a consequence. Having clear expectations can help your preschooler succeed and make meaningful changes to their behavior.
If your child starts a demand, say, “When you make demands, you know you will have a consequence. Do you want to try again or do you want a consequence?”
Say, “When you break a rule, you get a consequence. Talking to me that way means you’re getting a timeout.”
Part Two of Three:
Handling Problem Behaviors
Use the power of “No.” You may give into your preschooler’s demands for a myriad of reasons: guilt for not spending enough time with them, wanting them to be happy, or giving them what they want. Yet, when you say “No,” you teach your child boundaries and how to handle disappointment. Your child may wonder why they are being denied, so give a brief explanation.
Say, “I know you want fast food, but I said no. We are not getting fast food today. We had it yesterday so we are not eating it today.”
Be firm. If your preschooler keeps whining, say, “Whining doesn’t work on me. I said no.”
Ignore their demands. If you’ve talked about requests vs. demands and you’ve asked your child to make a request, ignore the demand. Say, “I can’t understand you when you talk to me that way,” or do not say anything at all. Enforce that making demands is not a way to get what they want and it no longer works. However, you are willing to respond to requests.
Validate your child’s feelings yet remain firm by saying, “I know you want that, and not having it makes you feel really angry and upset.”
Say, “I’m not answering you when you speak like that. I can listen to you if you ask nicely.”
Respond to requests. Give your full attention when your preschooler makes a request. Reinforcing their polite requests will help them behave more positively and as less demanding. Praise their request and answer accordingly, even if the answer is no.
Say, “You did a nice job asking for what you want. Thank you. Yes, I will help you tie your shoes.”
You can also say, “Thank you for asking so politely. However, right now we are not going to play, we are going to put away the toys.”
Handle public behaviors. If the child is making demands in front of others, talk about how this is inappropriate. This can include other adults or the child’s friends. Make a rule that any demands made in front of others will receive an automatic “No.”
If your child becomes demanding on shopping trips, let them know ahead of time that you will not be buying anything extra. Make it clear that you are going to the store for certain items, and you are not buying toys or other items for the child.
Expect tantrums. If you’re making new changes to your preschooler’s behavior, expect some hiccups before their behavior improves. A child may test your limits or if you plan to actually enforce your rules. This can result in tantrums or bad behavior at home or in public. Show your child that you are in control and will enforce rules and consequences.
Be firm if your child tantrums. Say, “You are not getting what you want, no matter how much you scream and yell and kick.”
If you need some help responding to a tantrum, check out How to Handle Your Child’s Temper Tantrum.
Present a united front. If you are in a two-parent household, or there are other adults who are helping to parent your child, it is important that you are all consistent in enforcing consequences. If you are not responding to your preschooler’s demands, you can bet they will go to the other parent and make the same demands. If the other parent gives in, this not only allows the behavior to continue, but undermines your parenting. Communicate privately with your partner about how you will handle demands and problem behaviors and be sure to pass this information on to anyone else who might be watching your child.
Think about who interacts with the preschooler regularly (such as family members and daycare providers) and clue them in to the changes. Say, “We’ve made some changes to how we respond to their demands. Please do the same.”
Enforce rules consistently. Once you make a rule, enforce it every time. For example, if you set bedtime at 7:30, have a no-nonsense approach to sending your child to bed once it’s time. A demanding child may insist on staying up later, however, say, “You know the rule: bedtime is at 7:30.”
You can also say, “I know you want to stay up later, but it’s time for bed. You might not like it, but this is what’s happening.”
Create a visual schedule for your child to follow. When they start to contest, say, “Look at the schedule. What time is it? That’s right, it’s time for a bath.”
Set up special 1-on-1 time. A demanding preschooler may want your attention throughout the day. Instead of being available at all hours, set up special time for your preschooler (and better, yet, each of your kids) for 15 minutes each day. Give them your full attention during that time and engage in ways that are meaningful to them.
If your child is making a demand, say, “I’m busy now, but I’m looking forward to our special time at 3:30.”
Reinforce positive behaviors. A child may become increasingly demanding when they are going unnoticed by their parent and want attention. Catch your child doing positive behaviors and praise them in the act. This can help enforce positive behaviors as getting positive attention.
For example, say, “I noticed you cleaned up your toys soon as you finished playing with them. Great job!”
Try using a reward schedule or calendar, posted where your child can see it. They can use stickers to mark days when they have kept up with the positive behaviors you agreed upon. You can reward your child for being consistently good. If, for instance, they get five stickers during the week, then they get to choose a small toy.
Talk about empathy. If your child makes a demand of you, say, “How would it make you feel if somebody talked to you like that?” Talk about how they want to be treated and in turn, how to treat others. Let them know that their behavior affects others. What would it be like if you talked to them in that tone or with that kind of demand? This is a good opportunity to talk about treating people the way they want to be treated and building empathy for other people.
For example, ask, “What would it be like if I interrupted you? Would you like it if I woke you up telling you to make me breakfast?”