Dear Kid Whisperer,
I recently married and now have a 14 year old step daughter. She’s a good kid. We get along, and she seems to like to me. The problem is that she continually tries to monopolize my time and attention. If she is in the room with me, she is all about trying to continually talk to me to the point where it makes it difficult to interact with anyone else around me. She will follow me around the house as well. I am not sure how to respond in a way that will be good for the both of us. My mom, who is a big fan of yours, keeps telling me to contact you. Can you help? –Rachel, Dayton, Ohio
First of all, congratulations on having such a wise and insightful mother. You are very lucky. You seem to have a sweet kid who loves you so much that she always wants to be around you. The last thing a caring person like you would want to do would be to use punishment and anger to change this behavior. At the same time, this has to be horribly annoying, so it needs to stop so that you can live your life. I will show you how to set healthy limits with your daughter using both interventions and empathetic consequences.
Sometimes kids, when they have been exhibiting a negative behavior and it has been working over an extended period of time, can benefit from a very subtle intervention that others may not even notice, but can be used as a signal to stop the negative behavior, in this case, monopolizing your time. Using this signal should allow you to put a quick end to the behavior as it starts without embarrassing your step-daughter. I would introduce the intervention this way:
Kid Whisperer: Honey, I love you and I love being with you, and I also need to set a limit today so that you don’t take all of my time and energy. This way I can live my life and be happy. You have been taking way too much of my time and energy. When you do this from now on, sometimes I’ll have to do something about it, and sometimes I will just give you a little signal to get you back on track. What signal would work best, should I tap my index finger and my thumb together, or should I tap the side of my head with my hand?”
Kid: You could tap your head I guess.
Kid Whisperer: Sounds good. I love you.
From then on you can use this without drawing any further attention or making eye contact. Never use this intervention twice in a row. Go to the consequence after using this once, or you can go straight to the consequence.
Kid monopolizes Kid Whisperer’s attention.
Kid Whisperer: Oh, man. This makes me sad. I’m going to have to do something about this. Have a good day.
Later, maybe days later, we have this conversation:
Kid Whisperer: Honey, when you wouldn’t leave me alone on Tuesday, it really made me tired. Today I’m going to ask you to please make me less tired and to practice not bothering me. I usually want to talk to you, but right now I need to rest. I was going to clean the living room, but instead, I am going to watch TV while you clean it. I would like you to also practice not bothering me. You can do that by cleaning silently.
After Kid finishes cleaning, Kid Whisperer gives her a big hug.
Kid Whisperer: Honey, thank you so much for cleaning for me. I feel rejuvenated. And you did an excellent job of not bothering me the entire time you helped me out. Are you an expert at not bothering me now?
Kid: I guess.
Kid Whisperer: Thank you so much. I love you.
Kid Whisperer gives Kid another hug.
By using these techniques, you can avoid lecturing or using anger while stopping these annoying behaviors.