In striving to live up to cultural expectations to be “perfect mothers,” many moms shower their children in attention, becoming over-helpful, hyper-attentive, or overprotective. This comes from a place of love, but it can actually be harmful to a toddler’s healthy development. It can get in the way of their real need for limits and space to grow, and create a false need for constant help and attention.
With my son, I was very anxious and worried. This translated into overly involved parenting on my part. I tried to counter my worry by becoming the “perfect mom.” I felt guilty whenever I was not spending time with my son, and trying to be positive with him all of the time, I would very rarely uphold limits.
This led him to become very needy and demanding of me. To solve this, I tried to become even more of a “perfect mother,” giving my son even more attention, and becoming even less strict about limits.
I didn’t realize that this was feeding the misbehavior, hampering his development even more. What made the whole thing so difficult was that he had developed false needs—needs that he would not have developed if I hadn’t been so hyper-attentive and over-helpful in the first place.
Eventually, I realized what was going on and changed my priorities. I saw that the “perfect mother” ideal was not ideal at all, and that my son’s true needs were to have limits and space to grow.
Once I changed my approach, my energy stopped being wasted by feeding into his false needs and started to be put to good use by encouraging his real needs. I was able to recognize his real needs by solving my own anxiety first. As a result, my parenting started to be less led by my own anxiety, and more by my son’s actual needs.
Of course, he felt that all of his needs were real. It was up to me to determine which needs I felt were overly needy—those that were leading him to become too dependent upon me and interfering with his development of autonomy and initiative.
Once I determined this, the key was to not reinforce them. Instead, I would encourage him to play on his own, get dressed on his own, have a chance to self-regulate after not getting his way—basically I just had to get out of the way and stop letting my anxiety determine my parenting.
In sorting through your child’s real vs. false needs, it can be helpful to know about what determines neglect. Neglect includes not providing food, a safe and clean home, supervision, emotional support, affection, or love. Thus, a child’s real needs always include providing these things.
False needs develop when parents program a child to need something that they wouldn’t need otherwise, whether it is through being over-helpful, hyper-attentive, over-protective, or over-indulgent. Some examples of false needs include:
- A child having a temper tantrum in response to a parent’s attempt at upholding a limit. The child has developed a need to always get their way.
- A child who will not play on their own, requiring a parent’s constant attention and entertainment. The child has developed a need for their parent’s constant attention.
- A child who is developmentally capable of doing something on their own but insists that they “can’t” and seeks help from their parent (getting dressed, putting on shoes, cleaning up after themselves, etc.). The child has developed a need for excessive help.
In sum, toddlers need to develop autonomy and initiative more than they need their moms’ constant attention or help. If your toddler is excessively needy and demanding, it might be time to cut him loose. He will likely resist at first, but if you hold out, he’ll get better. And once he does, he’ll become much happier, independent, and capable. You can do this!