When Siblings Fight for a Single Parent's Attention

What should a single mom do when her children constantly vie for the limelight?

Q. I'm a single mom and my two girls, 6 and 9, are constantly fighting for my attention. Both want to prove that they deserve to be in the limelight: My older daughter will play the "Mom, look what I did in school" card, while my younger daughter is clingy and gets upset if I'm not hugging her or holding her close whenever we're together. What's going on here? It's making weeknights after work tearful for my younger daughter, aggravating for my older one, and exasperating for me!

A. Such situations among parents and children are nothing more than habits, although negative habits. Your children need your attention but unfortunately they're vying for it in negative, irritating ways. Your task is to start a routine in which each child receives positive attention without whining for it.

Here's how to start. Tell your daughters that you're going to restructure the evening so that both of them receive special time with you, and that you receive some time to yourself.

Tell them that once home you're going to give each girl 15 minutes of individual attention. Include in the plan that you'll alternate day-by-day who gets you first. You can toss a coin to see who will be the first recipient of your 15 minutes of undivided attention.

On the day you begin, let's say your youngest daughter wins the coin toss. Tell her that she has 15 minutes of you to herself. Ask her, "What would you like to do?" Most likely she won't ask for anything outrageous. She may just want to sit on your lap and cuddle or possibly review her school work, play a game, or work on a jigsaw puzzle. Set the timer for 15 minutes. Even if she doesn't need a full 15 minutes of you, be available to her without question anyway.

More of a concern is what your older child will be doing during this 15 minute period. You need to be specific as to your expectations and develop a plan. Possibly she can be in her bedroom doing homework, reading, watching TV, working on the computer, or calling a friend. Most importantly, she's not allowed to interrupt you and little sister.

If big sister doesn't leave you and little sister completely alone, don't punish her. Just say each time she interrupts, "I can't talk with you until my 15 minutes with your sister is up." She may pout or stomp -- so be it. Keep your attention on little sister and ignore older sister's antics. Her 15 minutes will arrive soon.

Once the time with your 6-year-old is over, redirect her to an activity that will keep her busy while you give the older child your undivided attention. If little sister interrupts offer the same refrain, "I can't talk with you until my 15 minutes with big sister is up."

When the 30 minutes of "daughter time" is over, then it's your time for you. Do something on your own to relax. Take a bath, read the newspaper, or call a friend. This time to yourself is as important to follow through with as the time with your girls.

The likelihood is great that once your daughters are filled up their 15 minutes of you, and you've had your alone time, the rest of the evening will go smoothly.

    Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of two parenting books, Mommy, I Have to Go Potty and Unplugging Power Struggles. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for HealthyKids.com and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

      Originally published on HealthyKids.com, January 2006.