Why They Annoy Us

by Gerard Molitor

“Annoy: to disturb or irritate especially by repeated acts.”
Annoy implies a wearing on the nerves by persistent petty unpleasantness.”
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

When children are repeatedly doing things we don’t want them to do, or not doing the things we ask them to do, it’s time for us to stop and think. Think of them, that is.

Children, like all of us, want to be thought about. They want to believe that their parents or other caregivers are thinking nice things about them. Being thought about in a positive way is like being held or hugged. It feels good.

Because young children are so dependent on the care of others for their survival and wellbeing, being thought about by caregivers is crucial.  To be outside of that thought for too long can leave children in harm’s way.  I believe that children are tracking, without being conscious of it, our ongoing level of investment in them, and when their registration of that level of investment drops below a certain point they become uncomfortable. They begin to feel some distress. And then they go into action.

Behavior is a message. Irritation is a tool. When our thinking about them is compromised by too many other claims on our attention, children will take steps to restore that attention. And when their moderate or innocuous attempts to regain that attention fail to break through our preoccupations, they employ stronger tactics. They do things that irritate us. It’s a foolproof strategy for regaining our attention, for pulling us away from whatever else it is that we have decided is more important at that moment, whether that’s making dinner, or talking on the phone, or being absorbed with something online.

And as we get irritated with them for this “persistent petty unpleasantness,” or try to get them to stop what they’re doing or to do what we’ve told them to do, or to wait until we’re finished doing whatever it is that has taken our focus away from them, we unwittingly fall prey to their strategy. We are thinking of them again. The sense of power or control they get from restoring our attention reduces the discomfort that came with their perception of our distraction, but it doesn’t really make it go away.  They are still distressed and now we are too.

So if we find ourselves being repeatedly irritated by our children’s behavior, we should probably stop and admire their ability to look out for their interests. And as we start thinking about them again in a positive way, and communicating our interest and our investment in ways they perceive, be it a hug or a compliment or a sharing of a favorite memory of them, they will call off the irritation. They don’t really need all of our attention, even if we (and they) feel that way sometimes. They just need to know that they’re still in our thoughts, and that a lot of those thoughts are warm and fuzzy.