How to Handle an Attention-Seeking Child
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A 3-year-old appears happy to have a new little one in the house, but the sudden increase in temper tantrums tells a different story. A ten-year-old feels resentful of her older sister's academic success and the praise she receives for it and begins misbehaving, slamming doors and screaming at her parents.
These are two examples of attention-seeking behavior. It's normal for children to need attention and approval, and it's equally appropriate for parents to give them the attention they want. However, attention-seeking becomes a problem when it happens all the time, or if your child’s attention-seeking behavior causes trouble at school or with their peers. Sometimes children learn that the easiest way to get mom and dad to focus on them is to provoke them by misbehaving, which can be hard to break for the whole family.
If you find that your child is acting out in disruptive ways to get your undivided attention, it’s important to understand the causes behind a kid’s need for attention and address their behavior in positive, constructive ways. While some kids are loud or demanding as part of their development, other children may have ADHD or other conditions that cause them to act out. If you want strategies to help deal with and change their — and your — behavior, these dos and don'ts will teach you how to better communicate without getting annoyed.
Do Communicate Clearly
Ask your child if they know why their attention-seeking behavior is wrong, and if they don't, explain it clearly to them. For example, tell them how much you love them, but you don't love how they behave. Explain to them what good behavior would be and how much you would appreciate them acting appropriately. Get your child's attention by being firm, but keep positive parenting in mind when you are talking about your child's behavior.
Do Focus on the Positive
Instead of waiting for children to have tantrums to pay attention to them, acknowledge them when they are behaving well, and offer positive attention when it happens. Stay alert when your child behaves in a positive way: For example, if they are sitting quietly and coloring without insisting on your approval of every crayon they choose. Say, "I like how you're working so hard on your artwork," and then move on.
Lindsay Gerber, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, told the ChildMind Institute that the key is being as descriptive and specific as possible in your praise so that children know exactly what behavior they should replicate. Experts sometimes call this giving "labeled praise."
Do Pay Attention Before They Demand It
Parents are understandably tired after a busy day of work and other responsibilities, but so are children. Take 15 minutes to sit with your child and focus on them without any distractions. Put down the phones, take away the tablets and give your little one your undivided attention. Play board games or read a book together. The whole family doesn't need to be involved - one on one time is good. It's been shown that involved parents raise children with positive self-esteem. Your child will bask in your parental attention, and that can help to calm their negative attention-seeking behavior.
Don't Be Unpredictable
Sometimes you may find it easier to give in to your child's negative behaviors and give them the attention they are demanding. Still, it's better if you can react the same way each time they misbehave. Even if your child acting out is an uncomfortable situation for you, such as while eating in a restaurant or visiting friends, stay calm and consistent.
Consistency is key to behavior modification. If, for example, your child is sent to time out only once in a while when they are using attention-seeking behavior, they won't take the consequence seriously. Children need predictable outcomes to respond to scolding or other consequences.
Don't Be Afraid to Take Charge
Sometimes parents are afraid to upset their children by standing by their rules and not allowing them to use their negative behavior to get the attention they crave. You are the adult, and your child is waiting for you to teach them how to behave, how to react, and how to get the self-control they need. You can turn punishment for misbehaving into an opportunity to learn in a positive way by giving them something constructive rather than keeping them from doing things they enjoy. Some ideas for consequences include:
- Ignore them in the moment. When you ignore misbehaviors, you are giving no attention. Because attention is rewarding to children, withholding attention can be an effective punishment.
- Have your child write a letter of apology for acting out to teachers or caregivers
- Give “etiquette lessons” to children to reinforce the importance of using their “indoor voice” and respecting others
Don't Ignore the Problem
Ignoring does not mean ignoring the problem. It means ignoring demands for negative attention. There are many misbehaviors that you should not ignore. Some misbehaviors should be punished. Deciding when to ignore or when to punish is not easy, and there are no exact rules. It takes timing and judgment. When your child misbehaves to get attention, ignore it. If your child does not stop in two or three minutes, give him a reminder. Tell your child, "I do not respond to whining. When you stop, we'll talk." Wait another minute or two. If he still does not stop, then tell your child to stop or he will be punished: "Stop now, or you will go to time-out."
If you get angry or let your child push your buttons, you lose. If you must use a punishment, dispense the punishment without anger. If you get angry, then your child has succeeded in getting the negative attention that he was after. If you feel yourself getting angry, walk away. Cool off.
The key to changing your child's behavior begins with how you communicate with them and continues with your consistent and loving discipline. Whether you are dealing with young children or a 13-year-old daughter or 16 year-old-son, positive parenting and parental attention are the first steps to encouraging good behavior.
- Martinelli, Katherine. The Power of Positive Attention. 2023.
- Amsel, Beverly. The Effects of Parental Involvement on Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem. 2013.
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