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Attention-Seeking Behavior in Children

January 24, 2011 | By | 16 Replies More
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It should come as no surprise to you that one goal of your child’s misbehavior is attention. It is probably the most widely used explanation for why children misbehave. Children are generally very ego-centric. Without training, they will see that their world revolves around them and you are just another planet in their solar system, available to do their bidding. This dynamic begins at birth out of a need for survival but will require modification as the child ages.

What attention-seeking behavior looks like. The old adage is true: negative attention is better than no attention. Here are some ways that children misbehave to gain attention:

• Temper tantrums (which subside when you leave the room)
• Wild or outlandish behavior (such as class clowns and physical comedians)
• Over-reacting to events or circumstances (having a disproportionate reaction)
• Playing the “victim” role in disputes with others (to garner sympathy or pity)
• Getting poor grades in order to increase parental involvement around homework time
• Lying or over-dramatizing stories or memories

What attention-seeking behavior feels like to you.  If your child is acting out for attention, you will likely find yourself experiencing feelings of fatigue, exhaustion, annoyance and even resentment as you expend endless amounts of energy dealing with your high maintenance child. You also may have a nagging sense that you are being manipulated.

What his behavior tells you. An attention seeking child acts this way for one of two reasons: 1) he is, in fact, in need of more attention from you or, 2) he is desperately addicted to it.

How to correct attention-seeking behavior. You may feel there is no substance to your child’s claims that you never pay any attention to him or that you prefer his little brother over him. However, you need to do some investigating before you jump to conclusions. Not all attention is created equal. It can take different forms. If you are unsure what kind of attention is most meaningful to your child, it is recommended that you read Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages of Children (or you can take an online love language assessment here).  This book will help you understand how best you can communicate love to your child. Once you know, you can better understand the possible gaps in your relationship.

If you determine that you are speaking your child’s love language but he is still acting up in attention-seeking ways, you will have to make some changes. You can do this if you pay attention to your child in unexpected ways. Rather than engage him when he is having a meltdown, walk away whistling. When it is over, strike up an unrelated, light conversation. By doing this you will be removing any possible reinforcement of his attention-seeking behavior. By not revisiting it after-the-fact, you also remove any secondary gains he might get after his meltdowns (soothing hugs, comfort, etc.). To be sure, consequences must be applied if your child has broken any rules and amends must be made if he has offended anyone during his meltdown. Making sure that you engage your child during times of non-attention seeking behaviors is a great cure for an attention-addiction.

Next article: Controlling Children

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Category: Challenges and Solutions, Discipline, Featured Articles

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

About the Author

Laura Kuehn, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in children and families. She loves to partner with parents and to encourage them as they seek to build their families up with Christ as their cornerstone. She is happily married to a supportive husband and is mother to two delightfully inspiring children.

Comments (16)

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  1. This is so true, and well written. You’ve been busy, and your redesign looks great. I’ve got the feed now, so will follow. I love to read parenting articles that are fun and knowledgeable.

  2. Robert says:

    i have a 11 year old that acts out for the wrong attention, and then finds self in big trouble and then grounded. how should I address the situation?

    • Hi Robert –
      Thanks for stopping by. Without knowing exactly how your child is acting out, I can just give you general insights. First of all, you will need to establish clear rules and consequences when those rules are broken. Delivering consequences in a non-emotional way works best. But the flip side of this is the importance of finding ways to stay connected to your child. All children want attention from their parents – even those who act like they want nothing to do with them. It is important to do things together and to foster mutual interests. Some children at this age start to develop feelings of being the “black sheep” or may feel that “no one loves me” and act out because of those feelings. Sending him/her to the bedroom may be an appropriate consequence, but without lots of positive interactions that consequence could simply become fuel for those feelings of alienation. This article and this one might be helpful in this situation. I hope this gets you headed in the right direcion.
      God bless,
      ~ Laura

  3. Claire says:

    Thank you for this insight…I am at the end of my tether with my 9 year old sons attention seeking behaviour. He is constantly playing the clown and dominating a room, when given attention he then gets louder and worse! He seems to pick away at the adults in the room to get a reaction. We have also had a recent bout if bullying from another child at school

    It is beginning to affect my new marriage, and I really am at my wits end as I feel I am being pulled by both new husband and son for my attention. I am a very busy working mum (I’m a primary teacher and put in long hours with lots of work bought home) and am exhausted trying to keep everyone happy. Please help!

    • Hi Claire – First of all, let me thank you for your committment to your students – they are blessed to have you. I know that balancing it all can be very challenging. Maybe you could start by taking your son out to dinner – just the two of you (maybe a nice, sit-down restaurant – something special). Tell him what you have noticed about his behavior and that you are wondering if he needs something he is not getting. The behavior is serving a purpose, you just need to help him figure out what that is. You can ask him: What would happen if this (attention-seeking) behavior went away? What would it feel like to not be the clown? Are there other, more appropriate ways that he can get his needs met? Would he like to try a drama camp or some sort of performing arts program? Encourage open discussion- let him know that you are his partner in this and want to help.

      God bless,

  4. lisa says:

    Please help…..I have a 3 nearly 4 year old little princess who non stop craves attention even the negative attention ….she screams instead of crying if she has a pain we all have to suffer. She refuses to do her poo in the toilet nd screams while on the toilet till I take her off then she holds her wee and poo for hours till she gets so sore and goes in her knickers and screams again.she wakes up at night upset I go in to console her she screams louder and pushes me away wont tell me why she’s upset after a long time asking her to tell me what’s wrong and getn no answer I tell her I can’t help if I don’t know what’s wrong I try T go back to bed she screams louder I’m at my wits end with her. She spends the rest of the day hanging out of me and saying look at me look at this mammy mammy mammy look at me. I’m on the verge of losing my mind. I have a 8mth old aswell and trying to keep my lil girl from feeling left out has me exhausted. Its not since the baby arrived she has always been this way and gets it from her fatherhes a drama queen. I need some advice I’m not handling situations calmly ne more. I’m losing the plot please help.

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for reaching out. Have you spoken to her pediatrician? Since she has always been this way, it may be worth discussing with a pediatrician from a developmental perspective. In the meantime, What kinds of things are soothing for her? Rocking? Coloring? Music? She may need regular and predictable “down” times during the day. What does she enjoy doing with you? Can you carve (hard I know!) out a little bit of time a day to do that with her. When she is not acting out, can you talk with her about self-soothing techniques, like deep breathing, hugging an animal, jumping jacks (some kids need to expend energy to relax)? If she can practice doing those things when she is calm, you can then use a “cue” word when she begins to act out to help her remember that she has lots of options to help her calm down. Pay attention to what you want to see more of, even if it seems insignificant to you. And I would talk to your pediatrician . . . I hope that this helps.

      God bless,

  5. chloe says:

    I hope you can help me. I have a 9 year old daughter, a 3 year old son and am due to give birth to another son any day now. My daughter has always been such a chilled child, loved school lots of friends, happy adjusted. In the last 8 weeks she has changed into something unrecognizable. She lies, she fakes illness every single night before bed, she’s started to do the same at school, she’s lying to her teacher about silly things (eg how to spell her name or mummy will be cross??!) She it doing ridiculous things for attention and ruining all our attempts to give her more attention. I am almost bed ridden with this pregnancy so what I can do is limited but I just don’t know what to do to get my happy normal little girl back???

    • Hi Chloe – Congratulations on the new baby! My guess is that your daughter is having some adjustment difficulties to the impending arrival of her new sibling. She was six when your other son was born, so she likely has memories of how needy newborns can be. My suggestions are these: sit down and talk to her. Tell her you have noticed a change and tell her you are wondering if she has feelings about the new baby. Ask her questions like, “how do you think things will change?” and “what will stay the same?” Affirm you love for her and the uniqueness of your relationship that is different than any other. Find special things that you and she do together – even if it is something small like a treat or game after all her siblings are in bed. If possible find someone in your life that can be a support to her during this transition – a grandparent or trusted adult. Someone who can take her for outings and give her a place to talk about all the changes she is experiencing. I hope this helps. Many blessings on your new addition!


  6. Crystal Reude says:

    I’m tired…..my 7 year old son is out of control! He’s usually the first one out of bed in the morning and the first thing he does is something he’s not supposed to. Then when I get up he acts like he’s done nothing wrong when I punish him! He walks into a room and has to dominate the conversation with a very loud voice and nonsense information that he’s told us all many times before. Then, when we confront him with this he tells us that we don’t love him and think he’s stupid!! I’m getting to the point where I honestly  just don’t want to get up in the morning so I don’t have to deal with him….my husband and I have both said to each other while we’re away from the house, that we dreaded going back home just because of this behavior. I love my son, but I’m literally at my wits end….what should I do?

    • Hi Crystal –

      I think your son needs a “reset”. What I mean by that is you need to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. I would start by sitting down with him at a time of calm (maybe when you are not home) and tell him that things need to change. You want a happy home life and his behavior and the ways you have been dealing with it have not been working.

      A behavior chart can be a short term tool to make this abrupt change. To me, behavior charts are reserved for the most difficult to irradicate behaviors. You can read more about my approach to behavior charts here and here. With this method, your child starts with nothing and has to earn everything back. Pick only three of the most offensive behaviors and turn them into goals (for example: “play quietly in your room in the morning”, “accept consequences/apologize for disobedience”, and “stop, look, listen and inquire when entering a room”). Once you have these goals in place, his progress toward those goals determines how much of his “normal” privileges he gets back (the key here is that he is not trying to earn extras, but those normal blessings of being part of your family that he so clearly is taking for granted).

      I hope that helps get you headed in the right direction.


  7. Ken says:

    Hi Laura.
    My girl friends son is 9 years old he has 2 sisters 7 and 5. He seems like he likes getting yelled at just to get attention. He will do something wrong get caught and then will cry like a 2 year old and it seems he cries to just get the of being in trouble. The 2 girls and a cousin all had birthday parties all within 3 weeks he was so upset@ each party he wasn’t getting any present so he would ask question to everyone to get there attention. When he plays a game he makes up his own rules so he can win. My gf is at here wits end with this behavior any ideas on how to handle it.

    • Hi Ken – Thank you for stopping by. Some of the behaviors you have described can be indicative of a child who is struggling with a negative self image. He might be behaving the way he is because he does not feel good about himself (cheating at games, feeling presents = love, setting himself up to get in trouble, etc). He is probably caught in this vicious cycle – “I feel bad about myself so I act bad which gets me into trouble and makes me feel bad about myself.” If this is what is happening, you can imagine how stuck he must feel. The way to intervene is to break the cycle. Positive reinforcements (focusing on what he does right) and building his sense of self worth (through increased responsibilities that show you think he is trustworthy) may help. You might want to try the suggestions in these articles as well: positive parenting, positive opposites, energize success. I would also recommend reading the Nurtured Heart Approach by Glasser. I think that parenting approach would be a good fit for this little boy.

      God bless,

  8. trina says:

    Hi I was wondering if you could help me. My 9 year old stepdaughter has started to steal the most recent one is a dress that caused severe rows with me and her dad. Which i found buried at the bottom of my laundry basket. It was scrunched up and i cant see my partner doing that if anything was going on. Also she is constantly kicking and hitting my own two younger children who are 7 and 4. They are ending up being kicked in the face and slapped and pinched by my 9 year old. On top of that she lied about my daughter stealing biscuits from the cupboard after i told of my 7 year old and she was so upset because i told her off. Then my 9 year old admits to taking the biscuits her dad just tells her to stop and sends her to her room and all we get back from that is a sarcastic comment which is go to my room i know. I am at my wits end my relationship is breaking down because of it and my own children are suffering i love my partner and his daughter very much but i cant continue with this relationship if my own children are at risk as well as the constant stealing and lies from my stepdaughter. Im concerned because i think i have no choice but to end our relationship any advice would be appreciated thank you

    • Hi Trina,

      It sounds like your step-daugther is in a lot of pain. These behaviors that you are describing are signs that she is hurting. It sounds like some outside help might be the answer. I suggest that you (meaning you, your partner and your stepdaughter) find a counselor who does family therapy and use that neutral ground to air any issues that are being expressed with these negative behaviors. Your parnter and step-daughter may find a few session with just two of them to be helpful as well. I would not suggest including your younger children in the counseling at the beginning but as relationships heal, they could be invited to join.

      I hope that helps.
      God bless,

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