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Attention-Seeking Behavior in Children

January 24, 2011 | By | 22 Replies More

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. CfP is the place she combines some of her very favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She loves encouraging parents to build their families upon Jesus, the one true Cornerstone. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring children.

Comments (22)

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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,

  9. Jen says:

    My 12 year old daughter has been a real challenge for the past two years. After starting puberty early and being much taller than her friends she developed a ‘top-dog’ attitude. She can be very disrespectful to adults at school and to me. She does seem to choose when she wants to be rude and disrespectful and to whom she does this. Her reactions to being sanctioned are totally over the top and cause her to get into more trouble. She has been a real handful but I would not like to share the details.
    On the other hand, my daughter can be lovely and now seems to be showing remorse, where she previously did not. I think that she might be attention addicted. Can you give me some tips for dealing with her please?


    • Hi Jen,

      She may have felt that she had to develop this attitude to cope with feeling different. The good news is that it sounds like your daughter is making some steps in the right direction. For starters I would think about this question: “What character traits do I feel that my daughter is missing that I would like her to develop?” Whatever traits you come up with as the answer, find ways that she can be challenged to develop them. You may determine that she needs to think of others first. If so, you might want to consider finding her opportunities to serve others. Maybe she could play the piano at a local nursing home or rehab center. Or what about volunteering in the church nursery or at a local animal rescue shelter?

      I hope that helps,

  10. suzie says:


    I hope you can help I am at my wits end with my 12 year old daughters attitude, she speaks to me like I am something she has trooden thru my carpets! When she is disrespectful I take away her phone and tv priviliges she screams at me me saying that I’m a selfish cow and I only ever think of myself!! The child is selfish, disrespectful and rude, she constantly shows us up when we go out as a family by shouting out inappropriate comments and having a tntrum when we don’t give in to her demands. I now have reached the point where I do not speak to her because I know she’s pushed me to the point of snapping and saying something I will regret so I have chosen not to speak at all, She now has no mobile phone or TV and is grounded but she continually tried to play myself and partner off against each to the point our 15 year relationship is on the verge of breaking point. PLEASE HELP!! I can’t cope anymore!!!

    • Hi Suzie – I am sorry that you are struggling in your relationship with your daughter. Have you tried counseling? It seems like it would be helpful for you both to learn how to communicate again. Try this site to find a therapist that works in your area.

      I would also suggest that you and your partner spend some time everyday communicating on what went right that day and what you would like to do differently the following day. Using each other as support through this could help you feel more connected and less torn apart by the pain she is causing.

      I would also try to figure out what is fueling this for her. Ask yourself some questions like: when did this start? what feelings is she covering up with her anger and disrepect? is there anyone in her life who she can talk to right now? what has worked to draw us close in the past? do we have anything in common that we can do together? can I find and focus on the positives, no matter how small? what times of day are better for communicating than others? can I effectively parent her through the wounds she causes?

      I hope that helps. God bless,

  11. Cathy says:

    Hi. I have a 7yr old daughter who just recently bang to act out and it all started in school. I took her out of public school and was enrolled into a all girls charter school. My daughter began lying and acting out. I many times talked with my daughter asking why the change in behavior and what’s the cause. She stated then that she just wanted friends and no one likes her. She stated many times before that she has seen other students act out and get away with it, but for some reason when she does it, it gets thrown over board and seems to be much more dramatic and extreme than the rest. She’s mentioned to me before that they tease her because she’s smart and always does everything right so everyone befriends and bully’s her. When she acts out they speak to her and interacts with her. I don’t know if this is even possible or true. The summer has came and gone. My daughter is no longer attesting this all girls school and she’s going into a charter school for boys and girls. Throughout the summer my daughter has been lying I’ve noticed a lot more and when questioned about it she just shuts down only says three reaponses which are no, I don’t know, and or nothing. I’ve lost my patience and at times scream do to her not talking to me and me not knowing what is going on with her and why. She just stands there looks me in the eye pretends to be scared and or nervous and just whines and cries like a baby toddler. When she does things she’s not suppose to I send her to her room where she throws tantrums and or before I get a chance to actually send her to her room she tried to debate and convince me no. Now every time I’m out places she’s always doing the opposite of what I ask which is walk stop running she’s wild at times and or acts silly I believe on purpose just for me to have to turn around and say to her to stop as if she doesn’t already know any better and or ask of her do she not have any self control. I’m at my wit ends and I do not know what to do. We don’t go out as much because she’s always making a scene when she doesn’t get her way which makes me not want to go out and enjoy the day. We mainly will stay at home where she just still just doesn’t get it. What can I possibly be doing wrong or what is it that I can do to better communicate and understand my daughter better. I’m afraid that she hasn’t learned her lesson from the last school year and that she’ll start this school year off and continue with the same behavior in this different environment. She’s been going to school socializing with many different people since she was two years old. She’s went to public school till kindergarten and has never had these issues until she’s started this all girls school. Now it’s like my daughter doesn’t know how to be herself without trying so hard to fit in and be someone else. And now it’s hard I believe in my eyes for her to interact and becomes friends with other people because she just doesn’t know who she is anymore or maybe because we are not surrounded around people going out and socializing as we should.
    Please help. I don’t know what am I doing or not doing. I just want my daughter back.

    • Hi Cathy – There seem to be many issues here. I think the best path is for you to find a parent coach who can work through the different issues that you are facing. You can do a google search with the terms “parent coach” to find a professional who can coach you through phone or skype. If you add your state to your search criteria, you may be able to find a coach in your area who could come to your home. This may be a good place to start: http://www.thepci.org/findcoach/

      God bless,

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