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Attention-Seeking Behavior in Children

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Do you have an attention-addict in your home? Find out the different signs of an attention seeking child as well as effective ways you can train and correct these behaviors.

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 self-centered. 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

About the author

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

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.

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52 Comments

  • Hi Laura, I’m hoping you might have some scripture references to back this up? I’m stuck with similar issues with my daughter.. and I want to bring the bible on board with teaching the appropriate behavior. Thanks!

  • I have a nine year old boy who gets straight A’s in school. But he acts like he forgets everything while at home. He complains about everything. I asked him to hold two shirts for me while in the store and 30 seconds later he was pouting about his hand
    Hurting from holding them. I literally feel that I cannot ask him to do anything for me without his pouting. He runs around while in the grocery store acting out and constantly asks for things and when we say not today he gets depressed looking. He exaggerates a lot , lies , and sometimes even talks like he’s younger with a lisp. He snaps his fingers and shakes his hands around and walks on his tips toes dancing around like he’s in his own world. He only acts like that in stores.
    It is so exhausting. He acts like a 5 year old. What is going on with him and what should we do?

    • Lana – Sorry for the late reply. I think you are right to assess that your son is looking for attention. The key is to find a way for him to get it more appropriately. Not all attention is created equal. Consider having your son take this love language test: https://www.5lovelanguages.com/profile/children/ With this tool, you can uncover how he feels love. Love and attention are closely related. How you show love to your son will make him feel valued. You could be showing him all the love in the world, but if it isn’t in his love language, it won’t feel like love to your son. I would also address the immaturity in the stores by enlisting him as you helper – someone that you need. Not just to hold things but to help you make decision (ie: “Should we get the tomato soup or the chicken?”). This can feel like more work to you. It is. But it will reduce the amount of acting out which in the end will save time and frustration.

      I hope that helps. Best wishes,
      Laura

  • Hi! I just found your article and tested our 10yr old daughter whose top languages are equal – time and gifts. Background: we adopted at age 5 through foster care, made the decision to homeschool because of certain behaviors and we have really come far.

    An unwanted behavior we regularly encounter in school and family time is her pretense to not know the correct answer or correct behavior. For instance: she’ll say “quadriTRIANGLE” if the answer is quadrilateral; she’ll walk out of the house if we ask her to upstairs and retrieve her laundry; she’ll have erased the subject noun underline (the correct answer) and then underlined the object of a preposition – a lot of instances of starting to do it right and then doing it wrong. She’ll cry as she does the wrong thing, but it will seem that she can’t stop herself.

    As she is an only child, we are already giving her undivided attention. We also keep a book of happy things she does throughout the day (her favorite book to read, and her third love language). What else can we do to help navigate this?

    There is no question of her understanding. She is a highly intelligent child.

    • Hi Kay – I commend you efforts to meet your daughter where she is at. Before I got to the end of your comment, I was already thinking that she is likely a gifted child. They can be simultaneously a joy and a challenge to parent (not to mention, homeschool). I don’t know your schedule, but I would consider adding some delight directed learning to your homeschool. The articles listed here might help. You want to find ways to engage her in her own learning. I know that you say that you are giving her undivided attention, but not all attention is created equal. What aspects of attention feed her? Sitting and reading a book together? Going for a drive to sight-see? Working on a puzzle together? Having a conversation about something she is interested in? There are lots of different ways to shower our children with attention, the key is finding the right one for them. I think keeping records of what goes right is a beautiful thing and I would encourage you to keep that up.

      I hope that helps,
      Laura

  • I have a six-year-old soon to be seven that is acting out in school. When he goes to school he just simply doesn’t do his work. My husband and I have disciplined him at home, we have pretty much grounded him when he comes home, he is to simply go to his room read his books and just do his homework. I’m not sure what else we are to do he has a lot of energy and he says all he wants to do is play. I used to volunteer at his school almost twice a week a few months ago and I think he got used to that now he misses me but is that the reason he could be acting out? I don’t want to make excuses for him but I’m not sure what to do here, my husband and I are at our wits end and we really don’t know what to do to help him! Any information or direction would be helpful thank you.

    … And when we say acting out in school we mean his teacher says he just doesn’t listen to her she’ll have to tell him to do things several times before he actually does it and sometimes he just doesn’t do the work at all at school.

    • Is your son bright? I hear comments like yours often from parents of children who are finding school less than challenging. If that is the case, it might be a good idea to have a conference with the teacher to discuss enrichment options. Or it is possible the opposite is true – there may be learning difficulty at play. It is hard to know from what you have shared. I think an educational assessment is the best place to start.

      I hope that helps,
      Laura

  • Hi,
    I am a mother of 4year old boy.
    He loves to do anything with me.No matter anytime.
    He seems so love to draw others attention.When he is in kindergarten, he breaks others toys and went away.How can I talk to him.That makes me so worried.
    He is in this kindergarten for almost 4month.But he doesn’t have anyone as good friend.
    what can i do?
    thanks

    • Hello – I would start by asking to have a conference with his teachers. What do they see in class? What have they found that works? Next, you could talk with the moms of the other children in his class and see if you can set up a play date at your house. Start with just one other child and his/her mom. You can then see your son and his interactions with other children and intervene and guide him as needed. I haven’t read this book, but something like this might be a good way to help your son learn how to be a good friend. I hope that helps!

      Laura