All Articles Know

How to Address Attention-Seeking Behavior in Children

father and son: attention seeking behavior
Laura Kuehn, LCSW
Written by Laura Kuehn, LCSW

It should come as no surprise to you that one motivator of your child’s misbehavior is attention-seeking. It is probably the most widely used explanation for why children misbehave. Oh, he just wants attention. But there are some nuances to attention-seeking behavior that parents need to consider.

What attention-seeking behavior looks like

Here are some ways that children might act out 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)
  • Magnifying injuries
  • Playing the “victim” role in disputes with others (to garner sympathy or pity
  • Whining or nagging
  • Interrupting
  • Over-dramatizing stories or memories

NOTE: Children can display all of the above behaviors for reasons other than attention. Do not assume that these behaviors can only be attributed to attention-seeking. For example, a child who has temper tantrums that do not disappear when you leave the room may be struggling with emotional regulation. Or a child who acts like a class clown may have a learning disability or attentional issues. Or a child who seems to be over-reacting may be highly sensitive. It’s important to use detective work and discretion when looking for motives for misbehavior and seek professional assistance if behaviors persist.

What attention-seeking behavior feels like to you

One of the best ways to determine the underlying motivator for your child’s behavior is to tune into your own feelings and thoughts. If your child is acting out for attention, you will likely find yourself experiencing feelings of fatigue, exhaustion, annoyance or even resentment. You may sometimes feel that nothing you ever do is good enough for your child.

Why attention-seeking behavior exists

And attention-seeking child acts out because: ) he is, in fact, in need of more (or different) attention from you, 2) you are reinforcing unwanted behaviors or 3) he has a need that is not being met.

How to correct attention-seeking behavior

Here are four things you can do to address attention-seeking behavior.

1) Give the right kind of attention

Not all attention is created equal. You may think that you are showering your child with attention, but if he does not perceive it that way, it will fall on deaf ears.

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 and what you can do to make sure that you child is “hearing” your love and attention in ways that are meaningful to him.

If you determine that you are speaking your child’s love language and that you are giving him the kind of attention that fills his heart, but he is still acting up in attention-seeking ways, there are things you can do to address it.

2) Look for unmet needs

Little kids are a jumble of needs and wants. They often can’t distinguish between the two and have a hard time articulating, never mind identifying, what their needs are. Your job is to be on the lookout for any unmet needs.

Your child may be acting out for attention but what he needs is to feel heard. You can meet that need by noticing and then getting curious. For example, you can say, “I’ve noticed that you are exaggerating what happened at school a lot lately. I’m wondering if maybe you feel that I wouldn’t listen to you if the story was less exciting. Is that true?” It’s okay if you get your assessment of the situation incorrect. You are simply opening the door for your child to self-reflect and possibly realize that he has a need that he could get met in a different way.

Or maybe your child whines when you are on the phone. You can address it (see below) but then after it’s addressed, dig for an unmet need by noticing and getting curious. You can say, “I have noticed that you tug at my pants and whine when I am on the phone. I wonder if you feel ignored. Is that true?” You can then problem solve how your child can meet his need while you meet yours.

3) Be unexpected

If your child is neurotypical and has already learned ways to self-soothe, you can deal with attention-seeking behavior by being unexpected.

For example, instead of engaging your child while he is acting out, put on a pair of mirrored sunglasses. This allows the child to see his behavior in real time without the reinforcement of eye contact.

When the behavior subsides, strike up an unrelated, light conversation. Or ask if he would like to play a quick game. This unexpected response will reinforce the behaviors you want to see more of and removes any secondary gains he might receive from the attention-seeking tantrum (soothing hugs, comfort, etc.). Keep in mind, this technique will likely not be effective with children who cannot self-soothe and who are neurodiverse.

4) Ignore the behavior, not the child

If your child is tugging on your pantleg and whining while you are one the phone, do not make eye contact. Ignore the behavior. Remove yourself from the room. You may even need to go behind a closed door (as long as your child can be safely unsupervised).

By doing this you will be removing any possible reinforcement of his attention-seeking behavior. Any behavior that is reinforced – even if that reinforcement is negative – is harder to extinguish. Intermittent reinforcement (ie: ignoring behavior sometimes, but yelling about it at other times) will make the behavior even more entrenched.

Pay attention to your child once they are calm and your task is complete by asking about unmet needs (see above).

5) Connect often

Children who act out for attention are typically in need of greater connection. It’s important to find time to connect with your attention-seeking child often. Find activities that are mutually engaging and do them together.

This could be something as simple as coloring in parallel play. You can color in an adult coloring book which can be very relaxing. Or maybe you both enjoy snuggling, so periodically during the day, announce: “Five minute snuggle!” If music is a shared joy, pick a song and sing and dance together.

These do not have to be lengthy engagements. In fact, short, more frequent episodes of connection may be more effective to stop attention-seeking behaviors before they happen.

Remember: repeated reinforcement of the kinds of behaviors you want to see, addressing unmet needs, and frequent, authentic opportunities for connection will ensure that your child does not have to try to steal your attention with the kinds of behaviors you don’t want to see.

Next article: How to Parent a Child with Controlling Behavior

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed therapist who offers parent counseling services to families in Connecticut. She loves to equip and encourage parents of kids of all ages. CfP is the place she combines some of her favorite things: writing, parenting and God's word. She is happily married to a wonderfully supportive husband and is the mother of two delightfully inspiring teens.

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

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.