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
- 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 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 and carry on with your conversation. You can hold your hand up as a pre-determined reminder for them to wait their turn. You may need to remove yourself from the room (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
For how you can turn attention-seeking behavior into an opportunity for discipleship, click here.