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Viewing Your Child’s Attention-Seeking Behaviors Through a New Lens

Children’s attention-seeking behaviors present differently and can be overwhelming for parents. Remember that your child is communicating a need for connection.
Attention-seeking behaviors blog Evoke Mind + Body Wilmington, NC

By Anna Lewis

Communicating a Need for Connection

For young children, behavior is often their primary method of communication. When a child presents with attention-seeking behaviors, it is easy for their parents to become overwhelmed, annoyed, or frustrated. Children’s attention-seeking behaviors present in different ways depending on the child and depending on what need they are trying to meet. Some are easier to identify than others. For example, physical clinginess or tearfulness can be a clear indication to a parent that their child needs comfort and connection. However, that same need is often exhibited through less obvious behaviors, such as tantrums, rule-breaking, yelling, interrupting, open defiance, and other problematic behaviors. 

For an adult, it is often easy to identify the difference between positive and negative attention. In a child’s mind, it is less clear. They may be feeling the need to be connected to their caregiver and have learned that engaging in problematic behaviors will provide them with direct attention for an extended period of time. This will not usually be a thought-out decision so much as a learned subconscious behavior.

Tips for Meeting Your Child’s Needs (Without Reinforcing Attention-Seeking Behaviors)

So with this in mind, how can you meet your child’s needs without unintentionally reinforcing negative behaviors?

Engage in Quality Time

Provide one-on-one quality time with your child in a consistent, predictable way. This may mean talking 15 minutes before bedtime, playing catch for 10 minutes as soon as you get home from work, or taking a walk together after dinner. The important thing isn’t the length of time or the activity; it is the consistency. If a child can be sure that they will receive direct attention everyday, there is less fear and anxiety surrounding not receiving attention immediately. 

Encourage Good or Neutral Behavior

Connect with your child intentionally when they are exhibiting good or neutral behavior and giving less attention to problematic behaviors. It is very easy to notice when your child is doing something against the rules, dangerous, or frustrating. It is less obvious when they are just doing what they are supposed to be doing. However, it can be really meaningful to your child when you praise them and provide attention to good things (no matter how small). If you can transition to providing more attention to good or neutral behaviors, and less attention to problematic behaviors, your child will learn over time that it is more beneficial for them to discontinue their problematic behaviors. 

Show Empathy and Understanding

It’s important to show your child empathy and understanding (even when you don’t really understand). When your child is exhibiting a need for connection, their problem may seem small or trivial. For young children, it can be very difficult to distinguish the difference between a “want” and a “need.” Recognizing how important your attention feels to them in the moment can help increase your empathy for your child when you are feeling overwhelmed or frustrated with their bids for connection. You can express empathy by identifying their emotion verbally and expressing that you understand how difficult emotions can be to manage.

Provide Clear Expectations & Limits

It can be helpful to have rules and expectations for behaviors clearly explained and displayed in your home. You and your child should know ahead of time what the consequences or rewards for certain behaviors are. It is easier as a parent to remain calm and reduce attention to problematic behaviors when you aren’t having to come up with a consequence on the spot. It can also be helpful for them to understand when you are available to provide them with one-on-one quality time and when you will not be able to. For example, if you have a late work meeting but you usually eat dinner together, communicate with your child ahead of time that your routine has changed, express that you are also sad to miss your normal time together, and identify a replacement time when you can spend quality time together later in the day. 

Shift Your Perspective on Attention-Seeking Behaviors

Following these recommendations can decrease problematic attention-seeking behaviors in your home. However, every change takes time, and waiting for change can feel stressful and frustrating. During this time, it may be helpful to shift your perspective on your child’s behavior. “Attention-seeking” often has a negative connotation, as if it isn’t a real need.  In reality, it is your child seeking connection with the people they are closest to. Connection is a necessary piece of human existence for children and adults alike. 

So when your child is clinging on to your leg, throwing a tantrum over going to bed, saying “mom” ten times in a row, throwing household items, or whatever it may be that day, try to take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that your child may be communicating a need for connection. 

If the task of reorienting your child’s behavior (and your associated thoughts, feelings, or behaviors) becomes daunting or unproductive, we are here to help! We can work with you and your child(ren) to ensure that your household is one that provides peace and sanctuary for the whole family.

Contact the Evoke Mind + Body team today.

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