So often over the years I have heard people say “they are just attention seeking, ignore them”. But when did “attention seeking” become a “bad” thing? Yes, children often seem to choose the most annoying ways to seek our attention, but the need for attention isn’t bad. The need for attention is the most normal and natural thing for a child to do. Gaining attention and attaching to an adult is a primal instinct and yet when a child does this in an unfavourable way we ignore it. The problem is, ignoring a child’s “attention seeking” behaviour doesn’t stop their need. In fact ignoring a child’s need for attention usually means that they will become more desperate for attention and the behaviour will escalate. They will do what they need to until they get the attention they are looking for. This isn’t always positive attention, but it is still attention.
A child's most well developed form of communication is behaviour. You can’t expect that a 3 year old will say “I am very angry that you gave me the wrong coloured cup, I would like you to get the blue one. Also I’m having trouble calming so could I have a hug?” I know that sounds ridiculous, not even an adult would articulate their needs like that, but so often this seems to be the expectation adults have of children. The truth is children’s brains are still forming. They will naturally end up in the emotional/non-logical part of their brain because that is what is developing. They are often overwhelmed by emotions and trying to work it all out. They also won’t have the vocabulary to express what they are feeling. So what is left? Behaviour. Sometime children (and adults) don’t even know what they want, they just know they don’t feel right. So when a child’s behaviour is “attention seeking” it is our job to help them find the need behind the behaviour and coach them through.
What is Attention Seeking Behaviour?
Attention seeking behaviour is any behaviour your child does that causes you to give them your full attention. Usually when we think of this it is the really difficult and annoying behaviours. Such as, how your child who has not really seemed to want your attention all day, suddenly starts yelling or climbing on the furniture as soon as you go on the phone. Or it is that grating tone in their voice as they whine “it’s not fair”. It could be the melt-down in the supermarket in front of a host of judging eyes. These are all attention seeking behaviours because the child is speaking a need through their behaviour. However there are other attention seeking behaviours that people don’t often consider.
Pretending to be sick or exaggerating a sickness or injury
Being “over dramatic” in any situation
Always wanting to be the leader and putting themselves first (normal for young children)
Seems to seek praise and always talking about what they have done well
Lying about achievements and abilities
Doing anything however annoying to get your attention
Any of these behaviours are “attention seeking”. They are different behaviours because they are communicating different needs but they all require attention to help meet that need. We need to look past the behaviour and find what that need might be. For a child who is exaggerating injuries, they may feel that they need more nurturing. A child who is “over-dramatic” may feel that they are often over-looked in the family. A child who puts themselves first might feel that they are only important if they are first. When children seems to fish for praise or they lie about their abilities, it could mean that they have low self-esteem. A child who is hurting siblings or constantly doing something to upset you, might be getting bullied, have a new sibling or something else cause them to feel bad and it is coming out to make other feel bad too. Children don’t enjoy “attention seeking” behaviour, they do it because they need help and the only way they will get help is with your attention.
What can you do when your child is “attention-seeking?”
It might seem simple and at times completely against what you want to do, but when your child is “attention seeking” you need to give them your attention. That doesn’t mean that you just allow the difficult behaviours but you don’t ignore them either. Remember ignoring the behaviour will only make them feel like they have to turn up the volume to be heard. In giving our kids the attention they need we also want them to learn how to recognise their needs and express them in a more favourable way. Children will only learn this if we teach them.
1. Label the feeling and the need for your child: “you seem really frustrated”, “you really want my attention right now”, “you seem to need a lot of cuddles at the moment”, “it feels good to be first”. Make sure you are willing to be corrected by your child. You may get the feeling or need wrong. That’s okay, but make sure you have your child try and explain what they think is going on. As you do this your child will start to feel understood. Just feeling like a parent sees their perspective will have a huge impact. When we do this we are also helping our children to recognise what is happening so that as their brain develops they can make this connection without having to jump straight to behaviour to communicate for them.
2. Use Empathy: When we empathise with our children we are building connection. If we can say, “I feel like that sometimes too” or “I think I would be upset if that happened to me” we are showing them that they are not alone. We understand that dealing with emotions is hard. We stop there from being sides of “us and them” and we join together in understanding.
3. Offer direction if you can: It is a great skill to teach your kids to express when they feel like they need more of your attention. Until they can, you will have to do this for them. If they aren’t too upset you can try and offer a solution, “it seems like you really want me to spend time with you and you don’t like it when I have to make a phone call.” “I do need to make this call, how about we play one game and then I make the call?” This will only work if you can talk to them before their emotions have escalated too far.
4. What could they do next time? When everyone is calm you can talk about what they could do if they feel like that again. High emotions is not the time to try and problem-solve so don’t do it in the moment. But later when you are both feeling calm talk about what they could do.
5. Give them Time: All children need our attention, it is normal. Life can get very busy and you can find that the only time you are spending with your child is in the car on the way to the next activity or as you quickly brush their teeth before bed. Ultimately the way to help reduce “attention seeking” behaviour is to spend time with your children. This can be hard when you are busy with work, life and other children but this doesn’t have to be long periods of time. It is better to have 10 min blocks consistently where you play a game with them or sit and have a conversation, than than long periods of time only every now and then. Try to set a special routine for each child, even if it is cuddles and story at bedtime, some consistent one on one time will do wonders.
Attention is a primal need that every child is going to seek. If a child is “attention seeking” then they have a need that they are communicating through behaviour and they need your attention to help. As we meet our kid’s need and redirect them when they ask for it in not so favourable ways, we are teach them how to get and give positive attention that is required in all health relationships.