All children are attention-seekers. They want the reinforcement of their parents’ attention and approval to validate them. Children need attention and affection from caregivers, friends, family, and others to develop healthy social interaction skills. However, constant attention-seeking is concerning. It speaks to a child’s low self-esteem, and a parent’s willingness to allow them to rule a household.
"The need for attention is not the problem."
The most common thing a child does to get attention from their parents is misbehaving. A failure to address this bad behavior ensures that it follows the child into adolescence and adulthood.
Attention-seeking is a normal part of a child’s developmental process. Parents need to handle their children’s attention-seeking behavior from early on in order to keep it age-appropriate. The need for attention is not the problem. It’s the type of behavior the child engages in to get the attention that becomes a challenge. Excessive attention-seeking behavior includes tantrums, nagging, and aggression. In severe cases, children may react to what they perceive as a lack of attention with Body-focused Repetitive Behavior disorders. One of the BFRB’s parents should look out for is trichotillomania, or excessive hair pulling.
The Fine Balance of Providing Attention
It’s hard to quantify how much attention is enough. Children differ, and so do parents. It has a lot to do with how much attention you as a parent you wish to give. You need to strike a balance between giving the necessary attention, instead of too much or too little. This depends on the nature of your child. Remember, there is a difference between how much attention your child needs and how much they demand. If you shift to giving them the attention they demand, they’ll insist on more. Analyze your child’s needs for attention based on their personality and behavior.
Factors That Influence Attention-Seeking Behavior
Children engage in an attention-seeking behavior when they feel they don’t get enough time from you. Attention-seeking behavior is often an indicator that you need to rethink how much time you spend with your child. You may need to make changes to your schedule, but it will be worth it in the long run.
Your child’s diet can affect their attention-seeking behavior. Foods that trigger bad behavior are too much dairy, artificial coloring, sugar, and preservatives. Feeding children food that they are allergic to or intolerant of can also affect their behavior. This can come across as attention-seeking.
"It gives them the motivation to continue seeking your attention with positive behavior."
Research suggests that a change in diet helps children with BFRB’s such as trichotillomania. The diet effects of certain foods have been shown to make trichotillomania worse. If your child develops a BFRB, dietary changes and early intervention can make a huge difference.
Related: The Ultimate Stress Management Grocery List [Free Download]
The Three Types of Attention
Parents tend to resort to the wrong type of attention for a situation because they’re acting in a moment, are tired, or just need the behavior to stop. These are three kinds of attention you can devote to a child seeking your attention:
1. Positive Attention
Positive attention comes without being demanded by the child. This is the type of attention you give your child when you praise them for being well-behaved and hugs tell your child you are aware of them. You give them attention without them asking for it. They don’t need to resort to bad behavior to get you to see them.
Make a conscious effort to ‘catch your child being good’ at least a couple times a day. Find something to praise them for. It gives them the motivation to continue seeking your attention with positive behavior.
2. Negative Attention
When you give negative attention, you acknowledge bad behavior. You become upset because your child is misbehaving, and you react. As much as you think this is going to solve the problem, it isn’t. In fact, it’s going to make the situation worse. When you get angry and interrogate or lecture your child, you’re telling them they need to misbehave to get your attention. Children want attention. If they can’t get positive attention, they’ll take negative attention and do what’s necessary to get in.
It’s only natural that you’ll give negative attention at some stage. You’re human, after all. But when you do, avoid shouting and personally attacking your child. Don’t threaten them with unrealistic punishments. Follow through on punishments. Try to clear your mind before you act. Make sure the punishment fits the crime, not your level of anger.
3. No Attention
Ignoring a child’s bad behavior shows them that this is not a useful way to get your attention. It weakens their resolve, and they soon stop their misbehaving. You’ve told the child that they need to act differently to get your attention. A tantrum only works when you give the child a platform to perform. When they realize you’re not giving them a stage, they’ll decide the performance is not worth the effort.
There are times when it’s impossible to ignore your child’s need for attention. But try to ignore any bad behavior they engage in to get it. There are also times when it’s dangerous to ignore your child, for instance, if their behavior may cause them physical harm.
A child seeking attention through negative behaviors can get exhausting. Using the behavior extinction method, you can slowly begin to "fade away" the negative behaviors causing problems. Behavior extinction involves ignoring the problem behavior, or not providing attention when the child is seeking it with a challenging behavior. This could cause an "extinction burst" when the child notices their efforts aren't working any longer and continue to increase in intensity and frequency.
These extinction bursts should continue to be ignored and attention should not be provided unless the child exhibits replacement positive behaviors or is in physical danger.
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About the Author
This article was written by Ariel T - a writer and mental health advocate, with background in psychology and world literature. She has a unique outlook on the human psyche, combined with a developed ability to express ideas in writing. Ariel has personal experience with what it means to suffer from a mental health disorder and what it takes to overcome it.
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