Children often seek attention in mistaken ways. When you offer guidance, you can help your child feel connected, understood and ready to make better choices.
As children grow they become very skilled at figuring out really clever ways to get adults to pay attention to them. Sometimes the requests for attention are cute and wonderful. Does your child like making funny faces, telling you a joke, giving you sweet hugs and smiles? This kind of attention and connection seeking is just wonderful right?
These are all very unhelpful and typically thought of as misbehavior. These are also ways in which children mistakenly work towards getting the parental attention they need (Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline). Children work so hard at getting attention because attention really is a legitimate need for a child to grow well and thrive.
Children need attention like a plant needs sun and water. -Rudolf Dreikus
Attention Seeking is Usually Age Appropriate Behavior in need of Guidance
Aggressive behaviors are often attention seeking behaviors that can be transformed by putting effort into understanding feelings instead of only trying to stop the behavior.
Louisa shared with me that Ethan, her seven year old had been hitting his younger brother a lot lately. If Ethan was playing and Corbin came around to look at his big brother’s toys he got hit. Louisa had been using time out, ignoring and taking away what toy was causing issues each and every time this happened. She was doing a great job being really consistent with her “discipline”, except there was no change at all in Ethan’s behavior. Ethan’s toy box was practically empty at this point too as he had lost the privilege of playing with most of his toys but he was still “pretty determined to hit his little brother.”
“He is actually hitting more. He is also yelling at me, or ignoring anything I say, and screams at his brother to get out of his way. It’s stressful, tense and tiring. I am at a loss.” Shared Louisa.
Why was the consistency of time outs and toy removal not helping Ethan behave better?
No matter how many times we “discipline” a child for hitting a sibling, if we don’t first acknowledge the feelings the child is dealing with, the misbehavior is unlikely to stop.
Fear, jealousy and insecurity don’t stay in the corner when time out is over.
Ethan’s need for connection and understanding were running on empty way before his toy box ever did.
Children don’t necessarily know how to explain to us why or when they need attention. Much of the attention seeking behaviors we dislike are developmentally normal, even if not helpful.
Parents often refer to unhelpful behaviors by saying “my child is acting out” or “it’s just attention seeking” and this is actually a great way to remember that children really do typically act just as they feel and that they really do seek attention because they need it.
When a child acts “badly” it’s because they are not feeling well and need guidance. Guidance that helps the child understand her feelings and decisions. Guidance that helps the child learn better skills so she can do better next time.
It is connection,guidance and positive attention that can help a child get back to feeling well and behaving well.
When Louisa made time to talk to Ethan and to acknowledge that being a big brother is hard sometimes, that little brothers can be annoying things started to change. Louisa began to notice ways in which she could protect the space her older son needed for his own activities and play. Turns out Ethan was feeling like his mom was always sending Ethan away when he wanted to tell her about his latest creation or play idea. Ethan was also convinced that little brother Corbin was getting way more of mom’s free time. Ethan was feeling jealous and insecure.
Children usually don’t come out and say “hey mom, i’m feeling jealous and love insecure ever since Corbin started walking around and talking and you keep saying how darn cute he is… also, you’ve been ignoring me. this makes me feel agitated….”
Usually what we see and hear is “HEY! THAT IS MY TOY! I SAID IT’S MINE. GET OUT OF MY ROOOOOOOOOOOM.” Slap! and Cue the crying….
Don’t children need to know that bad behaviors are unacceptable?
We are often in a hurry to stop bad behaviors. We correct a child swiftly and sternly, because rightfully so, we are invested in raising responsible, respectful children.
Swift discipline tends to invite more trouble, not solve problems. When we put our focus on stopping “the bad behavior” we end up ignoring what is at the core of that unhelpful and mistaken behaviors.
Much more than time out or a consequence, what a child really needs in order to make better choices, is for us to first understand the feelings underneath their behavior.
Our children needs us to yield, to slow down instead of charging forth so we can actually get to the to core of what is going on underneath their unhelpful behavior.
They need safety and comfort from their parents, and not fear and adversity that comes with punishments and consequences.
Children benefit tremendously when parents are willing to work on understanding or decoding feelings instead of just focusing on stopping unhelpful behaviors.
When the goal of discipline is to just stop behavior, we miss an opportunity to help the child not only make a better choice, but to learn from their feelings and experiences.
One of the most important principles of parenting is that the feelings behind a child’s behavior must be recognized, accepted, understood, and openly dealt with, before the behavior can change. –Jan Hunt, M.Sc., Director of The Natural Child Project
Children really do benefit from receiving clear guidance.
Part of offering positive guidance is about helping children understand their own behaviors, feelings and choices. When we help children understand their feelings and behaviors we equip them to make better choices the next time those same feelings start to show up. If we skip this step, we get stuck in a cycle of addressing bad behaviors and never understanding feelings or what fuels the behaviors in the first place.
Give guidance by focusing on ways to teach your child to recognize and talk about feeling and choices.
Do set limits on the unhelpful behaviors.
Do address unhelpful behaviors in a kind and clear way.
Do follow up after setting a limit with positive guidance.
The guidance that follows will depend on the child and situation. It may be helpful to stay present to listen, or to help your child take a calming break first before they can talk. Delaying the “teachable” moment so a child can calm down does not take away from your message or make you permissive.
Try to remember that every child, in every situation is worthy of respect, connection and love.
You can reduce unwanted attention seeking behaviors by focusing on your child’s needs for unconditional love and connection.
Children feel a true sense of connection when parents slow down and take the time to be with their child, in their world. Connection can happen during play, but it can also happen during every day tasks, like cleaning, cooking, brushing teeth and putting toys away. The key is to be present, mindful, attuned, in other words, really being there in those moments WITH your child.
If unhelpful behaviors are showing up, look for positive ways to guide and teach your child so they can feel and do better. It’s not straightforward, it’s not a magic 1,2,3 solution. It’s really just about being present. Step in with kind and clear actions and words. Strive to work things out together and have confidence that your child can learn to do better.
Do you have a question about misbehavior or attention seeking behaviors that are challenging in your home right now?
Peace & Be Well,
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