Why Choosing Positive Guidance over Punishment Helps Reduce Attention Seeking and Other Unhelpful Behaviors

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?

Other times, children seek attention in not so wonderful ways. Some typically unhelpful attention seeking behaviors are: Whining, crying, tantrums, back talk, defiance, and aggression.

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 positive guidance to feel better and change their behavior.
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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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

5 thoughts on “Why Choosing Positive Guidance over Punishment Helps Reduce Attention Seeking and Other Unhelpful Behaviors

  • Veronica

    I guess I have been very lucky with a child that listens and for most of the time follows our requests. We have not looked for a lot of advice or books as things are sailing relatively smooth with our 2yr old girl (and 3mo old baby girl). I am sure our ways can be enhanced a lot and I am not sure if my extent of info is useful enough or needs further info…
    These are specific times when things can go not as smooth:

    1) getting my toddler to join us for supper time at the table (mainly she refuses but eventually gives in, occasionally a short tantrum or tries to hit us when trying to sit her in her chair or sit on out lap -she has choices on where to sit). Even when: I know she is hungry, I have acknowledge that play is fun and we will get back to it once finished dinner(as we 90% of time do go back to play), and provide her time to finish what she is doing and agreed by her( for example: “once you’re done with these 2 books it is time to eat, ok?”and She says “ok”),

    2) the whole pre-sleeping routine she tends to not cooperate or cry with dry eyes or throw a big tantrum (potty time, brush teeth, bath/shower, put on diaper, put on PJs, and after 2-4books to get in bed- which is followed with small back rubbing to relax into slumber on her own…) even when given time to play and/or with our full attention on her, given her notice that bed time is coming up at end of X activity, explain what we believe is happening to her (for example: “I know play is fun and you do not want it to be over, but we all need to sleep so we are refreshed and can play with your friends at daycare”)

    3) getting clothes on in the morning
    Any advise would be great!! Thanks!!

  • Thanks for sharing, really helpful information. I have a 3yr old son who will go and pee in my bed to get attention, then a daughter aged 6 who walks off to sook till someone comes to pay her attention. I really needed some advice to deal with these behaviors. Thanks again.

  • Eddiemc

    @ Veronica.
    Every time you make it into a fight, try to let go of your “need” for the situation to turn out a certain way, and trust that your children knows best for them selves. You can guide them and mentor them, but avoid controlling and disciplining them. I promise you’ll all dance better together.

    Have you ever let them decide if they are tired or hungry, cold or hot? You say “you know she’s hungry”, how can you know better than anybody else what’s going on inside them? (Yes, at times we can all see our child hanging on to an awake state for too long and we can see that the best thing for them is to sleep), but way to often we take control over every aspect of their inner state and by doing so they will not be independent and get true knowledge of their own inner state.

    Alow your child to go hungry past one meal. Alow your child to get cold if they refuse to water a jacket. Alow them to skip dinner, next time/meal/situation they will have learned by experience and they will choose to do what is best for them selves.

    Put yourself in their shoes: Imagine if your partner talked and acted towards you exactly the way you are acting towards your child. How would you feel? What would you do? Probably the same as your child does. How would you prefer to be treated? Now treaty our children that way.

    @ Nicole.
    You don’t “deal with these behaviours”, in stead you look at yourself, the interplay with your children and how you can work to see them as equals and empathize with their emotions.

    They are reacting to emotions and situations the only way they can. It sounds like they desire real attention and to be seen by you. Do you punish/disiplin that behavior? In stead try to be present, spent time with them, see and tell them that you understand their emotions. Respect them and treat them as of equal value as you treat others. Guide them as an adult, but still respect them as valued people; equal souls. It sounds like your children wants to be seen and loved for who they are not for what they do.

  • Rebecca Champagne

    My 2.5 year old daughter has had issues with hitting, pushing and sometimes even biting other children. if we are out and she’s playing with somehing and the other child tries to take it from her she freaks out. Or of she sees them with a toy she wants to play with or she was playing with somehing, went on to something else and the other child starts playing with the other toy.
    I take her aside and we take deep breaths together and count to ten then I explain she hurt the other child and she needs to use her words. We go back and i urge her to apologize and she does. But I don’t know why it keeps happening. I feel like I can’t relax because I have to be ready to pry her off another child.

  • This is really great advice. I try to give \”time ins\” when my kids are \”misbehaving\” because often their undesirable behavior is really just to gain attention. This allows me to ask them what they need and talk to them about a better way to get what they want. I have been doing this for a few years. And now when my kids see another parent giving a \”time out\” my kids will ask me if those parents know about how \”time-ins\” work much better!

  • Mychelle

    This article was such a great reminder, thank you! My son is 1 and a half, lately he has been pinching and hitting out of what seems like frustration. I have defaulted to a swift time out and the words “that’s not nice, please don’t pinch/hit” which turns into a continuous game of back and forth trips to “time out”- obviously not working! He is not really verbal yet, how would you recommend I approach discussing his feelings? Thanks again for the great info 🙂

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