The term “attention seeking” generally refers to unwanted and demanding behaviors. Behaviors that are labeled attention seeking include being clingy, calling out in class, doing this so other adults and kids will laugh, and even self-harm.
In the dictionary, attention is defined as “the action of dealing with or taking special care of someone or something.” All humans seek belonging and worth from other humans. We want and need to feel connected to others. Children try many things as they learn how to connect. In my clinic, I encourage parents and teachers to re-label attention seeking behaviors as connection seeking.
When children seek attention, they are seeking connection and validation. Connection seeking behaviors can be unwanted or difficult to deal with. When viewed as behaviors that express a child’s need to belong, parents are better equipped to deal with these behaviors positively.
Planned ignoring is often suggested as a way to manage unwanted connection seeking behaviors. The idea is you starve an unwanted behavior of attention so it while you reward wanted behaviors, making it more likely the behaviors you want are repeated. Unfortunately, outside of a psychology laboratory it often results in a child being ignored rather than a behavior being ignored.
Planned ignoring can make an emotionally unmet child even more desperate. When we ignore extreme behaviors in the absence of positive attention a child may think “Do I even matter/do I exist?”
How can parents positively deal with connection seeking behaviors?
Plan to spend time with your children
Intentionally spend time connecting with your children. Many Western parents spend between 10 and 35 minutes a day with their school-aged children. I include this fact to help explain the possible roots of unwanted connection seeking behaviors, not to make parents feel guilty. Schedule time with your child in your diary, like you would any other commitment. When you are with your children in day to day moments, comment often on the positive behaviors you see.
Spontaneously give your child lots of attention
Don’t make them chase you for it. Give it freely and deliberately. Give more than you think they need and see if it reduces problematic connection seeking behaviors. Lots of hugs, pats on heads, high fives, eye contact, invite them to play a game or snuggle with you on the couch.
Try to hold your child’s perspective. What is the world like for them? Why might they be so desperate for you to notice them? How can you address that need?
Ignore the behavior but immediately give connection in another form
Ignore the initial unwanted behavior but give your child positive attention directed at something else in that moment. For example, if a child started throwing toys around the room to get attention, a parent would ignore this behavior and instead invite your child to help with something.
Later the parent might say, “I know sometimes when Mom is busy you try to get me to notice you by throwing blocks and that can work to get mum to notice you sometimes when Mom shouts but then it also makes us both feel bad afterward. What could work better when you want to connect with Mom?” With a younger child, you may need to provide suggestions such as you could ask me to come and play or help you with something.
Choose to notice positive behavior over ignoring
Parents often focus more on what they don’t like such as aggressive behavior and completely ignore their child’s positive behavior. This will likely get you the opposite of what you want. Keep in mind, if children seek connection and they only get noticed when they are doing what we don’t want them to, we will likely get more of that.
If you choose to ignore behavior, tell your child at the beginning of the ignoring period that you will be ignoring them. “I will not talk back to you until you stop whining. The second you ask me that same thing without whining I will talk to you” is an example of this. You need to explain each time. Children have short memories. Always remember that ignoring the behavior does not mean ignoring your child, which is harmful. Keep ignoring periods short to avoid hurt. Some behaviors cannot be ignored due to safety. In this situation avoid giving negative attention (like reprimanding) to your child as attention of all kinds increases the chance of the behavior repeating.
Parenting is a journey of connection with your child that will last throughout your life. Connection seeking behaviors, wanted and unwanted, is part of parenting. Let’s manage it in a peaceful and positive way, without punishment.
Nadene van der Linden is a clinical psychologist in private practice. Nadene is the author of the much loved Tales from the Parenting Trenches: a clinical psychologist vs motherhood. Join the Unshakeable Calm facebook group today. Science based tips for calm and confident living.