Attention-Seeking in Kids: An Opportunity for Growth

Attention-Seeking in Kids: A Growth Opportunity

Hello brave parents and caregivers,

My daughter, delightfully into reading, prefers to read to the exclusion of everything else, including getting ready for bed. Because it is difficult to simultaneously read, get changed, and brush teeth, our bedtime routine has hit a couple roadblocks lately. On a particularly challenging Friday evening, my attempts to move the routine along were met with a lot of whining and a dash of foot stomping.  In other words, classic attention-seeking behavior.

Understanding Attention-Seeking Behavior in Children

Children typically seek the amount of attention they need to move forward in development. Attention-seeking can manifest as whininess, clinginess, or dysregulated behavior, to name a few.

It is important (but challenging!) to view attention-seeking behavior through the lens of a child.  When children seek “inappropriate” attention, it usually means they need extra help managing their feelings because, for one reason or another, they are not functioning at their best at that moment. For instance, they may be tired, hungry, anxious, frustrated, or feeling insecure.  These minor regressions are a common part of normal development.

How You Perceive Attention-Seeking Behavior Is Important

I believe that parental perception of a child’s emotions and behavior can shape a child’s self-esteem. For instance, you could view a child’s dysregulated behavior as manipulative (acting out to get his way) OR as a response to being overwhelmed by disappointment. The former suggests that the behavior stems from something “bad” within him, while the latter suggests you understand that your child may sometimes be overwhelmed but does not yet have the skills to regulate his strong emotions. And keep in mind that the emotional life of a child, like any human being, is complex. In addition to disappointment, a child may also simultaneously feel angry at his parent, embarrassed at having made a scene, and worried about having had such strong emotions.

Viewing attention-seeking behavior as originating from something “bad” within a child may lead to parental words and actions that induce shame and erode a child’s self-esteem.

When Children Seek “Negative Attention”

Sometimes, children engage in behavior knowing their parents or caregivers will respond disapprovingly. When this happens, it’s important to realize that a parent’s reproach never feels good for a child. That a child engages in so-called “negative attention-seeking” despite deeply caring that her beloved parent does not approve warrants close examination–if she is willing to endure the hurt of disapproval, there must be some sort of pay-off that makes it worth it.

Please take notice if your child seeks “negative attention” regularly. She may be chronically overwhelmed related to stress, trauma, or a mental health condition such as ADHD or anxiety. An evaluation with your pediatrician or a qualified mental health professional may be warranted.

Get Curious About the Reason Behind Attention-Seeking Behavior

When a child engages in attention-seeking behavior, it’s helpful to approach the situation with a sense of curiosity. Why is this happening at this point in time? In the case of my daughter, I realized she was tired after a long week of school; diverting her from the enjoyment and relaxation of reading at the end of a long week felt overwhelmingly frustrating and, because she was tired, her threshold for regulating her emotions was lower than usual.

In another example, a boy who dominates his teacher’s attention with disruptive behavior may appear to be a “troublemaker” on the surface, but perhaps he feels insecure about his relationship with his parents due to a new stressor at home; here, the connectedness he feels from his teacher’s attention outweighs his discomfort with her disapproval. Or, a clingy child who appears excessively needy may wish to stay close to her mother because it alleviates the separation anxiety she’s experiencing ahead of the new school year.

Attention-Seeking Behavior Is an Opportunity

When your child engages in attention-seeking behavior, it offers a valuable opportunity to understand her. Consider the emotional experience your child is having.  Validate her feelings and convey through your words and actions that you don’t see the behavior as originating from something “bad” within her. Explore the reason behind the behavior so you can respond to it constructively.  

While conveying your understanding, lovingly hold reasonable limits. This provides your child with an opportunity to develop important emotion and behavior regulation skills. If, for instance, my daughter were given the green light to stay up late reading, I imagine the whining would have abruptly stopped. However, fatigue would have made it difficult for her to manage the next day’s activities.  Instead, with my validation and support (and settling on an agreement to read for a short time before lights out) she eventually worked through her emotions and went to bed.  Providing space for a child to practice calming herself is an important step toward building emotion regulation skills.

Parents, when you approach your children’s challenging behavior with a goal to validate and understand, it supports their healthy emotional development and helps them build a positive sense of self.

7 Steps to Approaching Attention-Seeking Behavior

1.      Keep in mind that your child wants please you – he genuinely does not enjoy “misbehaving”.

2.      Validate his feelings.  

3.      Convey your understanding that attention-seeking behavior is not related to your child being manipulative.

4.      Get curious—try to figure out the reason underlying his behavior.

5.      View attention-seeking behavior as a valuable opportunity to understand your child.

6.      Lovingly hold reasonable limits.

7.      In younger children, consider the use of parent-child interaction techniques (internal link) to address dysregulated behavior.

Brave parents and caregivers,

When kids engage in attention-seeking behavior, there is usually a reason for it. Use attention-seeking as an important opportunity to understand your children. Conveying your understanding improves their self-esteem and helps them learn the emotion and behavior regulation skills that move their development forward.

Until next time,

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