Many parents hear at some point (often during the toddler years) that their children's negative behavior is simply "attention-seeking" behavior. Parents also tend to hear that the best thing to do is simply ignore the tantrum, and it will naturally stop on its own.
There are some flaws to this advice, however. While it's true that these behaviors aren't exactly pleasant to be around, ignoring the behavior is sometimes misinterpreted as ignoring the child (by isolating the child in time-out, for example).
We should explore what happens when we ignore acting out. As parents, we also need to know what to do instead.
Let's look at a few behaviors commonly described as attention-seeking:
- When your child does things they "know" are off-limits, or does things we think they should know better than to do
- Pushing boundaries
- Whining, crying or acting out
Are they really attention-seeking behaviors? It may help to reframe them. A helpful perspective to remember is that if a child is wanting more attention, regardless of the form that takes, it's because they're craving connection with their trusted adult—attention-seeking is attachment- seeking.
It's completely developmentally normal and healthy for a child to crave attention from their caregivers. Sometimes, however, when a child is dysregulated by anxiety, by disruptions in routine or by other sources of confusion and uncertainty, they become unsure how to connect in a positive way. In these moments, young children grasp for whatever "works"—whatever gets them the attention they need from us.
Behavior like this is not a reflection of how "good" or "bad" a child is, of course. Rather, it's a reflection of what behavior their brain is capable of manifesting in that moment. A child who is whining or misbehaving isn't "bad"—they are longing to be seen. Ignoring a child who feels this way only exacerbates the problem.
Here's what happens when we ignore attention-seeking behavior—and what to do instead.
1. It sends the message to our kids that our love is conditional.
Just as it can be confusing for an adult whose partner gives them the so-called "silent treatment," it's even more baffling for children when we simply don't respond to whatever they're doing. What they know is what they observe: "My trusted adult isn't 'seeing' me. I've disappeared from their world." This perception may lead to feelings of isolation.
While ignoring a child might "work" in some sense (they may stop performing the undesirable behavior), it can come at a very high cost to the child's self-esteem.
What to do instead: Connect before you correct.
A child often isn't mentally capable of hearing instruction or correction when they're acting out. The part of the brain that handles those types of conversations is essentially in the "off" position until they can return to a calmer state.
For parents, this means waiting out the storm. Stay present with your child physically and emotionally. If the child will let you, hold them, invite them to your lap for a story or find another calming activity to help regulate their brain (and turn the rational part back "on"). This may take awhile and that's okay. Let the emotions flow as much as they need to without invalidating the child's feelings or experience.
Then, as soon as it's appropriate, describe what you saw: "You didn't like when I said it was time to put away your toy cars, so you threw them all on the floor." Keep judgment out of it; state only the facts. Remember, this isn't an "adult versus child" situation—it's both of you working together. The child is not the problem; the behavior is. To address the behavior, you might say, "We need to keep the floor clean so no one falls and gets hurt. Let's drive your cars back to their parking lot and keep everyone safe."
When your child is emotionally grounded again, some playful parenting can help reinforce your connection in this moment of correction, helping the child feel "seen" and empowered to be part of the family again, rather than removed from it.
This connection-based approach to attention-seeking behavior shows them that our love is unconditional. That's so much more important than any other message they could absorb.
2. We miss an opportunity to help our kids' brains grow.
One of the tricky things about the common advice to ignore a child's negative behavior is that it doesn't specify a start or stop date, age-wise. If you heard, for example, that I—a grown woman—was so upset that I fell on the floor crying and refused to get up, and my partner simply walked away without even acknowledging me, you'd likely find it quite awful.
Of course, being an adult, I have a fully developed brain that's capable of communicating my needs to him. Kids, however, don't have fully developed brains. In fact, the prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that regulates rational thought, among other things—doesn't fully develop until well beyond age 20. Further, children haven't had the opportunity to practice the skills that reflect emotional intelligence nearly as much as adults have. They literally do not have the mental toolkit they need to reliably control their emotions.
What does this mean for parents? If an adult physically or emotionally ignores a child who's struggling, the child has no model of how to better handle whatever they're experiencing that's causing the negative behavior. In fact, studies suggest ignoring a child expressing negative behavior actually produces a snowballing effect: a child who's behaving poorly is more likely to keep behaving poorly rather than learn an alternative, and more positive, way to behave.
What to do instead: Model emotional regulation.
Rather than matching our child's upset with our own, or leaving the child to "figure it out" on their own, we can model that it's okay to have feelings and express them maturely. (We do this knowing, of course, that children are by definition less mature than we are.)
When a child is engaging in attention-seeking behavior, we can help them cope by modeling a more appropriate way to manage their big feelings. We can help retrain their brains to understand that when they do an undesirable behavior, they can come to us for support rather than wait for our "disappearance" or punishment.
In learning to trust that we're an emotional safe haven for them, they can start to depend on us more consistently, and come to us proactively when they're struggling—rather than acting out to get our attention. By doing this, we provide an emotional "how-to manual" for our kids to follow.
Remember, we can (and should) set healthy boundaries about what is and isn't acceptable behavior. What's more important for a child to know than "I can't do x," is "I can't do x, but I CAN do y." If we consistently remind them of what the boundary is and what the better solution is, that knowledge can create new pathways in the brain.
3. We don't address the underlying need.
Experts agree that all behavior is communication. Even when we don't like the way a child is expressing what he or she wants, the underlying need that they're trying to convey doesn't magically go away if we ignore it. Perhaps the child is hungry or tired, or over- or under-stimulated. Or perhaps we've been on our phone too much and they're lonely. Maybe they're simply seeking connection. (This is often the case.) The child might not even know why they're acting the way they are, but they're still looking to their trusted adult to help them work through their big feelings.
What to do instead: Remember that needs are needs.
If parents can solve the attention-seeking behavior with a hug, that's usually an easy fix. A snack? Doable (although we should be wary of "solving" problems by offering food every time). Some downtime or a game together? Sure. Whatever it is, if we can find the root cause, it's much more effective to address that than to pretend it's not there—we risk sending the message to our child that their needs don't matter.
Experienced mamas remember the "baby checklist:" When babies cry, it's usually because they're wet, hungry or tired. A version of that mental checklist can be helpful to keep in mind for toddlers and preschoolers too:
- Is my child too hot? Too cold?
- Needing gentle physical connection?
- Craving downtime with less noise?
When attention-seeking behavior crops up, think through the common causes of upset in younger kids—and address the needs, not the behavior.
We know our kids best. With that knowledge (and our love), we can reframe attention-seeking behavior from having a negative connotation to a developmental expectation that we have of our children. Of course they need our attention. They're children. What they want more than anything is to rely on our acceptance, our unconditional love and our consistent emotional presence.This article was originally published on Dandelion Seeds.
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