Attention seeking

Photo by Lisa Jay

We’ve been experiencing a bit of attention-seeking behaviour lately and it’s quite hard to know how to deal with it.  You don’t want to reward the behaviour by supplying negative attention, but at the same time, you can’t let them get away with behaviours that are unacceptable.

For example… Last week I had a friend over for dinner, and while we were talking I gave Birdy her evening milk.  Now Birdy and I normally sit down together and read stories while she has her milk.  But because I was chatting with my friend, I just gave her the milk and kept talking.  Then suddenly I noticed that Birdy was pouring her milk all over the kitchen floor in a very obvious attempt to get my attention.  I felt I had to deal with the behaviour because she was making a big mess.  So I stopped my conversation and made Birdy clean it up.  But when we were finished, my friend said, ‘Well she got what she wanted,’ meaning that in a way I had rewarded her by giving her my attention.

I had another similar incident when I was on the phone to a friend.  I’d only been talking for a short time when Birdy starts hitting her cousin on the head with a recorder.  Again, I felt I had to intervene to protect my niece, but by cutting short my phone call I was giving her what she wanted.

So I’ve been trying to find out what the experts recommend. There’s a lot of expert advice that says you should just ignore attention-seeking behaviour, to remove the fuel for the fire so to speak, but not everyone agrees with that.  (Louise Porter, for example, thinks the whole paradigm of attention-seeking behaviour is unhelpful.)  The problem is that if you ignore the behaviour, then you’re teaching your kids that they can get away with anything when you’re on the phone or busy.  So I think you have to deal with the behaviour with whatever discipline you would normally use, but not by reacting emotionally or getting upset.

One thing most of the experts agree on is that it’s useful to redirect the child towards a positive activity, and to let them know that you will be available when your task is completed, for example, by saying  ‘After I’m finished talking on the phone we can all go to the park.’   And while there’s been a lot written on the importance of giving your child positive attention when they are behaving well, it’s no guarantee.  I’m sure we’ve all had days when we’ve taken our child out somewhere special, they’ve had our attention all day, but they still misbehave when they get home.  And in those times it’s almost impossible not to respond emotionally or get upset.

Most parents will witness some attention-seeking behaviour around the birth of a new child.  That seems to be quite normal and should pass after the first few months.  But if attention-seeking behaviour becomes the child’s normal way of relating to adults, then you may need the help of a child psychologist.  Either that, or just put away all your recorders.  That should do the trick.

Is attention-seeking behaviour a problem in your family?  How do you deal with it? When should you ignore it, when should you intervene?

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