Why My Child Wants Negative Attention

You might have a child that acts out… a lot. You have star charts, heart to hearts, you’ve punished, you’ve ignored and still you are seeing tantrums, hitting, spitting, throwing, or rude behavior. Maybe you’ve heard that children don’t care if attention is negative or positive. But do you really buy it? You give them the best stuff when they are behaving, so why wouldn’t they want to behave? Or maybe you think you give them attention ALL. THE. TIME. so how could they possibly want more attention?

So why does your child engage in negative behavior when they could be behaving and getting cool rewards?

Attention-seeking behavior for blog post

Negative behavior is generally rewarded more consistently. It’s not because you want to, but if your child is hitting his sister with his toy cars you have to intervene at least in some way. You may have the heart to heart “but you love your sister”, you may yell, or you may take away all the cars; there is still an interaction going on and they are getting your attention. You have given them what they needed and they know if they create a big enough situation they are going to get you to come over. Now think about the reverse. Are they ever going to be able to behave so well that you are going to drop everything and come over right away? So, their negative behavior becomes the most reliable way for them to get your attention.

You can’t be with them showering your love and affection 24/7, so how do you give them the attention they need, still get done what you need to everyday, and stop the negative behavior?

Learn the signs – First learn the signs that your child is about to engage in the negative behavior. Maybe it’s they start to whine right before they escalate or they leave the room unexpectedly in order to go destroy something. Then once you see the pre-curser signs offer them an activity to do together, “hey do you want to color together?” stops the behavior and doesn’t reward it and teaches them that when they are feeling like they need attention they can ask to do an activity together.

Test their tolerance – Start noticing how long in between interactions they can go before they start to escalate, then start interacting with them right before that threshold. Slowly extend the time and stretch out their tolerance for waiting for attention. If they never get a chance to engage in the negative behavior, then it will lose its power over time.

Chores together – Pick a chore and teach them part of that chore or create a job that mimics what you are doing. So if you are doing dishes give them the silverware to sort. Silverware already put away from yesterday? Pull them out ahead of time and give them to child to sort today. You are spending time together while still not having to be pulled away from necessary, day-to-day activities.

Intense 1:1 time – Giving your child direct, uninterrupted attention can satisfy their need for attention longer and better than snippets of divided attention while you make dinner. This means give them lots of eye contact and praise while you play. The interaction will be more satisfying because you can let your child lead and then pick a time when it feels natural to end the play. Divided time will feel like they never really got your attention and will leave them wanting more.

Schedule predictable interaction daily – There are lots of reasons to put your child on a schedule and setting aside time to interact that is predictable and routine is another one. The child will know when they are getting your attention, which will help them practice patience. Some great times to do this are on the car ride home and for a few after you pull into the garage, waiting for dinner to finish cooking, and right before bed.

Be specific about time – Children do not experience time the same way adults do. When they say something is taking FOREVER it really feels that way to them. Terms like in a little while, soon, or later hold very little meaning to them. Instead ask your child to wait until you have finished a specific task/tasks. They will be able to see you doing this and will better be able to see that the time to be together is getting closer. For example, “We can play as soon as I put all the dishes in the dishwasher and wash the table for dinner”. Your child will be able to see all the dishes be put away and know that it’s just the table to wipe down.

Lastly, Keep your word! – Remember how we said negative attention is consistently reinforced? Well, if you promise you are going to play at a certain time then you need to honor that, even if it’s very brief. If they change their behavior and try to be patient and then you do not keep up your end of the bargain, then they have no reason to behave the next time.

If you need further help with attention-seeking behavior or you would like to schedule T-Ten for a parent seminar you can contact us at (703) 574-0350 or by email at [email protected].

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