Children seek extra attention as a way to connect
JACKSON HOLE NEWS AND GUIDE:
You know you have an attention-seeking child if you have a child who always interrupts you when you are on the phone, picks on siblings when you are busy, wants to play when you are working or cooking, is always forgetting things, becomes mischievous or doesn’t follow through on agreements or constantly asks “why?” You find yourself repeatedly nagging, reminding or otherwise engaging.
Attention-seeking children keep us busy with them by requiring that we repeat ourselves several times in order to get them to complete a task or come back even when we have told them “not now.”
What do we do? We say, “In a few minutes,” we answer the incessant questions or we find ourselves continuously breaking up sibling fights. Our repeated responses, even if negative, are actually giving the child what he or she wants — our attention — and thus reinforcing the misbehavior. It can leave us feeling frustrated or annoyed by the repetitive demands.
There are two kinds of attention: positive and negative. Children may be a high-attention-needs kids if (1) they have become accustomed to having your frequent attention and have developed the idea that they need your attention in order to feel significant, or (2) they don’t get enough of your positive attention, so they resort to negative behaviors to get the attention they feel they are lacking with the idea that negative attention is better than no attention at all.
Children need our attention. Receiving attention and being noticed feels good, gives children a sense of belonging and helps them feel connected. We want our children to know they belong for who they are and for their contributions, participation and cooperation in the family, not from keeping us constantly engaged with them. While children might want our full-time attention, it is not realistic or appropriate for parents to give this kind of attention 24-7.
The need for attention becomes challenging when this attention is the only place from which a person derives his or her self-worth. It can go to the extreme to where children may begin to believe that they have a place in their family only if they are being noticed or if they keep others busy with them. That is the mistaken goal of desiring undue or extraordinary attention, as introduced in my April 14 column.
Parents who have high-attention needs-children come to me baffled: “But I give my child attention all the time!”
We have to understand that these children have developed a misguided belief that their worth and ability to belong comes from this attention, so they want more of it. Whatever we give is never enough.
Rather, we want our children and teens to know that they are important even if we are engaged in something else. We want them to feel securely connected through our unconditional love and through their ability to find belonging through cooperation, participation and contributing to the family.
So, what do we do if we find ourselves living with a child who has developed the mistaken goal of seeking extraordinary or negative attention?
First, decode the message they are sending. These children are not being bad kids. Rather, their hidden messages are, “Notice me. Involve me in something useful” and “I want to connect. Catch me being good.”
What we want to do is pay attention to our children’s positive, cooperative and productive behavior. To do this we have to allow space for these situations: Carve out time to engage in child-directed activities or stop what you are doing to make eye contact and really listen.
For example as Dr. Richard Dreikurs says in his book “Children: The Challenge,” if our kids’ “quiet moments of constructive play brought a warm smile, a pleased hug and a [word of acknowledgement], they would be less inclined to get our attention through disturbing behavior.”
At the same time begin to quietly ignore the negative attention seeking behavior and create limits around their demands: “I know that you want me to play with you. I am busy now. If you can be patient and play by yourself for 10 minutes, I’ll be able to spend some time with you then.”
If your children are used to you giving into their attention seeking demands, this may be hard for them at first. They may demand your attention louder. They may cry, whine or find mischief. But if you remain firm and kind, soon your kids will find other, and perhaps with some teaching, more useful behavior that meets their needs for connection and belonging.
Our natural anger and frustration at their incessant demands for our attention only make things worse.
What we need to do is notice our children and involve them usefully. Connect through play, a shared activity, making family plans or cooking a meal. Bring them into household responsibilities. Give positive attention, schedule time together, appreciate the big and little things your children do, recognize strengths and talents by asking them to teach you about one of their interests, and accept your children for who they are.
Working with a high-attention-needs child can be challenging, and of course there are nuances and various perspectives about what course to take. There is no prescribed formula. Every child and every situation is different. That’s why it is important to look at the needs of every situation, including the needs of yourself and your child, before you move forward. Sometimes our children’s bids for attention are a matter of needing to learn skills or work through challenging emotions or of being exhausted at the end of the day.
If you would like to discuss this more and talk about what this means for your situation, please join the Parent Talk discussion June 1 at 6 p.m. (find info at GrowingGreatFamilies.org) or schedule a coaching call with me at fees that work for your individual budget.
Thanks to Amy Lew, Ph.D., for inspiration for this column.
Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education and is excited to explore the world of raising children with you!