The Key to Solving Behavior Problems – Attention

Scared toddler covering his face

Children of all ages need attention from their parents. As they grow older, it is easy to let your children run a bit more independently than you could when they were babies and toddlers, but even for primary age children, when the need for attention strikes, ignoring warning signs can be risky.

Attention-Seeking Behavior

All children engage in attention seeking behavior. Newborns and babies cry and whine until their needs are met. Toddlers play the game with a bit more finesse by looking at you and then doing something they deliberately know is wrong just to see what you’ll do. And older children take the cake by acting out in ways that you wouldn’t normally tie to attention, but do in fact take their cues from the almost constant need children have to bask in their parents’ undivided attention.

For example, the preschooler who takes toys from other children or who picks on a younger sibling is likely seeking attention from you. If he’s not getting positive attention, negative attention will do just as well – so long as you acknowledge him. In fact, a large percentage of poor behaviors made by children stem from a need for attention. The behavior might be directly seeking attention, such as deliberately breaking rules or getting under foot, or it might be a more indirect response to the frustration of their attention needs not being met. Tantrums are an excellent example of this.

Parent Attention

For the child seeking attention, an absent-minded pat on the head is not enough to satisfy the craving. Instead, parents should make every effort to enage with their children on their own level. To give your child the attention he deserves, you should:

  • Stop what you’re doing
  • Focus on him entirely
  • Touch him gently
  • Listen to what he is saying
  • Repeat back what he’s told you
  • Address the main concerns
  • Offer a solution or compromise
  • Give a timeline

In practice this looks like:

You’re trying to wash the dishes while your preschooler runs around the kitchen and starts pulling pots and pans back out of the cabinets. Rather than ignoring it or yelling at him to stop, you simply wipe your hands on a dishtowel, catch your little one in a hug and whisper to him. “Why are you acting this way?” Let him explain and repeat it back to him, “Ah, so you want to be an airplane and these are you cargo.”

And then make your statement, “I’d love for you to play airplane, but I just put those clean pots away and I need for them to stay clean. Why don’t you run into the living room and play airplane in there with your toys and just as soon as I’m finished with these dishes we can read some stories together.”

Your response gives your child a compromise he can agree with, it offers him the attention he is seeking and promises more attention – one on one at that, once you are finished with the dishes. It goes without saying that when you make your child a promise such as this, you must follow through on it, even if you have to delay bath time for ten or fifteen minutes.

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