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How to Squelch "Attention-Seeking" Behavior in Defiant Children

"We had issues with A___ at home last night that I wanted to talk to you about, and what we could have done. She had been to her Nana's for the day and I picked her up at about 5pm. Normally she is really hyped up 'cause they make cakes and she has more sugar than I'd like. Nana said she only ate one cake but she was behaving as if she'd had 50... She wasn't being abusive (for a change) but she was being incredibly annoying. She wouldn't eat any dinner (that's ok so go hungry), she wouldn't have a shower, she kept grabbing hold of me and laughing (my sore arm and my legs) and wouldn't let go, was swinging off a wooden beam in the kitchen, wouldn't let us eat our dinner (dancing around in front of the TV when we tried to ignore her and put the news on), annoying the cat (she got scratched having not learnt from heaps of previous scratches over the years), wouldn't do any homework etc. etc....

SO after trying to ignore her for a while, we gave her a warning that if she continued she would lose all her soft toys for 3 days (they were packed in a suitcase and locked away) but she continued so the next warning/consequence was the loss of her dvd player (locked away) and no TV for 3 days and she continued and lost some books etc. but then after doing this for 6 hours (it was 11pm by this stage and she wasn't in bed) Martin lost his temper with her (I had been really trying so hard to not get angry) so she then went to bed crying and screaming abuse at us.

What could we have done differently? She didn't start off actually behaving badly per se but she was being unbelievably annoying and it went on for 6 hours!!! Martin lost his appetite and didn't eat anything for dinner and although he congratulated me for not losing MY temper, he still got cross at me when I suggested he go back and read your e-book again so then WE were arguing..... You know the story!"

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It's normal for children to need attention and approval. However, attention-seeking becomes a problem when it happens all the time. Even charming attention-seeking can become controlling. Many children make tragedies out of trivial concerns to get your sympathy. Excessive attention-seeking results in a situation where your child commands your life. This can be the seed for discipline problems in later childhood and adolescence.

Your goal is not to eliminate your child's need for attention and approval. When handled correctly, your child's need for attention can be a helpful tool for improving your child's behavior. Eliminate not the need for attention, but those attention- seeking behaviors that are excessive or unacceptable.

How Much Attention Is Too Much? That depends on you. How much attention-seeking can you tolerate? The rule is that children will seek as much attention as you give them. You must strike a balance between how much your children want and how much you can give. Even normal attention-seeking can drive you crazy on some days.

Do not let your children's need for attention turn into demands for attention. When children do not get enough attention, they resort to outbursts, tantrums, nagging, teasing, and other annoying behaviors. They think, "If I can't get attention by being good, then I'll misbehave to get Mom's attention."

Adult attention and approval are among the strongest rewards for children. Unfortunately, parents seldom use attention wisely. There are three kinds of attention: positive attention, negative attention, and no attention.

When you give your children attention and approval for being well behaved, they are getting positive attention. Positive attention means catching children being good. Focus on positive behavior. Positive attention can be words of praise or encouragement, closeness, hugs, or a pat on the back. A pleasant note in your child's lunch box works well. Positive attention increases good behavior.

When you give your child attention for misbehavior, you are giving negative attention. Negative attention typically begins when you become upset. You follow with threats, interrogation, and lectures. Negative attention is not a punishment; it is a reward. Negative attention does not punish misbehavior, but increases it.

What is the easiest way to capture your attention ...sitting quietly or misbehaving? When children do not receive attention in a positive way, they will get your attention any way they can. Do not pay attention to misbehavior. Pay attention to good behavior.

Negative attention teaches children how to manipulate and get their way. They learn to be troublesome. They learn how to interrupt you. They learn how to control you. Negative attention teaches children how to tease, nag, and annoy. It teaches children to aggravate, irritate, and exasperate. We teach this by not paying attention to our children when they are behaving appropriately, and by paying attention to them when they are misbehaving.

I have worked with hundreds of parents who have taught their children to be negative attention seekers. I have never met a parent who taught this deliberately. When you attend to the negative and ignore the positive, you teach your children to behave in a negative way. Your child will misbehave to get your attention in the future.

Do not wait for misbehavior to happen. Do not take good behavior for granted. We do this with teenagers. We come to expect good behavior, and overlook their efforts. When a child demonstrates good behavior, notice it. Look for it. The more you notice, the more you will find. You will get more good behavior in the future. Anyone can catch children being bad. Turn this around. Catch them being good. It's not easy. It takes practice.

Statistics show that the average American parent spends seven minutes a week with each of their children. Do better than average. Telling your children that you love them is not enough. Show them that you love them. Spend ten minutes of quality time with each child every day. No excuses, like I was just too busy today, or I didn't have time. We are all too busy.

In many families, both parents work. Some parents work two jobs. Your most important job is being a parent. When you come home after work, give the first thirty minutes to your children. Do not be the parents whose only hour with their daughter this week was in the principal's office or at the police station. Write your children into your plan book. Make an appointment with each of your children every day. Go for a walk and listen to what is happening in their lives. Turn off the TV for an hour and talk.

When you ignore misbehavior, you are giving no attention. Because attention is rewarding to children, withholding attention can be an effective punishment. Withholding attention can weaken a misbehavior. When your child misbehaves to get your attention, ignore the misbehavior. Ignore your child's inappropriate demands for attention. You will weaken those demands and extinguish the misbehavior.

Some parents find this hard to believe; they think that if a child is misbehaving, he must be punished. This is not true. Ignoring demands for attention is the best cure. When you ignore consistently, you will teach your child that the misbehavior is not paid off with attention. Temper tantrums need an audience. Take the audience away, and there is no point to having a tantrum. Do not forget to redirect. Teach children appropriate ways to get attention. "My ears do not listen to whining. Please ask in a soft voice."

Ignoring does not mean ignoring the problem. It means ignoring demands for negative attention. There are many forms of misbehavior that you should NOT ignore. Some misbehavior should be punished. Deciding when to ignore or when to punish is not easy, and there are no exact rules. It takes timing and judgment. When your child misbehaves to get attention, ignore it. If your child does not stop in two or three minutes, give him a reminder. Tell your child, "I do not respond to whining. When you stop, we'll talk." Wait another minute or two. If he still does not stop, then tell your child to stop or he will be punished: "Stop now, or you will go to time-out."

If you get angry or let your child push your buttons, you lose. If you must use a punishment, dispense the punishment without anger. If you get angry, then your child has succeeded in getting the negative attention that he was after. If you feel yourself getting angry, walk away. Cool off. If you give in, you will be providing your child with an attention payoff. You will be rewarding a misbehavior.

Good luck,

Mark Hutten, M.A.

Online Parent Support: Help for Exasperated Moms and Dads

1 comment:

Sonja Pearson said...

I love this article! We follow this method on account of our Board Certified Behavior Analyst training us. Praise works wonders. My 6 year old attention/sensory seeker calms down when we prevent, praise and practice wanted behaviors. It may seem like a lot of praise, but the investment is worth it. It also creates a more positive atmosphere in the home. It didn't take long to curb her behavior:-)!

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