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Dealing With The Attention-Seeking Child

Attention seeking behavior is basically your son or daughter regularly misbehaving to get attention from you, the parent. It may be as simple as doing things to annoy you and disobeying any house rules.

Your youngster is acting this way not because he likes to get yelled at, but because he enjoys the attention his misbehavior brings. He knows that you don’t like it when he misbehaves, and there is only so much you can do to stop him. This gives him a sense of power. The problem here is, sometimes moms and dads let the youngster have his way so he will stop acting-out. This is the worst approach since he will then realize that misbehaving also comes with bonus! Therefore the attention-seeking behavior pattern continues and will be used more often.

Here are some of the traits of the attention-seeking child. He or she:
  • Is frequently out of his or her seat at school
  • Is late in getting school assignments turned in
  • May use profanity or crude language
  • Often tries to be nonconformist in order to gain attention
  • Often wears unusual or attention-getting clothing
  • Picks on siblings and other children
  • Responds negatively to authority
  • Says the wrong thing at the wrong time
  • Tries to force his or her way into peer groups
  • Usually asks unnecessary questions
  • Is usually loud

Here is how the attention-seeking child’s behavior affects other people at home and school:
  • The concentration of the teacher and class is often broken.
  • Other kids may begin putting the attention-seeker down or avoiding him or her at every opportunity.
  • Other kids may react by excluding the attention-seeker from peer groups.
  • Parents and teachers are antagonized.
  • Parents and teachers are forced to give additional time to this youngster.
  • Parents often lose track of what they are trying to say.

Here are some ways to deal with the attention-seeking child:

1. Avoid power struggles by picking and choosing your battles carefully. In other words, if you don’t have the time and energy to respond effectively and avoid giving in, say yes from the start.

2. Avoid triggers for the behavior such as the word “no.” Instead of telling your youngster what not to do (e.g., no screaming), tell him what to do (e.g., ask nicely). Similarly, instead of telling him he can’t have something (e.g., we are not playing with toys now), tell him when the desired item will be available (e.g., you can watch TV after dinner).

3. Be constantly aware of the times you give attention to the attention-seeker. Be aware of the youngster's strong need for attention and provide it for positive actions—not just for disruptions.

4. Bolster your youngster's confidence at every opportunity—in a quiet way. You must find a constructive way for the attention-seeker to meet his or her need for attention. Above all, attention can’t be denied, or he or she will go to extremes to get it.

5. Change the timing of specific undesirable activities to come before more desirable activities. For example, if your youngster resists brushing her teeth, plan something fun to do afterward, such as special reading time with mom or dad. When she begins to exhibit resistant behavior, say, “First brush your teeth, then we will read a book together.” If you use a visual schedule, you can say this while pointing to the pictures.

6. Create a visual schedule with pictures to represent your daily routine. Sometimes challenging behavior occurs because young people don’t know what is going to happen next or when the activity or item they want will be available again. Instead of telling your youngster what to do or what he can’t have, use the schedule to show him what he needs to do and when enjoyable activities are available. For example, when your youngster is misbehaving because you asked him to stop playing, instead of focusing on the behavior, direct his attention to the schedule and say, “Play time is finished. It is time for bed. We will play again tomorrow morning.”

7. Give him or her additional responsibilities.

8. Help your youngster find visibility or leadership roles.

9. When the behavior is not aggressive or harmful to others, ignore inappropriate behavior used to get attention or to obtain something that was denied. The benefit of ignoring is that your child will learn that positive behavior has a powerful pay-off, while his negative behavior is ineffective and therefore no longer necessary.

10. In order to keep yourself from going insane, take adult time-outs. Sometimes you need a moment to step away from the situation, take a deep breath, and then come back when you feel calm and in control of our own emotions. Only then are you able to respond and assess the situation effectively.

11. Increase the positive attention provided, especially at times when less attention is usually available (e.g., have him help with dinner preparations or praise him from a distance for playing nicely while you are busy changing his sister, etc.).

12. Make the task or demand easier to accomplish successfully. Sometimes young people misbehave because the task is too difficult or overwhelming. For example, it might be too much to expect a youngster to clean up all of their toys when we ask; however, they may respond very well when we ask them to put one toy away at a time with some praise along the way (e.g., “Please put the red block in the box” … “Great job putting the block away” … “Put the green block in the box”).

13. Model the behavior you want, and speak softly and quietly.

14. Offer choices to increase motivation and interest in performing less desirable tasks. For example, if the youngster usually resists getting dressed, instead of saying, “It’s time to get dressed,” give choices such as, “Do you want to wear a red or blue shirt,” or “Which do you want to put on first, your shirt or pants?” Also, increase your youngster’s opportunity to make choices throughout the day so that he feels more control over his environment and learns to be responsible for the decisions he makes.

15. Reinforce appropriate questions when your youngster asks them. This will help the attention-seeker and your other children to realize which questions are constructive and relevant.

16. Seek help from psychologists and counselors as well as teachers to reinforce changes in this behavior, not only at home but at school.

17. Set aside special alone time with each parent (e.g., ten minutes of special play time per night or a special weekend outing).

18. Take time to talk to this youngster to discover the real problems and insecurities that he or she may feel.

19. Teach your youngster to ask for what she wants in a more appropriate way. If she is seeking attention, teach her to ask you for a hug, help, or a turn playing with you. If she wants an item, teach her to ask nicely. Remember to praise her for asking you for attention or items appropriately, even when it may not be the best time (e.g., “Great job asking nicely. Mom is on the phone right now. I’ll help you when I’m finished”).

20. Watch for improvement, and then relate how pleased you are with the improvement in behavior.

21. You may wish to consult with a mental health professional to determine whether your child’s behavior falls within normal developmental limits and to help you select strategies that may work best for your child.

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