Children are programmed to seek attention from the adults they trust. When changes happen or things feel unstable, children are more likely to seek connection, and for some, this will be done through behaviours that may become repetitive, leaving us feeling frustrated and more likely to not want to spend time with our child.
Your child’s behaviour always communicates a need, and when children display “needs for attention” it often is a little more complicated than just “filling your child’s cup” with lots of positive attention. Each child is unique and their needs will vary depending on their age, the situation and context.
The Right Kind of Attention
When you offer your child quality attention, for example, spending time playing together or reading a book, you are giving your child a message about their relationship with you and what you appreciate in them.
“You are fun, I like playing games with you”
“I love snuggling with you while we read”
“You are creative and have good ideas”
“I like spending time with you”
But when your child behaves in a way that is challenging to you or in a way that is annoying or unpleasant, they are often impulsively (and unconsciously) seeking another kind of affirmation from you. This is often a reassurance that despite their chaotic behaviour you accept them for who they are.
Nothing is more reassuring in relationships that feeling accepted by those we love when we are at our very worst.
How Can You Do This?
Old school parenting models used to recommend ‘ignoring’ the behaviours that you don’t want to see and offering praise to those you want your child do more of. These ideas come from Classical Conditioning and Pavlov’s dog has a lot to answer for when it comes to parenting. But I hate breaking this to you - your child is not a dog! Ignoring their behaviour is more likely to lead them to do more of it to get the attention they crave, or worse, escalate the behaviour to something bigger or more dangerous.
More importantly, ignoring the behaviours your child does that you find annoying or fill you with frustration is likely to leave your child feeling unloved and unwanted. Imagine that you reach out to a friend and call them. They don’t answer so you leave them a message saying “Hey, just having a bit of a tough day. Would be so nice to talk to you”. When they don’t call back after a day or two you send them a message “Hiya! I left you a voicemail. I would really like to talk to you”. They don’t answer back and when they do, a week later, they don’t reference your call or messages. How would that make you feel?
Now I know this adult example may feel far removed from the behaviours your child is doing repetitively that are grinding your down over time. But the essence of what is happening is the same – your child is trying to communicate a need to you and by ignoring their behaviours the only message you are conveying is “I don’t care”.
1) Show (right away) instead of tell
Often parents use words to try and stop the behaviour. When a child is doing something repetitively, words are not going to cut it.
Physically limit the behaviour you see while accepting and acknowledging the feelings or desires that are behind what they are doing.
Example – Hitting with anger
Acknowledge: “You want to hit your sister. I am here to stop you. I can see you feel angry”
Acceptance: “Anger can feel scary, I know. I will always try and be here to keep you safe”
Message: I am on your side. It is okay to feel whatever you feel. I accept your feelings.
Example – Picking with glee
Acknowledge: “You want to pick the flowers off the hedge. You enjoy doing that I can see you think it’s funny. I am here to stop you”
Acceptance: “Doing silly things can be funny, I know. You can be silly without hurting the plants. Let’s think of something silly to do together”
Message: I am on your side. You are fun to be around I like being silly with you in a safe way.
2) Don’t repeat or reiterate rules
While your child’s behaviour is mainly driven by impulse, as your child gets older they do begin to become aware that they may be doing something that breaks your limits or that they are doing something you don’t want them to do. In other words, they do know better, but they might find themselves heading to the ‘dark side anyway’.
Our instinct as parents in these situations is often to repeat or rephrase the rules. Our thinking is often “they didn’t hear us the first time, lets try again!”. One problem with that approach is that it is difficult to stay calm when we repeat ourselves to no avail. Naturally, our frustration grows and gives our child’s behaviour negative attention and ultimately more power.
The message your child really needs is not a reiteration of the rules. They need you to accept their immature, human impulse to break the rules.
3) Learn the most helpful way to genuinely acknowledge
When we acknowledge our child’s feelings the intention is not to fix or put an end to the behaviour in that moment. The intention is to connect with your child and demonstrate to them that their desire to hit, throw or be silly is in fact, okay. What is not okay is to act it out. By blocking the behaviour you teach that the actions are not okay, but the feelings are.
We need to be honest here – as humans we ALL have dark feelings. When we as adults are stressed, overwhelmed or feel a need for attention, we also partake in behaviours that may be ‘darker’ (e.g shouting, drinking alcohol, seeking emotional or physical attention from others in destructive ways… the list can go on!).
We need to reach out to our children from a place of understanding. Children (until they are past puberty and become young adults!) are far more sensitive and emotionally turbulent than adults, they have not developed an adult level of self-control. Therefore, their threshold for acting on impulse is much, much lower. If we judge and forbid their impulses (which are, again, beyond their control), our invalidation creates even more stress, resulting in even more impulsive behaviours.
Try and be a witness to your child’s impulses. Accept the impulses and offer your child a different emotional release that eases the negative behaviour cycle. This will mean that you successfully address the cause of your child’s behaviour rather than forbidding or combating the symptoms.
4) Normalise Impulsive Behaviour. Don’t Give It Special Attention
As much as you can try and take the least possible action to block the behaviour you don’t want to see.
Often parents feel pulled to taking the child to a different space and re-iterating the rules or ‘telling them off’. This strategy is offering your child unnecessary negative attention. Children don’t need to hear a story of what they did wrong – it doesn’t help them learn anything.
Instead, stay where the child is, block the behaviour, CONNECT with your child and share your acceptance of their impulsive feelings. When things have calmed, try and find a time and space to join in with your child and spend quality time together – but make this positive quality time, not negative attention.
Forgive your child for having strong impulses they cannot manage. Let go of that moment of frustration and recommit your energy to offering your child messages that bring them comfort and make your relationship closer. And try to also accept that your child WILL BE annoying at times - this is not a reflection on you as a parent. You haven't done anything wrong - children just do engage in behaviours that annoy us sometimes.
If you are starting to feel like your frustration is growing and your child's attention seeking behaviours are escalating perhaps doing a brief piece of work together would help you and your child get back on track and enjoying things together. Why not book in a 20min phone call to see if I am the right person to work with you here.