Written by: Cally Worden
All kids need attention, but when their demands become intrusive or out of control it’s time to act. Attention seeking comes in many forms and can range from mildly irritating to downright manipulative. The aim of the child is simple – get the attention of the grown-up, no matter what. The way we handle these demands from our kids is important – if we give in too quickly the behaviour will continue and may escalate. If we ignore it altogether we send the message that our child’s needs are unimportant and risk damaging their self-esteem. Getting the right balance is key. Here’s how.
How Much is Too Much?
Children will generally take as much attention as their parents will give. Some parents are more tolerant than others, and some simply have more time to give. How much attention (of any kind) that you give to your child on a regular basis is their benchmark. There is no right or wrong, it’s just what they come to expect and anticipate. However much you give they will always want more and it’s for you, the adult, to set boundaries that are acceptable.
Types of Attention
Experts generally agree that there are 3 types of attention:
- Positive – where you reward your child by giving them attention for behaving well. This is the type of attention your kids both crave and need, the most
- Negative – where your child gets your attention by misbehaving – it’s better than nothing, and is often all too easy for your kids to get
- None – where your child is ignored – this is when you consciously but quietly give your attention by making an active decision to ignore undesirable behaviours
To your child ANY type of attention that falls under category 1: and 2: above is rewarding. Even if it’s negative. So often as parents we ignore the positive behaviours because they are easy. We only respond when our kids are playing up. I know I’m guilty of this – if my children are playing peacefully I make use of the time to do Mummy-stuff. The second they start arguing or acting out I’m back on duty, doling our attention in spades. What message does this send? It says ‘I get attention when I play up’. It encourages the negative stuff.
When your children are playing up to get your attention your most effective response is to ignore the behaviour if you can. Not easy, I know. But it’s important to send out a message that clearly states ‘Bad behaviours will NOT get you ANY type of attention’. If you can follow through on this your child will, eventually, give up and go and occupy themselves. That’s your cue to dish out some wholly positive attention rewards their efforts. Obviously if your child is behaving in a way that must be stopped or is dangerous, you do need to act. If this happens it’s important to respond calmly, and avoid giving out a negative reaction.
Catching the need for attention before it becomes a demand is your primary aim. When your kids are being good and behaving in ways that you like, this is the prime time to give your attention. It rewards the positive stuff and shows your kids that acting in a positive way will see them gaining precisely the type of attention they need and deserve. Compliment them when they are playing nicely alone or together. Ask to join them in a game, or watch a TV show. Touch their shoulder in a gentle way, or place a kiss on their head as you walk by. A simple loving touch or word gives out a massively positive vibe.
Help them Out
Our kids’ need for attention may vary depending on how they are feeling or experiences they have had on any given day. Take the cues from your child. If they are normally generally well-behaved but start acting out, they are telling you they need a little more from you than normal. Instead of dishing out the negative attention that will feed but not nourish them, guide them towards a positive. ‘I can’t come and play right now, but if you get your game ready I’ll come and play in a few minutes when I’m done here’. Or ‘I can’t hear you properly when you’re whinging like that, try speaking in a softer voice’. These responses show your child how to acceptably negotiate a positive response.
No parent is perfect. So don’t worry if you catch yourself in the act of giving out negative attention more often than you would like. Just keep trying, keep thinking, and keep loving your kids. Your best is always good enough, simply because you are trying.