If you’ve ever taken an Intro to Psychology class, you probably remember a guy named Maslow and his famous hierarchy of needs. Level 1: Air, Food, Water. Level 2: Safety. Level 3: Belongingness.
Attention from others is one of a human being’s basic needs. We all need to feel like we have connections. Since children literally need attention to survive, it’s not surprising that they seek it almost as often as they ask for a snack, and they aren’t always picky about where it comes from.
But what should we do when attention-seeking behavior becomes problematic? How should parents respond when their child seeks attention in disruptive or even aggressive ways?
Drawing on her more than twenty years of experience in child development and education, Dr. Lauren Loquasto, senior vice president and chief academic officer at The Goddard School, offers insight into how parents can redirect four common attention-seeking behaviors and instead create positive interactions that help children grow.
1. Shouting, Screaming, Or An All-Out Temper Tantrum
Almost without fail, a child who is at this level is desperately trying to communicate something that they can’t put into words. Reason has left the building. Logic? Never heard of her.
A child in tantrum mode has an unmet need, and their feelings about it are bigger than their ability to remain calm. That’s why it’s non-negotiable for the grown-up in the situation to find a way to maintain control of their own emotions and sit quietly nearby until the child is calm.
“Always ensure your child is safe,” Loquasto tells Romper. “Avoid directly looking at or verbally responding to your child while he is engaging in these behaviors.” She also recommends positively acknowledging the child when they calm down, providing attention to the calming, and not the loss of control.
2. Constantly Clowning Around
Everyone loves getting a laugh. If a child is unsure how to engage with their peers, silliness is a way to get attention. When that desire to entertain stands in the way of forming genuine relationships, it’s time to help your child make different choices.
“As people, we all want and desire attention,” Loquasto says. “Young children may exacerbate their attempts for this out of insecurity.” At Goddard, Loquasto and her team encourage parents to evaluate the “ABCs.” A is for Antecedent. What triggered the behavior? Were they attempting to focus someone’s attention on them? B is for Behavior. What did the child do, and is this typical behavior for them? C stands for Consequence. Did the child receive attention? Remember, positive and negative attention both fulfill a child’s basic needs.
If you can critically consider the behaviors, you can help your child make choices that will ultimately fulfill their need for attention and help them begin to value the next level of needs: esteem and respect from others.
3. Seriously Overreacting To A Small Injury Or Minor Slight
Minor pain and emotional frustration are parts of life, so we have to help reduce our children’s fear of small negative experiences. If we react with them, we reinforce their fear, fulfill that attention need, and pretty much ensure that they will flip out again the next time they see a scraped knee or have a disagreement with another child.
Loquasto explains that if you remove the attention for the undesired behavior and focus instead on desired behaviors, the undesired behavior will cease. For example, when you ignore the wailing over the slight bump on the knee and instead focus on praising your child for cleaning up their toys without being asked, your child will learn which behaviors do and do not get desired attention.
Jealousy. Insecurity. Fear. Unmet needs. Whatever the cause, whining and nagging are staples of most children’s attention-seeking behavior. It’s harder to ignore than a tantrum because whining is not an event — it’s a habit. Just like any less-than-flattering habit, it can be hard to break, but it’s not impossible.
Loquasto suggests watching closely for behaviors that you want to reinforce. Whenever a child is doing the right thing, affirm them with praise. “Reinforce what you want to see; ignore what you do not,” she says.
The folks at the Goddard School have the right idea. They know that a child who is emotionally and socially confident and well-developed is better equipped to learn and grow. “At Goddard, we work to support the education of the whole child,” Loquasto explains. “We place just as much attention on the child’s social and emotional development as academic development, ensuring the child is able to learn, thrive, and be prepared for the next step in their education.” That sounds like the kind of attention we all want our children to receive.