“The little girl was sitting in a rocking chair. Dad was reading the paper. The girl started rocking vigorously until finally the rocking chair tipped over, spilling her to the floor. The chair landed on top of her. Dad dropped his newspaper and ran to the rescue. He then spent a good fifteen minutes comforting the child, holding her in his lap.
About three days later, the girl went up to dad and started climbing onto his lap. Dad gently brushed her aside saying, ‘Not now, honey, I want to read the paper.’ Mother, who was watching unobserved from the next room, saw her twenty-month-old daughter walk over to the rocking chair. The little girl gently pulled the chair over until the chair back was resting on the floor. She then crawled under the chair and started crying. Of course, dad threw down his newspaper and again rushed to her rescue.” (Story from Kvols-Riedler, 1979, p. 42)
Children need our attention. If they feel they aren’t getting enough of it when they need it for whatever reason, they’ll invent ways to put themselves at the center of our attention, often in disruptive ways. Learning to recognize attention seeking behavior can save parents a lot of time that would otherwise be spent putting out fires. It will also save your children a whole lot of frustration.
Types of attention seeking behavior
There are 3 different variations of attention seeking behavior in children:
1. Attention seeking behavior that arises out of a child’s need for attention
Love and affection are fundamental needs for children. Just as kids get hungry or thirsty, they also get love-starved from time to time, and these yearnings ebb and flow throughout the day just like hunger pains. Your child may be playing fine on their own for a stretch of time when suddenly the solitude builds up and they get lonely, prompting them to go in search of a little TLC. Or perhaps a thought pops into their mind that causes them to feel insecure and in need of a little closeness. Or maybe a child who was preoccupied a moment earlier gets a sudden craving for attention when they see you feeding the baby.
Whatever the case may be, it’s important to remember that these sudden yearnings can come about sporadically and have nothing to do with a child being manipulative. They are a matter of need, just like hunger. You’ve probably had times when a sudden desire to cuddle your child has come over you. Children get these same urges towards you, only children probably feel them stronger and they have less inhibitory powers to control them. How would you feel if, during one of these times you wanted to hug your child, they pushed you away? Children can be struck with the same feelings.
I’m sure you know from experience that a hungry child is a cranky child. In the same way, a child hungry for affection who has his yearnings thwarted is likely to become agitated and irritable, leading to all sorts of misbehavior. As professor Debbie Gross states, “Kids often push our buttons because they want our attention. A little one-on-one time can calm both of you down.” (Rosen, 2010) This doesn’t mean that you have to drop everything anytime your child wants to cuddle, but you should be sensitive to the fact that the more you accommodate these needs, the happier everyone will be.
2. Role-oriented attention seeking behavior
This arises in families with multiple children and is the result of kids trying to differentiate themselves from one another and compete for their parents’ attention. A common offshoot of sibling rivalry, kids may start engaging in different types of disruptive or attention-seeking behavior to keep parents occupied with them. The spotlight is your attention, and children may develop wildly different strategies to ensure this spotlight is focused on them. Correcting this type of attention seeking behavior requires a combination of ignoring attention-getting gimmicks while rewarding prosocial behavior and promoting healthy sibling dynamics.
3. Neurotic attention-seeking behavior
Attention seeking behavior of the pathological variety arises when a child’s need for attention becomes all-consuming. This can happen for a number of reasons. Some children simply don’t receive enough attention in general, and so they’re starving for love. Others may have somehow developed the mindset that he or she needs to be the center of attention in order to stay relevant. It could be because they’re insecure. Or sometimes the type of attention seeking that arises out of sibling dynamics can morph into something pathological, where a child feels their identity is dependant upon having the spotlight.
Whatever the reason, this type of pathological need for attention is not just a pain to deal with, it’s unhealthy for the child. As Rudolf Dreikurs and Vicki Soltz write, “The child who seeks constant attention is, of necessity, an unhappy child. He feels that unless he gets attention he is worthless, has no place. He seeks constant reassurance that he is important. Since he doubts this, no amount of reassurance will ever impress him. Mother notices him. A few minutes later, he questions, ‘Is Mother still aware of me? Do I still count?’ This is a never ending circle of doubt.” (1964, pp. 139-140)