What to do when your child ‘just’ wants your attention

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We recently got back from a three week trip to the UK. Lots of travelling, and stressful at times, even if it was fun.

One morning, I started tidying up the house, as a friend was coming over. My two year old daughter immediately started ‘untidying,’ pulling books off the shelves and putting them on the sofa, and putting pillows in the kitchen. Suddenly all sorts of random objects appeared in random places, and all my time was taken up, rectifying the mess she was making! I felt frustrated, and only hoped my friend would forgive me for the state of my house!

This behaviour was certainly ‘attention-seeking’, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t for a good reason. I’d noticed in the evenings she’d take ages to fall asleep, sucking her fingers — a sure sign she was feeling tense. I suspected that the stress of the holiday was coming out in her behaviour. Making a mess became the theme of the next few days. She would pull all her alphabet letters off the fridge, and throw clothes onto the floor.

One mainstream response to ”attention seeking behaviour” is to ignore the bad and praise the good. But this doesn’t address the underlying upset feelings that are always beneath our child’s off-track behaviour. So these feelings are going to come up again at some point, possibly in worse behaviour, or our child will feel withdrawn and distance from us, angry, and hurt.

Attention is a biological need, the same as eating and drinking, and it literally builds a child’s brain, to have adults connecting with them. Contrary to popular opinion, children only ask for the attention they need, even if they ask for it in infuriating ways.

I responded by playing the role of the exasperated parent but in a very playful way. I’d exclaim”oh no, what are all these letters doing on the floor!!”, making sure she knew that I was turning it into a game, and not really annoyed. Then I’d pick all the letters back up and invite her to make mess again. Soon she was running around pulling books off the shelves, clothes out of my drawers, all the while giggling hysterically as I fumbled around making failed attempts to get her to stop.

Then when I sensed that my patience was beginning to wear thin, and the mess was starting to overwhelm me, I gently set a limit, and said it was time to stop playing. I asked my daughter to help clean up a bit, and she happily put books back on the shelf with me.

After a few evenings of playing this game, my daughter was back to her normal self, respecting our living environment and not making a mess just for the sake of it. She was always happy to help me clean up.

It might sound crazy to allow our children to do something ‘naughty,’ but this kind of ‘sanctioned disobedience,’ gets feelings out of their system, so it doesn’t result in larger off-track behaviours later on. If we can relax our limit of what is acceptable and have some fun, our children do understand it’s just a game. And afterwards, they’ll be more likely to co-operate with us, because they are no longer full of the upset feelings that were driving their misbehaviour. And they’ll be less attention-seeking because we’ve actually given them the attention they were asking for.

If you don’t want your child bashing up your favourite paperbacks, or messing up your clean laundry, then you can create a harmless scenario, and invite them to make a mess. You could put a stack of scrap paper on the table and say, ”I hope you don’t mess up my important paperwork!” in an inviting tone, or create a drawer of old junk, and say to yourself, ”I hope you don’t empty that drawer!”

Understanding the benefits can help us let go of those old ideas about behaviour being ‘just attention seeking,’ as can seeing the result of having a more co-operative child afterwards. Have fun, and monitor your own feelings, so you can end the game while you still have some patience left. Listening time helps too!

10 thoughts on “What to do when your child ‘just’ wants your attention

  1. I love this. It does really surprise me, and makes me feel a little sad, when I hear people say, “they just want attention, just ignore it.” As if it’s a bad thing to want our parents to notice us or connect with us. I love how you just took a few minutes to indulge in that and got her full cooperation with it in the end.

  2. thanks Tara, it is so helpful when we realise why children ask for our attention and when we give it, parenting becomes a lot easier!

  3. Thanks for this post. A close friend, who I absolutely love, often says that her eldest is doing things just to get attention, and I find it hard to know how to respond to this… I remember when our youngest children were born around the same time,her eldest would cry for cuddles and she’d just say it was for attention, and ignore her… this was so hard for me 😦 Big props for this post. It’s so important. ❤

    1. oh that’s so sad! I think a lot of our parenting can come automatically from how we were treated as children. If we were dismissed when we were ‘attention-seeking’ we might not think twice about ignoring our own kids.

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