How to manage your child’s attention seeking behaviours

Sometimes children may do something only to get a reaction. Maybe they say or do something they know they shouldn’t, just to get a reaction. These attention seeking behaviours can be incredibly frustrating. But are they just simply the result of a child acting up?

Here at Pocket Family, we’d argue an emphatic NO. Attention seeking behaviours are so much more than that.

You see, if we break it down – the need for care and attention is essential for humans as much as food and water. There are lots of famous studies which document this biological need for care. The first of which, Harlow’s monkey experiment. This study put baby monkeys in a cage. They had access only to two surrogate mothers. One was made of wire and had food, while the other was covered in soft terry cloth but had no food. The baby monkeys spent far more time with the terrycloth mother who would provide greater comfort over the wire monkey, even though she had all the food. We learnt a lot from the studies of children who spent time in Romanian orphanages during the 1980s and 1990s. Due to lack of human contact, babies died and developed unusual hand flapping and rocking. These studies highlight how important physical contact and sensitive caregiving is for our survival and development. Attention is essential for us to thrive and feel safe and secure in this world. This is the basis of Attachment Theory.

Attachment Theory would say, if the availability of your caregiving has been compromised for some reason, perhaps due to working away or parental separation or mental ill health, it can lead to the child developing an ambivalent or anxious attachment style. These attachment styles can lead children to believe that they are not worthy to receive attention. The child hyperactivates their attachment seeking behaviour in order to secure any care and attention. They ‘up the ante’ to maximise their chances of receiving the needed. This can come in the form of both good and bad attention. Some children I have worked with are actually more comfortable with negative attention because it sits better with their self-view – they believe themselves to be unworthy of care but yet desperately need the attention, love and care.

So what can we do about it? How can we manage and stop attention seeking behaviour?

It’s easier said than done but it’s really about understanding the behaviour. What function does the behaviour perform for the child? And how can we meet this function in a different way?

In our online programme, Crack the Code, we explain the Iceberg model. On top, we see the iceberg, we see the behaviour. But underneath the water, there are lots of things driving this behaviour, visible on top. If we just respond to the visible behaviour, the attention seeking behaviours will continue. But if we understand what’s underneath, the underlying needs and drivers, we can break the cycle once and for all. If you are interested to lear more take a look at Crack the Code – it is only £25 and includes a personal manual and a series of presentations to help you decode your child’s behaviour.

For children who need love and care but do not know how to ask for it, and perhaps feel more comfortable with negative attention, we have to challenge the way they see themselves and meet their need for consistent care and availability. For example, when you see the child starting to engage in the behaviour, name it in an empathetic way. You could say,

I can see you really need my care right now. You’re worried you need to do X for my care but you don’t need to work that hard to get it,’

or

‘You know I’ve really been thinking about you. I think you need X. Why don’t we do Y to help.’

Naming it, showing the child you understand what they need, and responding sensitively to this need, can help reduce the attention seeking behaviours, ensure your child’s needs are met and your relationship improves.

As ever, we would always love to hear any of your suggestions that have helped reduce your child’s attention seeking behaviour too.

With love,

Pocket Family Psychologist

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