My husband and I were having dinner recently with friends, and we began to discuss our similar experiences with having a child who thrives on negative attention. As our friends talked about their situation, we nodded and could definitely relate. We have a child just like theirs–one who seems to be in trouble all the time, whose noise volume is three decibels louder than everyone else’s in the room, and who always wants to cause conflict.
This got me thinking. What are the positive aspects of negative attention? Why would any child WANT it? Here’s what I came up with:
The Positive about the Negative
- Say my name. It’s been said that people love hearing the sound of their own names. When you hear your name spoken aloud, it’s a tiny manifestation that you exist. You belong in the world. You’re acknowledged. So I imagine that if little Johnny is hearing, “Johnny! Quit that! Johnny! Did you hear me? Johnny! I mean it! Johnny! Stop that NOW! Johnny. . .” then little Johnny is certain to know he’s alive. That’s a lot of validation.
- You say tomato, I say tom-ah-to. Conflict is stimulating. Perhaps these kids secretly feel some delight that a little bit of controversy is brewing. Think about it—human beings love debates. On television, we crave the scandals. We like the news programs where two “experts” hash it out. We like to watch presidential candidates squirm in the hot seat. Maybe a little dispute with mom and dad provides some well-needed intellectual stimulation.
- Power to the people. Provoking others and causing upset is a manifestation of power. If Susie has the ability to get her siblings up in arms, and has ruined or changed the family outing because of her actions, that’s a lot of influence she has on her world. In her view, she must truly be an important individual to have so much power. There must be real satisfaction in that.
So if negative attention can be desirable, how can we curb a child’s intense need for it?
It’s not the “negative” aspect of the attention that the child really wants, but the attention itself. From the above three examples, we can take the positive desirable elements—recognition, intellectual stimulation, and power—and channel them toward the positive.
- Recognition: Try saying your child’s name numerous times a day with a positive spin. “Wow, Johnny! You got ready for school today early and even finished your homework! That’s terrific!” And “I’m proud of you, Johnny!” Keep it on-point and not too sappy. Notice the good things, and point them out.
- Intellectual Stimulation: Try initiating some interesting discussions as you drive around town or make dinner with your child close by. “What do you think about classrooms without desks? Some teachers are thinking about trying that. Do you think you’d like a classroom like that?” Or, “Do you think there’ll ever be a female president of the United States?” Actively listen to your son or daughter’s opinions. Ask questions. Show interest.
- Power: These children might benefit from having a lot of choices to give them a sense of control. “Do you think we should make grilled cheese sandwiches or go out for hamburgers?” “Let’s start reading together at night. What book should we start with?” “How would you like to rearrange your bedroom? You can tell me how you’d like it.” With many choices available throughout the day, your son or daughter might not need to engage in so many power-struggles.
Our friends said they have tried to keep their family interactions as positive as possible on a daily basis, so that negativity doesn’t become the norm in their home. We’ve all seen that negativity can spread and take over a family’s way of communicating if parents don’t take active steps to break the cycle.
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