How to Handle a Child Who Craves Attention

All children have a strong desire to belong. They want love, acceptance, and a place where they can “fit in.” They will go to great lengths to achieve a state of belonging. Most children will learn to follow the social “laws” of etiquette and will obey home and classroom rules in order to be accepted. However, some children seek belonging in inappropriate ways. They have mistaken goals that they hope will help them to find acceptance. All childhood misbehaviors originate from one of the following four mistaken goals:

  1. Seeking Attention
  2. Seeking Power
  3. Seeking Revenge
  4. Seeking emotional isolation

When Your Child Has to be the Center of Attention

In this blog, I’m going to focus on the first mistaken goal, which is the goal of seeking attention. A child who craves attention, like all other children, is trying to belong. She erroneously assumes that she matters only when the spotlight is on her. Her need for attention is so intense that sometimes it stops mattering whether the focus is positive or negative. She might pester other children, purposely cause disruptions in school, pretend not to understand simple assignments so the teacher will spend more time with her, make shocking statements, tell tall tales about herself, break rules, and have tantrums and tears over minor incidents.

One way to tell whether the child’s misbehavior is motivated by the need for attention is to ask yourself, “How does the misbehavior make me feel?” If what you’re feeling is annoyance and irritation, then attention-seeking is the likely culprit.

I have a stepdaughter who is needy for attention at all times. Throughout the day, she draws attention to herself in every way possible. Sometimes she’s silly and loud, and other times she’s hysterically crying, pouting, or throwing a tantrum. More interesting to me, however, is how she asks questions she already knows the answer to. It seems that she’s so desperate to have me or her father giver her our focus that she’ll invent meaningless questions to ask. You might think, “Pay the poor girl some attention already!” But this daughter has constant attention paid to her. She has lovely things and nice clothes and plenty of fun. She gets one-on-one time frequently with me and her father. So there’s a deeper need there which I doubt we could ever adequately fulfill. At this very moment, she is dancing around the room with stickers stuck all over her face.

What can I do to redirect my child’s misbehavior?

  1. Channel it in a positive way. These kids tend to be natural performers and might benefit from enrollment in dramatic performance groups, competitive dance classes, choirs, or other avenues where they can feed their need for attention in a positive way.
  2. Ask the child, point blank. Sometimes by asking the child, “Are you needing some attention right now?” he or she will stop and recognize the real reason for her actions. Tell her, “If you need a hug or time to talk, just ask me.”
  3. Give attention when it’s not being sought. It’s unrealistic for a child to believe that he can be the center of attention at all times. Instead, the goal should be to give the child lots of praise and acknowledgement when he is not seeking it. When he’s sitting quietly reading a book, or doing his homework, put your arms around him and say, “Wow, I’m really proud of you. You’re doing a terrific job.” Or, when the child is listening or sharing, tell him what a wonderful kid he is. Really turn up the attention when it’s unexpected and NOT sought.
  4. Ignore bad behavior. Then, conversely, you’ll also need to give little or no attention to misbehavior. That doesn’t mean sit back and do nothing if your son is teasing or hurting someone else. If the behavior isn’t harmful and can be ignored, ignore it. If it can’t be ignored, tersely say, “That’s ten minutes on the chair.” Escort your child to the “thinking chair/naughty stool/time out seat” and say nothing else. Do not engage in an argument, and don’t make eye contact. Set the timer for ten minutes. If your child kicks the chair or screams, say, “That’s twenty minutes.” You’re dealing with the problem without letting the child use misbehavior as a way of being on center stage. Be swift, stern, quiet, and detached. The principle of ignoring bad behavior is called extinction. An example of this technique is in my blog: “When Your Child Throws a Tantrum in Public: 4 Steps to Regain Control.”

I realize I need to follow my own advice here. Sometimes my stepdaughter, who has ADHD, will shout things that are intentionally hurtful in an effort to engage me in an argument while she’s on the chair. It often takes all of my human resolve not to respond. Today I slipped up a bit. But I find that if I enter the argument, nothing positive comes of it. The best results come when I’m able to completely disengage and sit stoically silent. Parenting is not for cowards!

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here. Some links on this blog may have been generated by outside sources are not necessarily endorsed by Kristyn Crow.