Human beings are social creatures. We are born with a desire to live and interact with others – we give attention to others, and we want attention from those around us. Adults are better able to determine when it is appropriate to look for attention (well, most adults).
When babies are born, we spend a lot of time holding, rocking and nurturing them. Nature cleverly designed it so that people will readily respond to an infant crying – that is how they survive. During the next few years (i.e. Toddlerhood), our young ones begin to test out their environment and the people around them.
Giving a child some positive attention is a wonderful way of building up self-esteem. For example, when your child is attempting to help clear the table, we have the opportunity to talk to them as they work, and thank them for their effort. This works in a constructive way, because children feel good about themselves, and are more likely to repeat this behaviour in the future. Even though they may not have really cleaned anything, the fact that they have attempted to contribute means that they will continue to “practice” this behaviour, and become better at getting the job done.
On the other hand, attention-seeking can be extremely negative from a parent’s perspective. A child that starts screaming because they just noticed that you are on the telephone, or throws a tantrum because you did not read to them NOW, can frustrate even the most patient parents at times.
Experts advise us to IGNORE the behaviour. This makes sense because, if you give in to the child, the lesson that they learn is if they behave in this way, they will get what they want. Even worse is when you sometimes give in to the behaviour. The lesson that they learn then is that if they keep getting louder and louder, then sometimes they get want they want (but if they do not try, then they will definitely not get what they want). So the behaviour escalates until either the toddler or the parent (or both) lose control.
However, it is important to realise that a toddler that is engaging in an attention-seeking behaviour is really telling us that they need some attention! All of us seek the attention of those around us so we can feel valued and loved. When we feel noticed, we “know” we are important to someone else, and that increases our self-esteem. This is the same for our toddlers! So “ignoring” should not be the end of the story!
We ignore the poor behaviour, but start looking for better behaviour. A good phrase for this situation is “catch ‘em while they’re good”. If a child is letting you know that they need some attention, then you need to find a positive situation where you can happily give them what they need.
For example, walk over to your toddler, who is quietly colouring in, and say to them that you are really proud of how well they have been concentrating, and perhaps talk about how much they have improved since the last time they completed this activity (but ONLY if it is true! Don’t lie to a child – they learn not to trust you, or it confuses them when others tell them a different story).
Give the child a cuddle and a kiss, and then you may include them in whatever activity you may be doing. The child is getting positive attention, and will have no need to engage in attention-seeking behaviour at that time (do not confuse “attention-seeking” with being frustrated or angry).
Parenting tips to manage attention-seeking behaviour
So some quick ways of dealing with negative attention-seeking behaviours are:
Do not give in to the attention-seeking, EVER!
Simply give a brief statement (e.g. “Mommy is not going to read to you until you have stopped screaming”).
Look for a positive behaviour that your child is engaging in (even if it is only for a few seconds! Sometimes you have to be really quick to “catch” a good behaviour).
Spend a big part of your day giving your child some attention. It can be in a formal activity (such as reading to your child, painting / drawing, etc.) or informally (allowing your child to stir the flour and water, while you bake the biscuits).
Promote any attempts that you can of your toddler trying to demonstrate some independent behaviour. Instead of your child screaming at you when they want a drink, depending on the age of your child, you could show them how to get out the cup or the juice for you to pour. Independence means that your child is less reliant on you to give them attention so much of the time.
All in all, as parents we need to accept that “attention-seeking” is another one of those phases that children go through (and some adults unfortunately never outgrow). We need to find a way to “extinguish” the negative situations, and increase the positives. This will help your toddler and you to be less stressed and enjoy each other’s company more.