Are your children engaging in challenging behaviours and you can’t figure out why? Are they constantly hitting their sibling or yelling at you? One reason challenging behaviour like hitting, biting, yelling, and interrupting may happen is because children are seeking attention from us. 

Attention-seeking behaviour comes in many forms, some of which are healthy such as asking if someone has time to talk, asking a friend to play, or waving to a parent from across the room. However, other forms of attention-seeking behaviour are not as healthy. As mentioned above, in children we often see behaviours such as hitting, biting, yelling, and interrupting used as a way to receive attention. 

It is important to note that these behaviours are not always attention-seeking and in some cases may require professional support. 

Throughout my years of working in behaviour, I have noticed a theme. Attention-seeking behaviour is often dismissed and passed off. The problem with this is that all humans need attention. It is a basic need. Adults and children both crave feeling seen, heard, and appreciated by others. 

What would happen if attention-seeking behaviour was seen as connection seeking instead?

Attention-seeking behaviour refers to behaviour that results in the child gaining access to attention that wasn’t there prior to the behaviour. When children seek attention, they are seeking to be seen and heard. If children can’t get this need met in positive ways, they will turn to other behaviours. Even those that come with consequences and punishments

Timeouts, verbal reprimands, spanking, or other traditional methods of dealing with challenging attention-seeking behaviour will not work to change the behaviour. This is because they do not consider why the behaviour is happening. What need is the child trying to get met through this behaviour? Many of these methods actually REINFORCE the challenging behaviour. The child learns that they can have their need for attention met by engaging in challenging behaviour, even if the attention is in the form of being yelled at, spanked, or punished. 

For example, if a child gets spanked whenever they steal a toy from their sibling they might realize that if they steal a toy then they are going to get some one-on-one time with mom or dad. They might really be craving that connection, even if it involves a spanking. This is going to encourage the child to continue engaging in this behaviour because they know that it will lead to time with their parent(s) that they otherwise would not get. 

3 ways to foster connection

1. Plan time with children

Science shows us that kids who have access to “enriched attention” engage in much less challenging attention-seeking behaviours. As a parent, I know how hard it can be to give our children “enriched attention.” We are often so tired and have low energy by the end of the day.

The important thing to know about “enriched attention” is that it doesn’t have to mean hours on the floor playing lego (though it can be!). There are other ways to give your child a sense of connection, including watching a show with them, reading stories, colouring, cooking dinner together, checking in with them, and occasionally asking them a question while they are playing independently. 

Being engaged with our children doesn’t have to mean big outings or drawn-out activities. It simply means being there and letting your children know that you notice them.

2. Notice the behaviour you want to see

When children are engaging in challenging behaviour, it can be hard to notice the times they ask for attention/connection in positive ways. Feeling overwhelmed and frustrated can prevent us from noticing the behaviour we want to see. 

We often spend so much time giving power to the “challenging behaviour” that we forget to notice the behaviour that we want to see more of. When your child is engaging in the behaviour you want to see more of, make sure to take notice.

“I noticed you waited until I was done with my phone call to ask for a snack!”

“I love how you played quietly while I was working!”

“Thank you for tapping me on the shoulder before you asked your question!”

3. Teach new ways to ask for connection

Seeking connection is a need that all humans have. Knowing how to ask for this connection is something that we learn through watching the world around us. This is why it is important to model new ways to ask for connection. 

Find opportunities to ask for your child’s attention in the same way you would like them to ask you. 

“Hey buddy, I can see you are really enjoying playing with Tommy! When you are done would you be able to help me set the table?” 

“I missed you so much today! I hope we can spend some time reading some stories later tonight!”

Modelling the behaviour you want to see is a very powerful tool to help your child learn new ways of seeking connection.