3 Strategies for Supporting Attention-Seeking Behaviour

Written By

Paige Shiels
May 18, 2021

This article has been reviewed by Nurtured First’s team of child development experts.

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 Is Connection-Seeking

Attention-seeking behaviour is behaviour that results in the child gaining access to attention that wasn’t there prior to the behaviour. 

This 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, such as hitting, are less healthy. 

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?

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 their 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. 

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

Here are 3 ways to foster connection with your child and avoid attention-seeking behaviours.

3 Ways to Foster Connection

1. Plan Time With Your Child

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 many other ways to give your child a sense of connection, such as: 

  • Doing activities together, like watching a show, reading stories, colouring, cooking.
  • Checking in with them.
  • Occasionally asking them a question while they are playing independently.

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

2. Notice the Behaviour You Want to See

When your child is engaging in challenging behaviour, it can be hard to notice the times they ask for attention and connection in positive ways.

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. This is especially hard when we’re overwhelmed and frustrated. 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.

More Support for Challenging Behaviour

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    Article By

    Paige Shiels
    Paige is an Early Childhood Educator with a passion for supporting children and families. As a Registered Early Childhood Educator with a Bachelor’s degree in Youth and Children’s Studies, Paige has been working with children and families for over 10 years. She has experience in children’s programming, child care centres, and supporting families at early learning centres. At Nurtured First, Paige has been a part of creating resources for parents and supporting families through our online groups and discussions. She loves having the opportunity to help families create deep, meaningful and nurturing relationships with their children. Outside of her professional life, Paige loves spending time with friends and family and travelling to new places.