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 such 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 our child is attempting to help us clean 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 who starts screaming because they have just noticed that you are on the telephone, or they have a tantrum because their parent 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 we 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 we 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. My favourite phrase for this situation is “catch ‘em while they’re good”. If our child is letting us know that they need some attention, then we need to find a positive situation where we can happily give them what they need. For example, we can walk over to our toddler who is quietly colouring in and say to him/her that we 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! Do NOT 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, angry, etc.).
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 (eg. “Mummy 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 “catching” 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 with the child, painting/drawing, etc.) or informally (allowing the child to stir the flour and water while the parent cooks 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 he/she wants a drink, depending on the age of the child, show him/her how to get out the cup or the juice for you to pour. Independence means that the child is less reliant on you so much of the time to give him/her attention.
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 continue to engage in!). We need to find a way to “extinguish” the negative situations, and increase the positives. This will help our toddler and us to be less stressed and enjoy each other’s company more.
For more information see Social Development.
By Sally-Anne McCormack M.A.P.S.
Dip T (Psych Maj); Postgrad Dip Psych (Ed); B Ed: M Psych (Ed & Dev)
Last Published* December, 2022
*Please note that the published date may not be the same as the date that the content was created and that information above may have changed since.