Your Toddler and Attention Seeking Behavior

“He’s just doing it for attention!”

How many times have we heard that from (mostly) well-meaning onlookers as your child slaps the TV screen for the millionth time, runs off with your favorite pen, or makes maddening zooming noises while you’re trying to talk on the phone?  People outside of your family will shower you with advice about dealing with attention seeking.  Usually it involves being hard on young children, putting them in time out, and so on.  Things look a little bit different from a scientific and behavioral standpoint, though.  Firstly, let’s talk about the behavior itself.

What is Attention Seeking Behavior?

Help your child to ask for your attention in a positive way, without resorting to negative behaviors.

Well, just as it sounds, an Attention Seeking Behavior is something that your child does that will get them your attention.  That’s the behavior’s function!  To get your attention!  For a more complete list of different behavioral functions (or why children have tantrums), check out this post.

Now, the tricky thing about attention seekers is that, usually, they don’t care if the attention they get is positive or negative attention.  Of course, they’d prefer you to be happy and clapping for them as they perform their antics, but if yelling and chasing is all they can get, they’ll happily take that too.  This means that when you yell at your child for climbing up on the table and dancing, you’re actually reinforcing and rewarding that behavior!  Even though you think to yourself, “There’s no way they’ll do that again,” you will actually probably see it again within just a minute or two, especially if you go back to whatever you were doing once the yelling has abated.

Why do Toddlers DO Attention Seeking Behavior?

Well, aside from the obvious – because they want attention.  Usually, there’s an under-lying reason why your child may be wanting more attention from you than what they’re getting.  I know that when I am working hard at the computer, or looking at my cell phone, that’s a time that I am most likely to hear a crash, and a pointed, “Uh Oh!” from the kitchen.  Often times, my child has been asking for me to engage with her quietly and politely for quite awhile, and I simply didn’t notice through my working haze.

Toddlers will also seek your attention if they’re feeling ill, hungry, or tired.  You definitely know it’s time for a nap when your little one continues to attempt to climb onto the bookshelves, even though he knows that it’s not allowed and unacceptable.  When your child is begging for your attention (usually in inappropriate ways, let’s be honest), that sometimes means that they just aren’t feeling quite right and need some extra snuggle time.

How Can We Respond to Attention Seeking Behavior?

Building is a great activity for toddlers.

In my first few years as a Special Education teacher, I thought I knew how to respond to attention-seeking.  I was a behaviorist, after all, and in order to teach a child that these maladaptive behaviors just won’t work, we needed to ignore them, right?  So the child wouldn’t get any attention for their sad choices?  Yeah.  On paper, that’s the way it should be done.  However, children, regardless of age, have a way of knowing EXACTLY the sort of behaviors that you simply cannot ignore.

Once, I was purposefully ignoring a child who was slapping the whiteboard at the front of the room.  However, when he saw that he wasn’t going to get my attention that way, he grabbed a handful of wet paint brushes and attempted to stick them down another student’s shirt.  THAT was a behavior that I could not ignore, because that would not be fair to the other student.

Similarly, my toddler knows that I cannot ignore her banging on my parrot’s cage, because I won’t subject Sassafras to being abused by my child.  I cannot ignore her throwing her ball at the TV screen, because I really don’t want to explain to my husband that his $400 television needs replacing because I was “planned ignoring.”  I cannot ignore her climbing onto the dining room table (how can someone so small climb like that???).  I cannot ignore her putting the TV remote into the dog’s water dish.  So on, and so on.

So, if we cannot ignore a child’s attention seeking behavior, how can we address it?  This is the formula that I use:

  1. Interrupt.
  2. Redirect.
  3. Engage.

Interrupt:

Stop the child from doing the inappropriate behavior.  This is a time when I’ll tell my child “No way,” “Uh-uh,” or “Goodbye.”  I’ll pull her away from the activity if I need to, and she’ll usually run crying from the room.  If she tries to go right back to it, I’ll usually give her a few minutes in her playpen to get herself under control.

I don’t spank, I don’t yell, and I don’t fuss.  I simply, matter-of-factly stop the child from engaging in the inappropriate behavior, and I make it clear that it’s not a good thing to do.  So, she’ll get my attention, but it’s not fun, amusing, or scary.  It’s bland, boring attention.

Redirect:

Once your child has stopped doing the inappropriate behavior (and has stopped trying to go back to it), point your little one in the direction of a fun and positive activity.  Show her how to link her legos together to make a tower.  Get out one of Daddy’s shirts (he’s not home…he’ll never know…) and play dress-up.  Pick out a book to read.  Get some paper and crayons.  Whatever draws your child’s interest at that moment, do it.  Redirect your child’s attention from the attention-seeking behavior that you don’t want to an appropriate behavior that you do like to see.

Engage:

sidewalk art gives children a way to express themselves on a massive scale!

It sounds obvious, but sometimes it isn’t.  When your child becomes engrossed in the new, appropriate activity, NOW is the time to sit down, play, talk, tickle, and have fun with your child.  Give them the snuggles and then attention that they’re craving.  Show them that playing appropriately is the best way to get lots and lots of love, affection, and positive attention, while doing naughty things simply gets Deadpan Parent.

“How long do I need to play?” you may be thinking.  “I don’t have time to sit and play legos all day.”  Have no fear!  Usually, unless your child really isn’t feeling well for some reason, your toddler will become so engrossed in their play, learning, and exploration that you can say, “Have fun!” and go back to what you were doing, and let them continue to play!  

So now…

The next time your toddler decides that rolling your office chair around the house is the best way to get your attention, try out the three steps: Interrupt, Redirect, and Engage.  Give it a shot and let me know if it works for you as well as it works for us here!

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