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Stop the Show: Putting a Lid on Your Child’s Attention-seeking Behavior

by James Lehman, MSW
Stop the Show: Putting a Lid on Your Child’s Attention-seeking Behavior

Some children think they’re the center of the universe, and behave as if everyone should revolve around them like the planets orbit the sun. From the 10-year-old “diva” who demands center stage at all times to the 17-year-old who takes out his frustrations on his family when his girlfriend breaks up with him, this attention-seeking behavior can be exhausting for everyone. When it starts affecting everyone around your child in a negative way, it’s time for you, as a parent, to act.

Parents often naturally make their children feel like they’re the center of the universe. Let’s face it, when kids are young, they demand a great deal of care. That level of attention, however, should diminish gradually as children get older. Let me put it this way: it’s great feeding a one-year-old, but nobody wants to feed a seven-year-old. The job I’m describing, of course, is breaking the child away physically. There’s also a powerful emotional connection that many parents have trouble managing, and they sometimes get trapped by emotionally making their child feel like he’s the center of the universe.

If your child is ruling your household with his or her dramas, you have to stop the show.

Don’t misunderstand, there’s nothing wrong with making your child feel special, important and loved. The problem is when you do it at the exclusion of other children or family members. Just as you can’t let one of your children have all the computer or TV time, it’s also a mistake to let him have all the emotional focus of the family. Make no mistake, kids have to learn how to share and take turns, in all respects.

Problem #1: My Child Expects Our Family to Revolve around Him
If you want to change the way your child acts because he thinks your family should revolve around him, you have to look at fairness. There’s nothing wrong with making each child feel important, but if there are multiple kids in the family, you have to make sure the other children feel important, too.

So what is fair if you have three kids? How do you decide that? I’m all for structure myself. I believe that the computer can be shut down at times, it’s okay. It doesn't have to be on just because it's there. The video games don’t have to run constantly, either. And it doesn’t always have to be somebody’s turn. Everybody can get half-an-hour on the Wii or Nintendo in the evening. And then you use extra video game time to reward and motivate kids to do extra things. It doesn’t have to be a complex math problem of, “There are five hours and three kids, so each gets one-and-two-thirds hours on the computer.” It doesn’t have to be that way, and it shouldn’t be, in my opinion. So time on the computer, playing video games, and watching movies should all be structured.

What I recommend parents say to kids is something like this: “You can have half-an-hour of computer time to goof around and IM. But later on, if you’re not working on your schoolwork, the computer is going to be shut off.” You can do this with only children as well. That way, you combat the idea that they’re the center of the universe by focusing on fairness.

Problem #2: My Child Dominates Every Conversation
If you have a child who takes center stage in every conversation and doesn’t give others a chance to have a turn in the spotlight, I think you have to be a little more frank with that kid privately. You can say, “Listen, we love it when you tell us about what’s going on in your life, but you’re not giving your brothers and sisters a chance. We want you to give them a turn, too. Listen to them and let them finish their sentences.” Now, sometimes these talkative kids are speaking without any real knowledge that they’re doing anything wrong; sometimes they’re talking because that’s how they manage anxiety. Let’s say they feel “less than” the other kids. When they’re anxious like this, they’re competing for attention. And when you feel anxious, that often comes out verbally. So the way to deal with that is by helping them with the anxiety, going to the source of the problem and trying to help them manage that. If you think anxiety might be an issue with your child, I recommend that you schedule an appointment with their pediatrician.

Another thing you can do with your child is develop what’s called a “non-verbal cue.” You can say, “Let’s come up with a sign just between the two of us. If you’re talking too much and not giving other people a chance, I’ll give you a signal and nobody will know but us. When you get that signal, you need to stop talking and listen to other people for awhile.” Don’t be critical of them when you have this conversation. I also recommend that you come up with this sign together—in fact, you can use it as a way to bond with your child. The point is, by coming up with a non-verbal cue, you’re lending your child some of your self-control and some of your internal structure. This can be very helpful for many kids who don’t yet have that in place.

Problem #3: My Child’s Dramas and Emotions Rule Our House
If your child is ruling your household with his or her dramas or emotions, you have to stop the show. You have to get that child alone and say, “Listen, just because something is happening to you doesn’t make it a tragedy for everybody else. If I see you being over-dramatic, I’m going to send you to your room for 5 minutes to pull it together.” Sometimes kids will then react with, “You don’t understand me, nobody loves me.” I don’t have a lot of patience for that, personally. I recommend parents say something like, “If you say that we don’t love or understand you, I’m just going to ignore it. Because we’re not talking about you being understood or loved, we’re talking about the fact that you broke up with your girlfriend and now you want to take it out on everybody else. Your behavior right now is about getting people to feel sorry for you. You just want all this attention and it’s not healthy for you.”

I want to make that very clear: that kind of attention is not healthy for the child receiving it. It’s a pain in the neck for everybody else, but it’s also not healthy for that child. As a parent, you have to teach them how to manage their inner experience without making other people feel bad. Part of what they get out of that drama and attention-seeking is they make their parents and other kids feel like they have to take care of them. And I think you can deal with that directly by saying, “Don’t try to make me feel like I have to take care of every little thing that  doesn’t go your way.”

There’s a saying I like: “There are two kinds of days for teenagers. Good days and days when things don’t go their way.” As a parent, your best tool is to manage behavior with a structured response. If your child is being rude or obnoxious to you because they’re upset about something that didn’t go their way, you can say, “Don’t talk to me that way, I don’t like it,” and leave. Another approach is to give them a different way to express themselves. Suggest, “Why don’t you write about it? I’m going to get you a journal. I want you to write all about your problems with your boyfriend there, and then once a night you can share it with me for five minutes.” So you put all these tools together and manage that child’s emotions until they can learn to manage them on their own. Again, you set an external structure with the hope that they’ll internalize it.

Problem #4: My Only Child is the Little King/Queen of Our House
I think a special note has to be made for only children. I understand that this is a unique situation because these kids are the center of the family for a good part of their life. So as an infant, that child is always held, always gets special attention, always has two smiling faces looking at him or her. Only children don’t have to share their toys at Christmas, or feel jealous of any presents or attention their siblings receive. But remember this: it’s important for parents to shape that level of attention to develop things like empathy and consideration for others.

Don’t forget, empathy is an instinctual energy, but it still has to be developed. You may experience it as an emotion, but it’s also a drive that gets us outside of ourselves and thinking about others. If you’re an only child in a family, you don’t have to compete for computer time or video game time. You don’t ever have to say, “Well, it’s Ben’s turn, I guess I’ll let him go,” because you don’t have the opportunity to learn those kinds of lessons at home with siblings.

Now, many only children do just fine because they learn those lessons in school, and they have their own instincts to rely upon. But there are others who don’t. You can think of it this way: in effect, these children have been trained to be self-centered—so as a parent, you have to slowly wean them off that perception.

I think you can sit down with your only child at any age and say, “I’ve been thinking about how lucky we are to have what we have. Even if it’s not that much, we have more than many others. And I think we should find a way to share with other people who are less fortunate. What kinds of things do you think we could do?” Come up with ideas with your child and then follow through on them together.

Solution: Develop Clear Rules and Expectations around Attention-seeking behavior
It’s always important to sit down when things are going well and to talk to your kids about things that need to be changed or addressed. Don’t do it in a time of anger or frustration, or when you’re trying to correct their behavior. You should always do it when things are going well. You can say something like, “Hey honey, do you have a minute? Let’s talk about something.”  And you tell them what you see going on. Be sure to have some other options prepared for them, such as the journal suggestion. “Instead of starting fights with your sister, or ruining the evening for everyone with your bad mood, you can write about it in a journal. I can talk to you every night at a certain time.” This way, your child’s needs are being addressed and they feel important, but you’re not letting them dominate the house.

It's very important that you make an appointment to talk with your child again about it later. So you can say, “I want you to work on this and we'll talk about it before bedtime and see how it's going.” Remember, kids learn through repetition and rehearsal. So, when you repeat something, when you give them a day or two to think about it, kids are able to absorb new ideas better. At the same time, you should introduce the idea that “If you don’t go along with our new rules, this is what’s going to happen.” Then you set some limits on the behavior and let them know that there are going to be consequences: “You will be told to go to your room if your behavior ruins the atmosphere for everyone else in the family.” I think that the combination of being very supportive but also holding kids accountable is very powerful.

Remember, your kids need to know what’s going to happen if they don’t change, and you have to be clear and follow through. In my opinion, there’s not much change without accountability. So set up a structure to change the things you want to change. Get your child to take responsibility for their actions. And the way you get them to take responsibility is by holding them accountable to the rule once you’ve established it.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."

READER'S COMMENTS

Great Article. My kids are 16 and 18 and unfortunately I thought things were going well until the computer and video games came on the scene. It has been like living on the floor of the stock exchange with all the negotiations since then. I wish I had the support of a parenting group like this.

Comment By : Natalie

This is great material to learn from and take tips from....I need some suggestions related to when the adult doesn't alwasy respond as an adult. I realize we need to help our children solve problems, be accountable and learn to respond....but what if you have a partner (fiance - bringing together two families here) that sometimes responds like a child also...makes me feel like these effective tips are trumped and not going to work....I need more lessons for the parents responses (what NOT to say...ie. no namecalling or degrading, how NOT to react)

Comment By : Penelope

Excellent, excellent article. I can't help but think of the many families I've worked with in and out of hospital that were not aware that the choices they were making would affect their children so profoundly in their teen and even young adult lives. When drug abuse becomes the next level of drama. You are educating families how to move away from that road. I can't help but think that this article will also teach parents to self evaluate within their own relationships. James thanks for making your message an awesome message of hope.

Comment By : Zoë Autism Consultant

Perfect timing!!! I had to laugh, because yesterday was all about my son who fell on Sunday evening, and demanded we take him to the emergency room! After resting a bit, we all realized he was fine.. and did infact hurt his leg due to the fall .. but the dramatics continued on ..for when he spotted us looking at him, the oscar winning dramatics would be in full force, when we weren't looking he was normal as could be. Yesterday, he called from school saying I need to go to the hospital for x-rays! I said we'll see.. I called back the school and spoke with his teacher, and found out the behavior was the same.. dramatics when teacher looked on, normal out on the playground. After I caught him limping again, I said, we'll meet half way, I'll go to the drugstore and get you an ace bandage.. NO NO NO.. I need a brace was his response! When I wouldn't get a brace, he said FORGET IT! .. He actually stomped into the house in his fury. Later on when I was out doing chores in the barn he called his Dad, moaned and groaned to him that I wouldn't buy him an ace bandage.. and he came home with it.. and guess what! He put it on the wrong leg.. I had to laugh, and he was furious! So.. well, this morning, off to school, limping with his ace bandage.. (Oh.. I got a short video of him as proof running back from his chores outside so he could get them done fast to play his 1/2 hour of wii).. and I showed it to him this morning.. and I told him.. I am not doing you any favors by playing this game with you.. be thankful you are not hurt, and just suck it up.. I can't offer you sympathy, nor can I enable you to perfect your lying to us all. When you are hurt, I will take care of you.. but clearly this is a show son. So thanks.. this is perfect confirmation for me today

Comment By : momtothree

Wow! I don't have kids, but I live and work in situations where I have to deal with these kinds of kids, but I don't have the authority (I'm not their parent) to tell them certain of these things. The conversation hogging is a biggie. The parent will be talking to me and the kid will keep butting in even though they are too young and inexperienced to have any idea what we are talking about. And the parent just gives them the attention and we adults never get good communication going. Another thing we deal with, from these discriptions, there are lots of adults out there that have never developed self control and continue to act out these behaviors. I can't tell you how many times the drama queen has disrupted the teamwork of a workplace. This is a wake up call. If you don't get your kids to learn self control when they are a kid, they may be our next Hitler. And at the very least, they are a problem to society.

Comment By : whisperingsage

I love the story about the fake-limping kid and his ace bandage on the wrong leg.... hysterical! It helps to hear stories that tell me that I'm not alone! Thank you!!

Comment By : Songbird56

my son is 19 and has a learning diability and bipolar characteristics. I also think he has narcissistic (sp?) characteristics. My dad receives these newsletters and forwards them to me. I read this one and felt 'hmmm..are they talking about my son. When he has a bad day, we all have a bad day.' Thanks for the tips and for the verbiage to help us manage his behavior and help him to learn to be more mindful of his behavior.

Comment By : Leigh

This article has come on time for me as well. I have a 12 year old and a 9 year old. My 12 year old thinks that the world revolves around her and that she doesnt do anything wrong. It's never her fault. The drama and extras are just terrible to deal with. All the attention I give to her has made my 9 year old take a back seat. She sits comfortable waiting for her turn but why she should have to wait all because her sister acts silly or wants the attention (good or bad). I will begin reading more on this subject to get more pointers. Thank you.

Comment By : CDavis from Orlando

What do you recommend for a pre-teen that is respectful to her mother but disrepects her father and other care givers when her mother is not around.

Comment By : Carolina Girl

* Dear Carolina Girl: I don’t have a lot of information here to write a response to, so if I go out on the wrong limb, I hope these comments are at least partially useful for you. There’s always a desire on our parts to be our child’s friend. It’s challenging work to correct our child’s behaviors. However, anyone in a caregiver position has to assume an authoritative role that includes times of guidance and direction. Every caregiver must set that boundary and state those limits in their relationship. Limits are necessary for the child’s feeling of safety in addition to being necessary for instructing her how to behave appropriately in social situations. Work together as a care giving team but discipline her individually when you are alone with her. Every adult should remark to her, every time she is disrespectful, “It’s not okay to speak to me that way. I don’t like it.” This is stating a limit on expectable behavior and creating a healthy boundary in your relationship with her. I’d like to recommend another great article by James Lehman that’s related to your question: Disrespectful Child Behavior: Where Do You Draw the Line?

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I've been hoping for more articles relating to younger kids. Our 4-year-old daughter is constantly getting in trouble at daycare. I think it's mostly to get attention - being diruptive during story/nap time. Pinching other kids, and not listening at ALL to the care-givers. There doesn't seem to be much we can do that she responds to. Time-outs, taking away priviledges, early bedtime. Nothing works. She just continues on the next day with the same behaviors.

Comment By : itsmekaren

* Dear itsmekaren: I definitely understand your frustration and I think it's great that you're asking these questions and thinking about what else you can try with your daughter. In addition to the limit setting and consequences, now might be a good time to factor in some problem-solving into the picture. Putting your daughter in a time out when she's upset is good because it's an immediate consequence and it directly relates to the behavior of not being able to control herself. It would be most effective to stick with that as your standard consequence for the behavior you described. Now, while this time-out gives her the chance to find a way to get back under control, it still doesn't teach her how to handle the situation differently next time. To remedy that, you'll want to help her come up with things she can say or do in this situation that won't break the rules. It also sounds like you may need more information from the daycare providers on what they're seeing so that you can establish what's triggering her inappropriate behavior. I'm going to include an article and a blog post that deal with acting out behavior in younger children -- I hope they are helpful to you. Please keep in touch and let us know how it goes!

Comment By : Tina Wakefield, Parental Support Line Advisor

My 11 year old son has been showing attention seeking behavior for the past few weeks; including laughing at things that arent funny (the cat getting hurt, sister being sick, mom's surgery)he also interuppts conversations and says things that are completely off topic. This behavior was occuring jsut at home and has now began at school. He refuses to turn in work, writes the wrong answers done, and talks and laughs in class even after the teacher has redirected him. We have tried the journal and setting "appointments" with him, we have tried talking to him and setting boundaries and he takes the consequences for violating boundaries and laughs. Any suggestions?

Comment By : worriedmom

* To ‘worriedmom’: It sounds like you are quite puzzled and frustrated by your son’s sudden behavior change. When behavior changes suddenly like this it’s important to consider if there are any major changes in his life that might be affecting him. Significant events, such as his mother having surgery for example, can cause a breakdown in a child’s problem solving or coping skills, thus leading to an increase in acting out behavior. It would be helpful to get some support in your local area, at least having the school counselor or social worker check in on him and help him out. Additionally, it’s very important to avoid giving his behavior too much power. We recommend setting some firm limits but it isn’t necessary to give him a consequence for it. For example you might say, “We’re not joking. This is serious,” and walk away. If he interrupts a conversation you can tell him, “Please don’t interrupt me when I’m speaking to your sister,” and resume your conversation with your daughter. I am including another article that I think will be helpful to you: Help! My Child is "The Constant Interrupter". We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Sara Bean. M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I have a 3 1/2 year old son who is an only child and my husband and I do not plan to have any more children. I had some pretty severe post partum depression and feel I still have some of that lingering around even now. I am completely and utterly exhausted because both my husband and I work full time. I find the time at home so stretched between spending time with my son, spending time with my husband and also doing the household duties such as cooking and cleaning. I feel like there is no more of me to go around!! My dear sweet son, he talks constantly, wants you to play with him all the time ... coloring, play doh, even watching a movie and napping ... he thinks you should do all of those things with him all of the time! We went for supper tonight with some family and no one was allowed to have any adult conversation because he dominated the conversation the entire time. By the end we were all just spent! He acts out really bad when I try to aim for structure in our household; as I find I am so exhausted its hard to stick to a real routine. I really thought things were taking a turn for the better awhile ago ... only for it to go back to exactly the way it was. He's up sometimes til 11:00 p.m. and we have to be up at 6:30 a.m. I love my son and I really want to spend time with him; but I do need to get my things done in my house and have some time to recharge my own batteries. HELP PLEASE I am completely at a loss and utterly spent.

Comment By : Utterly Spent

* To 'Utterly Spent': Three year olds can be a challenge, even when the parent is completely rested and recharged! It is pretty normal developmentally for three year olds to be self-centered, and think that the world revolves around them. Their sense of empathy and concern for others' feelings is not well-developed at this point. This does not mean that you cannot set up some structure around his time, however. It is pretty normal for kids to act out when new structures are implemented, so you might want to try one area at a time, such as a bedtime routine. Get into a routine around the same time every evening where he is getting ready for bed. A lot of parents find it helpful to use behavior charts to help ease the transition into a new schedule. As your son completes bedtime activities without arguing, he might get a smiley face, or a sticker on the chart. Earning so many stickers could earn him a reward for the next day. I am including a link to an article you might find helpful: Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Behavior Charts Effectively. It may also be helpful to check in with his doctor to see if there are any other suggestions around bedtime. In addition, we encourage you to take care of yourself. If you are feeling overwhelmed or depressed, please check in with your son’s pediatrician, or your own doctor, for help. Another good place to start is www.211.org. 211 is an informational service that can help to connect you with resources in your area. You can also reach them by calling 1 (800) 273-6222. You are not alone. Take care and we wish you the best.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

My daughter appears to be seeking attention for reasons that I cannot wrap my head around. She is only 4 years of age and b/c she doesnt want to sleep during nap time, she cries and start saying her stomach hurt, her finger hurt, her head hurt. If her teacher/teachers comment on another class mate shoes, she would say, "but look at my shoes, dress" etc. She is a very well disciplined child that dresses very well, we comment her however we do not over do it. We go to group homes and help feed those that are less fortunate. We also go through her clothes and shoes together with her and advise her that we are fortunate to have, henceforth we give to those that are less fortunate. What are we doing wrong? It is very embarassing for her to act that way and have teachers telling us these behaviors. Suggestions are warmly welcomed!!

Comment By : Parent Concerned Early

* To 'Parent Concerned Early': Four year olds can exhibit a lot of confusing, frustrating behavior! A lot of the time, very young children can look a lot like teenagers in their behavior in terms of attention-seeking, tantrums, and a self-centered attitude. As annoying as this is, it is pretty normal for where your daughter is in her development. We support you in including her in your volunteer work, and having her give to those who have less. Most typical four year olds, however, are not able to make the connection that there are those who have less than she does, so she should appreciate what she has. They are only able to see that if the teacher is complimenting someone else, then that attention is off of them! As for her complaints and crying during naptime, it is helpful to remember that people only use a behavior if it is useful for them. Your daughter has learned that if she starts crying, or stating that something hurts, she gets attention and gets out of naptime. It might be helpful for you to develop an incentive system with her where if she gets through naptime without an issue, she can earn a small reward that day. I am including a link to an article on behavior charts I think you might find useful: Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Behavior Charts Effectively. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

I help my husband with his daughters. One is younger and behaves and learns what is right from wrong. The 10 year old is rude. She mimicks me when I talk to her and she says she's just kidding, she does it more often and I point out to her she is being rude. I am patient with her, she has trouble with homework and asks me to help her and she doesn't listen while I am showing her how to do her work correctly. She flies off and gets defensive at any suggestion her dad gives her and keeps saying he tells her what to do. She is constantly raising her voice and refuses to listen. She talks over her dad and when I try to understand and talk to her she acts like she's crying, but not a tear. I conclude it to being a lazy girl who wants people to do things for her. I want butter in my food, can you get paper upstairs, I can't find this. She doesn't even want to comb her hair, yet she won't let her dad suggest haircuts. It's been 3 1/2 years and she has not changed. She refuses to put dirty clothes in the hamper. She leaves clutter everywhere, she procrastinates cannot do anything without saying something or grabbing something before she does anything. Her mother doesn't think she procrastinates, but if that's not it, then it 's a big case of lazyitis. Is there hope for this girl? She says things that would not come from a child her age. She will say, I knew that, and I would catch her by making stuff up just to see if she does know everything.

Comment By : NoWonderWoman

* To “NoWonderWoman”: Thank you for writing in with your concerns. Disrespectful, sassy behavior can be so frustrating and wearisome. We talk to many parents and stepparents who are in similar situations, so, you’re not alone. It can be challenging to know how best to respond in the moment. We often coach parents to disengage from the situation by setting a limit and then walking away. For example, when your step daughter is mocking you, we would suggest you say something to her like “It’s not OK to talk to me that way” and then turn around and walk away from her. As James Lehman points out in his article Sassy Kids: How to Deal with a Mouthy Child, repeatedly responding in a strong way to a mildly annoying behavior simply gives it more power. By continually setting the limit and walking away, you’re letting her know the behavior is unacceptable without letting her know how annoying it is. This can be an effective way to deal with many types of attention seeking behavior, including when she says “I knew that”. Here are a couple of articles I think may be helpful for your situation: “My Blended Family Won’t Blend—Help!” Part I: How You and Your Spouse Can Get on the Same Page, “My Blended Family Won’t Blend!” Part II: What to Do When Your Stepkids Disrespect You & Blended Family? The 5 Secrets of Effective Stepparenting. I hope this information has been useful. We wish you and your family the best as you continue to address this behavior. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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