Attention-Seeking Behavior in Young Children: Do’s and Don’ts for Parents

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Even though she was only three years old, Mallory knew precisely how to get attention from her parents. When she wanted a cookie before dinner, she’d whine and hang on to her father’s pant leg as he cooked. She’d continue until her dad caved in and got her the cookie. Of course, by that point, he was willing to do anything to make her stop.

When she didn’t want to go to bed, she’d run around the house as her parents chased her. Eventually, they’d give up and let her stay up an hour later.

And when Mallory wanted to watch a video, and her parents told her no, she’d scream until she got her way.

Why do young children seek attention in ways that can be so annoying? And why do we, as parents, give in so often?

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There are many reasons kids seek attention: they’re bored, tired, hungry, or in need of quality time with their parents. But the reasons your child acts this way aren’t as important as learning how to respond when they do.

Keep in mind that such attention-seeking behavior is normal. Children in the 3- to 7-year-old age range are simply not able to distinguish between needs and wants. And they often don’t know how to articulate themselves without being annoying. It’s a developmental problem. So for these kids, the easiest method of communicating is to engage in attention-seeking behavior—usually loudly and frequently!

But don’t despair. These behaviors are manageable, and your child can improve if you follow these do’s and don’ts the next time your child whines, cries, or screams to get your attention.

Do Be Empathetic

For young kids, approach the problem of annoying behavior with empathy. Empathy doesn’t mean that you completely understand your child’s behavior. Rather, it means that you know it’s coming from a place of developmental immaturity.

Yes, it can be hard to muster up empathy and kindness when your child is acting obnoxious. But once you understand their developmental level, you will know what they are and are not capable of handling, and you will be able to respond more appropriately.

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Do Learn to Ignore Your Child When Necessary

Sometimes you need to ignore your child when they bother you for attention. This is not to say that you should always ignore every aspect of your child’s attention-seeking behavior. But it is okay to tell your child that whining will not get them what they want and that you will only speak to them when they can speak calmly.

Do Explain to Your Child What an Emergency Is

Explain to your child the difference between (1) a real emergency (where your immediate attention is warranted), and (2) something that your child wants but isn’t urgent. For instance, if the sink is overflowing upstairs, or a sibling has just escaped out the front door, those are real emergencies, and your immediate attention is needed. However, if your child wants to show you a video, and you’re talking on the phone, that’s not an emergency. They can wait for your attention in that instance.

Here’s a helpful tip: have a plan in place that allows your child to signal when something is truly important. Developing a catchphrase for them to say in a real emergency (for example, “code red”) helps your child learn to differentiate between a real emergency and simply wanting your attention.

Do Display the Rules for Your Child

One of the best ways to stop attention-seeking behavior in its tracks is to let your child know your expectations and what behaviors they need to avoid.

You can do this by creating a rules chart. Have them help you create it, and then hang it at their eye level (the refrigerator is a good place for it). Even if your child doesn’t read, just looking at the chart will serve as a reminder of the agreed-upon rules.

Here are a few examples of what can go on the chart: no whining, no screaming, and no running away when called. Next to each rule, list the consequence. For instance, sit by yourself for 5 minutes, go to bed 10 minutes earlier, or lose electronics time.

Of course, your child will break the rules at times—that happens. But when the rules are listed where your child can see them, you can then point and say,

“Sorry, no screaming is on the rules list. No television tonight.”

Do Be Consistent With Consequences

The biggest hurdle parents face in stopping attention-seeking behavior stems from not consistently enforcing the consequences when their child acts out. Too often, parents are tired, frustrated, or just want their child to be quiet. In short, they’re burnt out, so they give in rather than enforce the rules through consistent consequences.

While giving in if you’re burnt out is understandable, make no mistake about it: your child is taking mental notes each time you yield to their demands. And the next time they want something, they’ll redouble their attention-seeking efforts to get it.

Do Give your Child Healthy Attention

Make sure you are giving your child a healthy amount of attention. Giving attention doesn’t mean meeting all of your child’s demands at every turn. Rather, it means engaging with them consistently and lovingly each day.

Healthy attention can come in the form of quality playtime, reading together, eating family meals and talking about your day, doing homework or school activities with them, and having a consistent bedtime routine.

Each day will be different in terms of how much attention you can give your child. Your busy schedule will dictate how much time you can spend, so be realistic about what you are capable of giving.

And give yourself a break if you feel guilty about not giving enough—no one wins if you berate yourself for not fitting everything in.

Related Content: “Am I a Bad Parent?” How to Let Go of Parenting Guilt.

Don’t Yell Back at Your Child

It is very tempting to reduce your emotional responses to your child’s level, especially when the whining doesn’t stop, or you’re tired and at your wits’ end.

Try to have a plan in place for removing yourself from the situation when you feel like you might explode.

If your child doesn’t end the attention-seeking behavior, say to them:

“I need a time-out right now because you won’t stop whining. I’ll be back in 5 minutes.”

Then go to your quiet place and practice some relaxation and deep breathing exercises until you are calm enough to deal with your child.

Related Content: Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry.

Don’t Make Your Child Feel Guilty

Juggling the responsibilities of kids, work, and life in general leaves many parents feeling chronically exhausted and overworked. As such, it can be tempting to guilt our kids into good behavior by unloading our difficulties (an unreasonable boss, a stressful encounter with a neighbor, a fight with a co-parent) onto them.

But the issues adults face should not be shared with our kids. Kids already deal with enough stress and anxiety of their own, and it’s not fair to burden them with your problems as well. There’s nothing wrong with your child knowing that you feel exhausted, but you should skip all the gory details. Just say to your child:

“I’ve had a busy day and have a headache. So I’d like you to stop whining, or you will have to sit by yourself.”

Don’t Assume There Is Something Wrong With Your Child

Many parents mistakenly believe that their young child’s attention-seeking behaviors signify that there is a bigger problem, and they panic.

On the contrary, most kids will act out at some point in their development—and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with your child. As a parent, you should expect this behavior during childhood and respond to it with effective consequences so that, over time, your child learns how to behave appropriately when they are frustrated or want attention.

Of course, if you are following these suggestions and still have concerns, or if your child is acting out in ways that are dangerous to themselves or others, contact your pediatrician immediately. Don’t ignore your parental intuitions if something doesn’t seem right.

Don’t Hover Over Your Child

You don’t have to be present every time your child needs something. Don’t feel guilty or fear that your child will feel unloved if you don’t always respond to attention-seeking behavior. Just know that part of good parenting is teaching your child that not all of their needs can be met. If you are always on-call whenever your child needs something, your child will never learn the value of patience, the importance of waiting their turn, and the understanding that they’re not the center of the universe.

Parents that hover over their kids run the risk of reinforcing the attention-seeking behavior, and the child may carry these behaviors into adulthood.

Related Content: How to Stop Worrying and Avoid Helicopter Parenting

Conclusion

Attention-seeking behavior can be annoying and difficult for parents to handle. Indeed, it can take the pleasure out of parenting altogether. Just remember that this is a perfectly normal stage of a young child’s development, and if you follow these do’s and don’ts, your child’s behavior will improve—and you will enjoy being a parent again.

About

Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.

Comments (19)
  • Brd2trs

    This article is helpful in many ways.

    It should be pointed out that Attention-Seeking and Sensory-seeking behaviors often look similar.

    A sensory-seeking child needs more than consistent parenting. These kiddos get in trouble at school, home and with peers without trying. Sometimes occupational therapy is required to meet the sensory needs before behavioral issues can be addressed.

  • Cassandra
    When was this article written?
    • Denise Rowden, Parent CoachEP Coach

      Our content is updated from time to time to remain current and thus we do not date our articles. Below is our recommended citation format:

      Lehman, James. “Parenting Teens: Parental Authority vs. Peer Pressure.” EmpoweringParents.com. https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/parenting-teens-parental-authority-vs-peer-pressure/ (accessed January 21, 2018).

      For more information on citations, we recommend the following: http://www.bibme.org/citation-guide/chicago/website/

  • Steve
    Nice article. Thank you.
  • Jaime Valtierra
    Hello i have a 11 year old daughter that wants my wife and I to give her the attention we give our 4 year old. She has been grounded for what seems like a very long time. We are not bad parents we have always made sure to let ourMore kids know that they are our worlds. One of the things that has me pretty upset is that we have never showed any type of favoritism towards any of our kids. Not once have we ever counted her out or done anything for her to behave like this. We have always been there for her!!! But all the things we have done isnt enough for her. She wants it to be all about her. Its so ridiculous to even think about what she wants. You admitted to us the other day that she dont want to live with us her parents and brothers smh. She prefers to go live with her grandparents take a while guess why. Well let me tell yall why. First thing is because she would be the only child there. If she wants something 9xs out of 10 she will get it. She wouldnt have to clean up after herself because she has her granny as her maid. She will more than likely still go to sleep with them which to me is really out of line. She also admitted that they still talk to her like a baby WOW. So now can yall please send some positive feed back. To me Its simply rude and disrespectful. She is so ungrateful when there are some many kids that wish they could at least have one of there parents there to give them support. So can yall please tell me what we can do diffrent cuz really our other 2 kiddos are missing out on a lot due to her selfishness. .
    • kattia
      Hi my daughter is 13 years old and I jus find out that her best friend smoke marijuana I spoke with my daughters about that yesterday she said to me the she knows that her best friend do that but she is not doing it because she knows that isMore no ok I just told her the she can't be with her because is not a good influence for her and at the same time I know is hard for her because is her best friend I don't know how to deal with this
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Jaime Valtierra It can be so frustrating when one child wants to be the center of attention all the time, and I hear how much it’s affecting you and others in the house.  Something to keep in mind is that it tends to be more effective to focus on herMore behavior, rather than trying to make her feel a certain way.  In other words, rather than trying to make her see that you are treating her fairly, or attempting to make her feel grateful for the things she has, it will be more useful to focus on how she can meet her responsibilities and manage her emotions appropriately.  You can find more information on this in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/stop-the-show-putting-a-lid-on-your-childs-attention-seeking-behavior/.  Please be sure to check back with us and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.
  • mum83
    Hi. I have a 8 year old daughter. Every night for the past week she screams, cries, doesn't listen, throws herself on the ground, makes silly noises & has to be with me all the time besides going to school. I have 2 other children that don't act like sheMore does. I have a new partner who is loving, caring & fun with the kid's. I an separated from my daughter's dad & she has handled it fine. She is very smart at school & doesn't act at school like she does at home. I've tried talking, then yelling, screaming, ignoring her, bribing. I feel like she is mentally unstable. Please help. Advice would be greatly appreciated.
    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      mum83 

      It can be really

      exhausting when one child keeps acting out, and demanding the majority of your

      time and attention.  While it can be helpful to ignore this type of

      attention in the moment as noted in the above article, it can also be useful to

      https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/the-surprising-reason-for-bad-child-behavior-i-cant-solve-problems/

      with your daughter during a calm time about what is going on, and what she can

      do differently that would be more appropriate.  James Lehman offers more

      tips to address this type of behavior in his article https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/stop-the-show-putting-a-lid-on-your-childs-attention-seeking-behavior/. 

      Please let us know if you have any additional questions; take care.

  • Lynda Meyer
    My son hates sleeping by himself. We've had him in our bed, but now I know it's not good for any of us. Is it because he thinks we are abandoning him. Note: I am a Flight Attendant and leave for a couple of nights at a time. My husbandMore cares for him. While I try to gently tell him it's time for his own bed, and put him down, he cries, and has a tantrum to the point where I just have to give him a kiss goodnight and turn out the lights and walk away leaving him screaming his head off. His says he's not a big boy, he wants to sleep with mommy! What do I do now?
    • drjoanmunson

      Lynda Meyer

      You don't say how old your son is, but wanting to sleep with one's parents isn't necessarily attention seeking behavior and is a very normal part of child development for some kids.  Naturally you and your husband should discuss how you feel about this, but if you are okay with him being in your bed it seems like this is something he needs at this stage of his life.  Since you are gone several nights in a row, it sounds as if it makes your son feel secure and close to both of you when he is nearby you at night.  Letting him scream and leaving him alone probably won't make him feel secure, so if you are determined that he not sleep with you perhaps you need a different plan.  Make sure you have a bedtime ritual that you practice each and every night.  This should include bath time, stories, maybe some singing and then to bed.  If you are doing this and he is still unhappy, laying with him for a while may help quell his fears.  The most important thing to keep in mind is that your main job is to help your son feel secure and safe during this stage in his development.  He is telling you that he needs to be physically close to one or both of you at bedtime.  Listen to what he needs and help him navigate through this.  This is a stage that will end sooner than you think.

  • Tortured Mother
    My 3-year old son is what I like to describe as a human hurricane, he does not listen to reason. He cries about everything and anything from the moment he wakes up to the moments he goes to bed. I've tried everything, from speaking calmly, putting him on time outs,More yelling, ignoring him and even spanking inlcuding scaring him with the boogeyman. None of it works. He continues to cry, loudly, scream, yell, fight when I ignore him and pleading. He does not stop at all and when he does he continues again. I'm at a breaking point what else can I do to teach my son patience, respect and to listen when I feel like all I'm doing now is hurting the both of us? I don't want to be one of those scary single mothers who are screaming their heads off everyday because they can't handle their kids? Please advice. I'm desperate and feel tortured!
    • drjoanmunson

      Tortured Mother

      It sounds like your son is in need of some serious attention from the adults in his life, and by attention I mean positive attention as opposed to the negative kind.  You say that your son does not listen to reason, which is perfectly normal for a 3 year old.  No child this age is capable of logically following orders or reasoning through a problem--they are simply not equipped to do this yet. So you may want to start with revisiting what your expectations are for a 3 year old.  Start with a Rules Chart and place it where he can see it.  List the house rules and a consequence for what will happen if they are broken.  An example: "No Yelling" with the consequence being "Toy in time out for 30 minutes". Review each rule and consequence with him and explain what the consequence will be if it is broken.  Be consistent each and every time he breaks the rules.

      Equally as important though, you need to begin offering positive reinforcement to your son when he is behaving well.  Even for the smallest things, compliment him: "I like how you answered nicely. Thanks you".  Make sure that there is time set aside each day for the 2 of you to share something, such as reading books, going for a walk, coloring in a book, building something with blocks, playing a game.  Your son sounds like he is craving some one on one time.  Spanking him or using fear to control him will backfire and only serve to make him more anxious and act out.  Does he have friends or a play group he can be involved with?  Can you invite other same-age kids over and let him navigate through the process of making friends?  This is one way he can learn patience, respect, and about the feelings of others.  He will learn these traits as he grows, but through a variety of ways, not just you.  Make sure he has numerous opportunities outside your home to do this. Does he have a regular home schedule for eating meals, bath time, bed time ritual, and the same bed time each night?  These are important factors for a 3-year old.  Lastly, are you taking care of yourself?  Do you have the opportunity to get out for an hour or more a week by yourself while your son is in the care of a trusted adult?  Do you have a support system of other mothers so you can get feedback and have a place to talk about your frustrations?  If you are able to care for yourself and have a break, you will be more energized!  Raising a 3-year old, especially a strong willed one, requires a delicate balance of patience, knowledge, and self-care.  You clearly care about your child, so beginning a new way of dealing with him today will help you both!

  • Jennifer_Keller

    How do you recommend dealing with a 13 year old boy that gets up every morning and tortures his mother and sister day in and day out? He damages walls and destroys toys and abuses personal boundaries. He's told constantly to leave people alone and keep his hands and feetMore to himself. He is constantly showing disrespect and has had items that are most valuable to him taken from him yet the problems only escalates because he doesn't seem to care about consequences to his actions. His sister wants absolutely nothing to do with him because he tortures her so much.

    • Bee177

      Jennifer_Keller  Hi Jennifer

      I have a 14 year old ADHD ODD son.  Also gets very aggressive and very annoying and always bullying his little brother.
      I've read quite a bit of helpful mediums to try and deal better with his outburst.  Something interesting that I've read is that aggression is a diversionMore of stress.  IT MAKES SENCE!  My son normally acts on his worst when his in the middle of a test series or exams or when his got a lot of projects to finish.  The ADHD causes them to postpone everything until the last minute and then they stress and become anxious.  That is when they become aggressive.  You must also establish what time of the day is normally the worst.  Mine is in the evenings, when the meds wears off.  The concerta 54mg actually worsened his aggression after 7pm in the evenings. 
      Good luck - one day at a time.  Give him unconditional love and keep on praying.

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport

      Jennifer_Keller 
      This sounds like a tough situation to be in, day after day. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be
      for you and your daughter to deal with this aggravation. From our perspective, consequences would be
      one part of managing the choices your son is making. You want to be mindfulMore that those are being utilized effectively. As
      James Lehman explains in his article http://www.empoweringparents.com/How-to-Give-Kids-..., an effective consequence is
      one from which the child learns something. So, towards that end, you want
      consequences to be task-oriented instead of time-oriented. For example, one way you could implement a task-oriented consequence for your son would be to limit his access
      to one of his privileges until he can go for a certain amount of time without
      invading other people’s personal space. Try to be as specificas possible in your description of the desired behavior,
      in order to clarify the objective. Another important aspect of developing
      better behaviors is developing better problem-solving
      or coping skills. Keep in mind, all behavior is purposeful. Your son is making
      the choices he is for a reason, either to get something (attention) or to get
      out of something (such as chores, or punishment). Until he develops better ways of solving those
      problems, the behavior is likely to continue. You can help your son develop
      better problem-solving skills by sitting
      down with him at a calm time and talking
      about the choices he has made and brainstorming what
      choices he could have made instead. For more information on problem-solving conversations, you can check out this article by Sara
      Bean:  http://www.empoweringparents.com/the-surprising-re...
      . Try to focus on one behavior at a time if
      possible. Trying to address all of the acting out you are seeing may be
      overwhelming for everyone involved. We appreciate you writing in and wish your
      family the best of luck moving forward. Take care.

  • Frustratedagain

    I have a 16 month old grandson whom holds his breath until he passes out ,diverting his attention is impossible because he does not seem to hear or feel when he is holding his breath.  Diverting attention is what the pediatrician recommended as he did it in front of herMore she could not gt his attention either.  HELP

    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Frustratedagain
      How upsetting it must be for everyone when this happens. I can
      understand your concern. The number one thing to keep in mind when dealing with
      attention seeking behavior is to remain as calm as possible while the behavior
      is happening. This will help to minimize the possibility of reinforcing the
      behavior withMore your reaction. For the most part, the tools and techniques
      discussed on the Empowering Parents website are aimed at children who are older
      than 16 months. Some techniques, like walking away, would not be appropriate
      for a child this age.  For that reason, we are limited on the coaching or
      suggestions we are able to offer you. It is going to be most beneficial to
      continue working closely with your grandson’s pediatrician on ways of managing
      this behavior. His doctor is much more familiar with him and is able to
      directly observe his behaviors.  We do have a great source for additional
      information on our http://www.empoweringparents.com/resources.php,  http://zerotothree.org/. This site Offers information
      on normal early childhood development and behavior through articles,
      publications, interactive tools and other parent resources. We appreciate you
      reaching out to Empowering Parents and wish your family the best of luck moving
      forward. Take care.

  • DianaStoweGreen

    Fantastic article!  I have gained so much knowledge from every one of these articles and I appreciate you guys putting them together.  My girls are 6 and 7 and absolute angels.  I see their behavior changing and its totally due to my inconsistency as their mom. I'm so glad toMore recognize this now and be able to do something about it!

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