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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.