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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Attention-Seeking Behavior in Young Children: Do’s and Don’ts for Parents
The Obnoxious Child: When an “Audience” Makes Behavior Worse
Empowering Parents Podcast: Apple, Spotify, Google, Stitcher
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.
You must log in to leave a comment. Don't have an account? Create one for free!
I have a 13 year old step son (as of 3 years ago) that spends 3 - 6 weeks with us per year. He is very disrespectful, argumentative, a liar, and manipulative. He also has anger issues and is grossly overweight (39.8 BMI). When he visits, my husband gets tired of dealing with him and lets him play on his gaming system for as many as 12 hours at a time. No responsibilities around the house, no consequences, etc. I am so miserable I want to go to a hotel while he's here. My husband has two other kids from another wife but my stepson is an only child with his mother. I raised 3 children, now adults, to be respectful, accept consequences, have empathy, etc. My stepson plays his parents back and forth and I try to point out when a consequence should be given. For ex. he lives in an apartment with his mom and continues to leave his footballs outside and they disappear. His mom tells him she's not buying him anymore so he calls my husband and he tells him he'll send him a football (to another state) without even talking to his ex-wife about this problem. I told my husband this would have been an incredible way to teach him some responsibility with a consequence like doing chores to earn money to buy another one that he might take better care of if he has to use his own money.
I have a degree in Psychology and this 13-year-old is a train wreck and is affecting my relationship with my new husband of 3 years.
Every time I say something about discipline opportunites, my husband and I get into it and he says that's all I talk about. There is very little positive with this child and I don't know what to do. My husband has asked many times if his son wanted to move here, would I be ok with it. I tell him absolutely not. My husband says he doesn't want his son to hate him so he just lets him rule the house. I need serious help, probably counseling. Both he and his ex-wife are trying to be in their son's good favor regardless of the person their son is becoming. I really have a hard time biting my tongue!!! Thank you for any advice you can offer.
I can hear how distressing this behavior is. We have several articles that offer additional tips for managing aggressive acting out behavior you describe. You can find a list of those articles here: https://www.empoweringparents.com/article-categories/child-behavior-problems/abusive-violent-behavior/
We appreciate you being part of our Empowering Parents community. Be sure to check back and let us know how things are going. Take care.
Best article Ive read and specific to our situation. I have a step grand daughter who has to flip our well balanced harmonious home upside down and inside out every time shes here. Has to be in control, dramatic, manipulating and outright disrespectful, out and over talking adults,continues til she has the last word to justify how she is always right and its everyone else. My bio grand daughter same age I never have to reprimen, follows the rules until my step grand daughter shows up. A smidge of girlie competition from 2 only children is one thing, but holy cow she blames my grandaughter for her mischeif and everywhere we go whether its other peoples events ALWAYS a situation errupts, but never if its just my granddaughter. Believe me its not because I think my granddaughter does no wrong because she is not immune to being corrected. My son is dealing with mom believing her every word, no discipline, and now the little girl over inflates and fabricates things my son is doing or not doing so her mother backs her up taking her side and mom in front of little girl will disagree with my son(mom n my aon they have been together for 3 years) So theres no parental unity allowing this little girl to manipulate and be in control. And when mom is told or subject comes up or my son wants to address the problem ro create a solution,mon gets angry, doesnt want to hear it and blames my son for being mean and deliberately picking on the little girl. Im afraid as she gets older she may know no boundries to what she fabricates and may put my son in a situation having to legally defend himself. Like falsely accusing him of inappropriate things. I believe my son because this little girl has displsyed the same behavior to my husband rolling her eyes whiping her head in disgust when hes joking around with her. And well there is about 10 more of us that all see this childs behavior. We all cant be wrong. When I lay out rules and have to correct her for inapropriate behavior in my home, once I turn my back she continues. And I never call her out by name or single her out in front of other kids. I dont know how to approach mom. If we are all a family I cannot continue to allow a 7 year old to manipulate every event into her own personal theater. It even has my free spirited loving granddaughter who just wants to enjoy and play stressed out just seeing her enter the house. I never get involed in my grown childrens affairs but if hes not able to get thru to mom she has a child who needs addressing and I see my son getting pushed around and teamed up on when he cares enough to take intrest in this childs life, I feel I should attempt to address it myself. I fear it will wear mentally on my son as he has had a prior abusive GF and how that had a horrible impact on him. I am finding it hard to watch knowing my son has a big heart and good intentions to see this little girl be guided in the right direction. Im not trying to be the meddling mother n law or trying to tell people how to raise their children God knows I was far from a perfect parent but never allowed behavior like this from any of my children.
. I need help.
I have a step-daughter who is ALMOST 16, same thing. She is extremely manipulative, aggressive, rude, constant eye-rolling and authority challenging..she believes she knows everything, and knows basically nothing of real-world, stressful, adult struggles. We are at our wits END with her constant, relentless attitude and quiet manipulation. Took her mother years to see it. She will lie to cover a lie to cover the other 40 lies..and NEVER feel shame, remorse, unless it is for being caught. She has stolen from her aunt, a fifth phone she wasmt supposed to have. To contact BAD boys. Yet, she plays her mother like a fiddle, always sweet, innocent, and naive. The moment mom leaves, she is aggressive, back-talks and manipulates..because I see through the lies and call her out on them.
I feel for anyone dealing with a teen who is doing this. It will break you down, exhaust you, and they still have the energy to cause even more mayhem. I believe it is largely due to modern society, culture, and overall lack of discipline, respect, and order.
So, basically with a child kike this..I feel a parents job is to simply KEEP THEM from making a HORRIBLE, life changing mistake until they are legally an adult. Its not ideal, but some people wont learn...until they LEARN the hard way.
They can never truly blame you however, if you keep them from foolish mistakes until then.
They want to run the show..let them at 18. Then, do NOT coddle when they trash 18 years of solid advice and widsom because they know better. LET them choose..and fail. Best lesson you can ever teach them.
I’m sorry to hear about the misbehavior and disobedience you are facing
from the children you babysit, and I’m glad to hear that you have addressed
your concerns with their parents.I
encourage you to continue to work with the parents to discuss how you can
address this behavior while their children are in your home.In addition, if the children are breaking
your rules while they are in your house, you can set a clear limit for them as
indicated in https://www.empoweringparents.com/blog/disciplining-someone-elses-child/.Ultimately, it is up to you to decide whether you want to continue to
have these children in your care.I wish
you all the best moving forward.Take
@guest I hear how much you want to help your grandson, and I’m glad
that you are reaching out for support, both in your community as well as here
on our site.At this point, I encourage
you to continue to work with your local CDC, and any referrals they might have
given you.Because they have the benefit
of observing and interacting directly with your grandson, they will be in a
better position to offer strategies and techniques which might be effective
with him.You might also find some
helpful ideas geared toward younger children in https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/attention-seeking-behavior-in-young-children-dos-and-donts-for-parents/, which you could discuss with your local supports.Thank you for writing in; take care.
As a leader of a youth organisation I am always interested in ways of not over reacting to teenage behaviour. We like to accept all who want to be there but recently we had a young girl who was very dominant. Her parents wanted her to come along but she didn't want to be there. When we had group discussions she always dominated them with her opinions and treated the others like they did not matter. She never joined in activities willingly and often made comments such as "I am not comfortable doing that" as an excuse for not being part of the team. This behaviour was a shock to myself and other leaders. Her whole attitude was majorly disrespectful not only to the leaders but also the other members of the group. She purposefully held conversations with her "friends" that were entirely inappropriate especially as we had members as young as 5. We were constantly having to have conversations with her about her behaviour and her only comment was "throw me out then". We put up with it for quite a while but finally had to draw the line when we discovered she had been verbally abusive to a disabled child.
Has anybody got any suggestions as to how to deal with this situation differently.
We appreciate you writing in to Empowering Parents and
sharing your story. Because we are a website aimed at helping people become
more effective parents, we are limited in the advice and suggestions we can
give to those outside of a direct parenting role. Talking with the other
leaders, as well as others in a supervisory role, might be able to give you
guidance on how you can best address this issue, while also keeping with the
rules governing your organization. We wish you the best going forward. Take
Woow what a great article. Thank you very much. Im a grandmother of 5 and can relate to these situations and know that these principles worked for me. Being widowed at 36 with 3 young children, it was extra hard being mum and dad.
Hopefully people can grow to understand that the basic rules you are talking about can be carried thru every situation if the same bottomline stays the same.
Then they will be half way there. I always reminded myself that i was not my childrens friend - i was their parent. So i didnt need to have them like my choices, i needed them to understand they were done because i wanted the best for them. Parents can only do the best they can at a single moment in time and if seeking more help thru a counsellor or advisor, is nothing to feel bad about.