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.