By Emily Kircher-Morris, LPC
A child keeps kicking his brother's car seat, even after his mom has asked him to stop.
The class clown keeps interrupting the teacher with off-topic and mildly inappropriate comments.
A preteen girl crumples her homework and dramatically hides her face in her arms on her desk.
A young boy has a meltdown because he is told they are having cookies instead of ice cream for dessert.
When trying to figure out what is behind these problematic behaviors, parents and teachers may come to the conclusion the child is engaged in negative attention-seeking. They come to the conclusion that the best response is to ignore or give a negative consequence for the behavior.
Many people feel that attention-seeking behavior is a negative trait. The attention the child is seeking is unearned and the result of a child being overly emotional and dramatic. The reaction may be to ignore the behavior or even give a negative consequence to the child.
I'd like to suggest a different way to look at attention-seeking behavior. If we consider all behavior to be communication and ask ourselves, "What is the child needing from this interaction?" we may find some ideas of how to handle the behavior.
Let's reframe attention-seeking as reassurance-seeking.
Their behavior is saying:
Am I alone? Do you love me? Am I worthwhile? Even if I act this way, will you stick with me?
We all need attention once in a while. We may seek it in positive ways, through accomplishments and helping others. The reassurance we get from those acknowledging us can keep us going. Sometimes kids don't have the language or emotional regulation skills to get their needs met in the most convenient way for us.
But, when we remind ourselves the attention-seeking is really reassurance-seeking, we build our relationship with the child and can help them learn more appropriate ways to seek that reassurance from us in the future.