Children need attention like a plant needs sun and water. - Rudolf Dreikus
Children are really skilled at finding ways to get adults to pay attention to them.
Some of their ways are cute, like cuddles and hugs and smiles and jokes. Others, not so welcome; like defiance, aggression, tantrums, whining or back chat.
Children work hard to get attention because attention really is a legitimate need for them. Children need attention to grow and thrive. It’s developmentally normal, probably rooted in some ancient need to be noticed and protected by the adults in the tribe, and even if it’s not helpful on occasions, attention seeking is something that we won’t succeed in blocking.
There’s a better outcome to be had by guiding the type of attention seeking behaviour our child displays.
We can give our child three kinds of attention:
- positive attention
- negative attention
- no attention
When we catch our child doing something good, and give them a hug, a cheer, a pat on the back, or a smile – that’s positive attention and it increases good behaviour.
When we give our child attention for misbehaviour, we are giving negative attention. We become upset; we threaten, and we lecture.
Negative attention is not a punishment for our child, it’s a reward. Negative attention does not punish misbehaviour but increases it. When our child doesn’t receive attention in a positive way, they’ll get our attention any way they can.
They learn to be troublesome.
They learn how to interrupt.
They learn to control us.
Negative attention teaches children how to tease, nag, and annoy; it teaches children to aggravate, irritate, and exasperate. When we focus on the negative and ignore the positive, we teach our children to behave in a negative way. We teach our child to misbehave to get our attention in the future.
But, when we ignore misbehaviours, we are giving no attention. Attention is rewarding to children, so withholding attention can be a very effective management technique. If our child misbehaves to get our attention, and we ignore the misbehaviour or inappropriate demands for attention, we weaken those demands and diminish or extinguish that behaviour. Temper tantrums need an audience or there is no point!
Giving our children positive attention when they are behaving well and ignoring inappropriate demands for attention discourages our children from misbehaving to get our attention.
Understanding these ideas is easy - practicing them is difficult.