Children Crave Attention – We Are Giving Kids The Wrong Kind Of Attention

Every psychologist agrees the type and frequency of attention provided to your kids has a dramatic effect shaping their behavior.

One of the many universal human conditions is the seeking of attention. That’s why it’s important to understand what the different types of attention are, how dads can effectively use different types of attention to affect their child’s behavior, and when we as dads are directly responsible for a child’s behavior because of how we use attention.

The way you provide attention is through words and actions. Think about how you interact with your kids. What words do you say? How affectionate are you? Basically – any time you choose to interact with your child, you’re giving them some form of attention.

Let’s look at the three different types of attention:

– Negative Attention: We’ve all been here, right? Examples include yelling, giving lectures, threats, and for the more old fashioned, corporal punishment. Generally negative attention is dispensed when a child engages in negative activities. However, negative attention IS a reward. Think about when a child does something and you react harshly – they are still getting your attention and consuming your time. Understanding that negative attention is a reward is critical to being an effective dad.

– No Attention: This is best described as ambivalence. Ignoring behaviors and giving no physical reaction falls into this category. No attention can be very detrimental to a child’s upbringing, or if used deftly, ambivalence is a very effective tool at shaping behavior.

– Positive Attention: This is the attention everyone loves – it includes verbal praise and affection. Think about when and how you use it. Dads love to give positive attention because generally this is a reaction to a kid doing the right thing. Even what seems like a little thing – a sly wink, telling your child you love them before bed, or even leaving a note encouraging them after a tough luck situation carries immense impact. Everyone would agree that positive attention is a reward.

So, why do we need to know about the different types of attention? It’s simple – kids CRAVE attention. We love our kids, but let’s face it – they’re ego monsters! Now, this isn’t a bad thing because a natural course of intellectual development goes from the “me” to the “we.” Still – the central problem dads must navigate is attending to their child’s incessant need for attention.

Of course, our kids prefer positive attention. As an adult, you prefer positive attention. If a child – especially a younger child – does not receive positive attention, they will seek negative attention. Please note this is not a conscious act, no child is saying, “I’m going to fight with my sibling so that Dad yells at me.” All developmental psychologists and parents would agree on this point.

The sad truth is as dads we’re more inclined to dispense negative attention. Our nature is that of problem solvers, so when our kids are fighting, we are more inclined to break up the fight vigorously and attentively. At the same time, are we as demonstratively attentive when our child takes initiative to put their toys away without being asked, or does something nice with their sibling?

Think of this idea as a feedback loop – our kids crave attention and they love positive attention. When they are unable to get positive attention, they subconsciously take actions to get negative attention. That’s the trap we as dads fall into. Their need for attention is sated when we provide the negative attention. The younger the child is, the more pronounced this effect. Remember – kids are the center of their world, and they seek to be validated. Negative attention provides exactly that.

So, the feedback loop works one of two ways – act positively and receive positive attention, or act negatively and receive negative attention. Now, throw in a curve ball – what if they act positively and receive an ambivalent reaction? What if they act negatively and receive an ambivalent reaction?
This is the paradigm shift we must undertake as dads. Kids do not seek attention when they ask for items. They seek attention every waking moment. Think of it that way. Now, how are you reacting to them?
The easy answer is, “just give them a ton of positive attention.” How do you do that? What’s the strategy? It’s actually really simple. Every time your child without prompting displays a proper behavior, give them attention for it. Keep it simple – “You and your brother are playing so well together!”, or “Thank you for putting your clothes away without me asking!” It’s important to be sincere – these affirmations mean the world coming from a dad. Don’t overplay it, just be sincere and catch them doing something good.

Unfortunately, as parents this is not our first instinct, because it’s not a problem we’re trying to solve. These positive behaviors are the problems ALREADY being solved. That’s why generally we’re not as good at the positive attention aspect. We expect them to always be doing right and jump in full force when they stray.

Here’s an example of why rewarding negative acts with attention can be dicey: if a child notices that complaining about a headache or stomachache causes you, the dad, to be more attentive and check on them more often, they are more likely to repeat this behavior. The problem goes towards the “boy who cried wolf” scenario. You must take these claims seriously – disregarding a child in pain is an abusive behavior. However, if a child is using this tactic to get your attention – the malady tactic – then you must examine how you’re doing as a dad. Are you paying attention to the problems more than the good acts?

The homeostasis for our kids needs to be always doing the right thing, gaining praise and attention; when something goes awry, fixing the mistake quickly and with minimal fuss. This way they can recover quick and go back to the positive behavior-positive attention cycle.

The answer here is positive attention. Reward your child for doing the right thing. Don’t focus on the negative except as a course correction. If your child has five great days and one lousy day, don’t go crazy over the lousy day – go crazy over the great days. The lousy day just simply needs a course correction with little fanfare.

Naturally, you may ask if we can give a child too much positive attention. The answer, of course, is yes.

Providing excessive positive attention creates an environment where your child is always catered to, this can be detrimental to your child’s development. Children in these environments typically have high egocentrism (the world revolves around them) and lack coping skills because any time they experience disappointment they are showered with attention and not challenged to deal with disappointment.

There is a way, however, to teach your kids how to deal with disappointment and the curveballs that come with life while still providing positive attention. Like everything, it starts with honesty. You can’t be all things to all people, and there are times when you can’t be at your child’s beck and call. Explain to them that you need to be somewhere else, and that you’d like to be with them. This teaches a child that they are a part of the world – not the center of the world and keeps you from overusing positive attention.

Also, remember that attention is directly related to age. Infants require more attention than teenager s, and part of this is you need to wean them off constant attention.

So how do you provide proper attention?

Here are 5 simple steps that will help you manage the attention you provide your child:

– Focus Attention on the Positive: This is critical. Provide positive attention as a rule; make sure you’re lifting up your kids with a combination of acts and affirmations.

– Spend Alone Time with Them: Alone time is a great way to connect with your kids. It’s a time in which the bond between parent and child is strengthened because of a mutual investment in each other. Spend time at an event or simply just hang out around the house. Using this time effectively shows your child you care about them and helps them as they grow up.

– Teach Them to Ask What They Want: Kids need to advocate for their interests. These can be little things like ordering what they want at a restaurant (within reason of course). Self-advocacy is critical. If a child is acting up, talk to them and find out what they want. When they feel like they want something – e.g. attention – have them ask for it instead of acting out. This helps them in all ways in life and keeps them from being passive-aggressive or other unproductive behaviors.

– Give Your Child a “What to Do” – No is Frictional: When your child is taking wrong actions, make sure you give them a way forward. Instead of locking horns about what they want, give the child a way out that satisfies both you and them. This helps them cope with disappointment.

– Ignore Bad Behavior: When you deal with a kid having a tantrum and whining, ignore it. They want you to mollify them. Don’t yell or scream. Just walk away. If they get destructive, of course step in. Even when correcting the behavior, be dispassionate. This is hard to do because your blood is boiling! But be calm, even say something like, “I’m not responding to this behavior, when you’re done, come find me and we’ll talk.”

At the end of the day, make sure that you’re always discussing things with your child when you both are calm. It’s on you the parent to model calm behavior. Your child will follow suit. Lavish them with positive attention, ignore counterproductive behavior, and understand that you as the parent have a great impact on how your child develops based on the attention you provide.

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