How many times have you heard someone say ‘He’s just looking for attention’ about their child? How many times have you said it about your own child? As a Clinical Psychologist working with children it is a phrase that I hear very often with parents that I see. In those situations I always ask them to explain a little bit more about what they mean by ‘attention-seeking’ and invariably I try to explain that often children are indeed looking for something from you, their parents, but very often it is not attention but rather affection.
Sometimes we can dismiss a child’s behavior by labelling it as ‘attention-seeking’ but I find that by thinking about that child’s behavior as ‘affection-seeking’ it changes the way you view the behavior, the child and their intentions.
Child Psychology research has long posited that children learn more, change more and achieve more with positive reinforcement when compared with negative consequences. Children are wired to want to receive positive reinforcement and affection from their parents and their behavior is based around this idea; this is Plan A ‘I love it when my parents are happy with me and show me how pleased they are with me’. Unfortunately, if they don’t receive enough from Plan A they often resort to Plan B; ‘Any attention is better than no attention’. And so, the commonly used phrase ‘attention-seeking’ is born. However, by focusing on the child’s Plan B of ‘attention-seeking’ we’re neglecting their initial intention which was ‘affection-seeking’ from mum and dad (and other adults in their world).
Now, don’t get me wrong I know when your child is throwing a fit in the supermarket or drawing on your walls at home with permanent marker it is hard to stop and think ‘hey, he just wants a bit of affection… let me give him a hug’. I’m not suggesting to ignore difficult behavior, to leave it unresolved or not to put in place reasonable consequences for misbehavior. However, if you notice an increase in what you might have previously labelled attention seeking then perhaps take a moment to wonder if there have been any changes in your child’s world that have left them feeling as though they need a bit more affection from you. If so, try to balance giving your child affection and positive reinforcement with putting in place consequences.
How do I provide my child with more affection? There are of course the usual ideas that pop into mind – hugs, kisses and telling your child that youlove him/her. But your child also feels your affection toward them when you compliment them, when you say what a great job they did, when you recognize how hard they’ve worked on something, when you notice changes they’re trying to implement or when you spend quality time together (even just reading a book or watching a movie). Another lovely idea that I recently shared on my website was the idea of a Warm & Fuzzy Jar. For every kind, helpful act your child does, put a small coloured Pom-Pom into a jar and once it’s full your child gets a reward. You will be amazed how your child’s behaviour changes when they notice that you are on the lookout for positive things they do and not only trying to reprimand misbehaviour.
Parenting is never easy, but you will feel much more relaxed about managing your child’s behaviour when you start to ask yourself ‘Are they attention seeking or affection seeking?’
PS. I am offering FREE Bulk Billed positions for our Children’s Social Skills Groups and Anxiety Management Groups in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs when you like GroupWorx Psychology’s Facebook page. Click Here
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Stefanie is passionate about youth mental health, particularly anxiety, depression and eating disorders and has a wealth of experience from her work in private practice, government clinics and the world-renowned eating disorders clinic; The Centre For Clinical Interventions. Stefanie is married and mum to 15 month old son Asher.