Identifying and Addressing Attention Seeking Behaviors in Children

Dad talking to son about inappropriate language

From the moment they are born children begin to form attachments to attention. As children develop, attention seeking behaviors can arise that closely resemble the behaviors children demonstrated as infants. These attention-seeking behaviors, like needing approval, or trying to be the center of attention, can be frustrating not only for the parent, but for the child as well.

Understanding the Nature of Attention Seeking Behaviors

Psychologists John Boelby and Mary Ainsworth are credited with recognizing attachment styles in babies, which are formed with parents or caregivers from birth. Children whose emotional needs are met early in life typically have secure attachments styles and demonstrate less attention-seeking behavior as they grow up. Conversely, children whose emotional needs are not met in infancy tend to exhibit more dramatic behavior.

If you’re familiar with the age-old expression that actions speak louder than words it may help you begin to understand the nature of extreme attention-seeking behavior in children. We communicate through our behaviors, and when children are exhibiting self-centered behavior they are most likely trying to express a deeper want or need for connection. Children who are constantly seeking validation are actually seeking relationships.

Common Signs and Triggers of Attention Seeking Behaviors

Attention seeking behaviors among children can arise from time to time, but if they become increasingly frequent or excessive it can be challenging and problematic. Some of the most common signs of attention seeking behaviors include:

  • Yelling, screaming, whining, or raised voice
  • Poor listening or defying parents or caregivers
  • Interrupting or ignoring
  • Running away
  • Intentionally or unintentionally destroying items
  • Lying or exaggerating
  • Physical aggression, like hitting, kicking, pushing, and shoving

These symptoms of a children’s desire for attention are often associated with a number of common causes or triggers:

  • Loneliness
  • Boredom
  • Tiredness
  • Feeling under stimulated or unchallenged
  • Desire for quality time with parents or caregivers
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Trauma
  • Mental health conditions
The Impact of Attention Seeking Behaviors on Children

Not every attention seeking behavior is negative, and these types of behaviors can have both positive and negative impacts on childhood development. The more positive attention children receive for their behavior, the less likely they are to act out with negative attention-seeking behaviors.

Positive Impact of Attention-Seeking Behavior

Giving children positive attention for their accomplishments, efforts, or positive behavior is vital in promoting self esteem. Children’s confidence forms at an early age and the right kind of attention from parents, family, and caregivers, can help shape a positive self-image that stays with them throughout their lives.

Communication Skills
Certain attention seeking behaviors, like initiating conversations or asking questions, are positive in the appropriate context. When parents or caregivers engage in conversation and answer a child’s questions it helps improve the child’s verbal communication skills, vocabulary, and language development.

Negative Impact of Attention-Seeking Behavior

Interference with Learning
When children engage in excessive attention-seeking behaviors in a learning environment such as a classroom or after-school activity it can present challenges for teachers and other students who are trying to focus on learning.

Social Challengings
When children act out because they are craving attention the result can be social challenges, as peers may become impatient, frustrated or annoyed. The strain these behaviors put on relationships can add insult to injury for children who ultimately are seeking connection.

Effective Strategies for Managing Attention Seeking Behaviors

For parents with children who are demonstrating attention-seeking behavior, there are a number of strategies that can help in addressing these behaviors and prevent bad habits from forming. The goal is to help children learn to ask for attention in a positive way, reducing the need for them to act out when they are craving attention.

Approach the child with empathy.
While a child’s behaviors can be frustrating or annoying, it is important to remember where it’s coming from. You do not need to condone the behavior, but responding from a place of empathy will only serve to help the situation.

Give the child positive, healthy attention.
Make a point to connect with your child each day. Positive attention can come from eating meals as a family, playing a game, helping with homework, or having a cozy bedtime routine. Uninterrupted one-on-one time with a child can make a world of difference.

Keep a level head.
When you are frustrated it’s easy to raise your voice or match your child’s level of emotional response. Maintaining your composure or removing yourself from particularly challenging situations before they reach a fever pitch is the best course of action.

Seeking Professional Help and Resources for Support

While it is not uncommon for children to exhibit attention-seeking behaviors at times, if these behaviors persist, worsen, or reach the point of being harmful to the child or to others, it may be best to seek professional help.

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