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When Your Child Craves Attention - A Parenting Strategy

A psychologist offers advice for attention seeking behavior.

By Tim Francis

A child that wants attention will get it by some means. This is usually done in a positive way. They do a drawing or perform a play but by offering an adult the best of what they have to offer they seek and hopefully get some attention. In general children who are well adjusted tend to need attention on a little and not very often basis. As long as attention is given when needed, which is usually the case things run smoothly. However, some children seem to have an insatiable desire for attention. They get positive attention galore yet they want more. They misbehave and quickly realize that certain behaviors can't be ignored by adults and engage in them. The class teacher will tell you they spend vast quantities of their time with the child yet it is never enough. The child if observed in class will be engaging in a whole host of activities all of which appear geared toward getting attention. It would be nothing noteworthy for children like this to have the teacher intervene with them every 2-3 minutes.

Often parents and teachers are confused. They will tell the psychologist that the child gets lots of attention, much more than any other member of the class, something that is supported by observation. The important thing to remember with humans, in such cases, is that we are never dealing with concrete realities. What we are dealing with is perceptions. If is rather convenient to see the child's thinking in terms of there being a black box through which all thinking must pass. The black box contains one simple instruction that is, "I do not get enough attention". If we take on board this simple assumption we can now see why the child will behave in an attention seeking way for, instance after being taken out for a wonderful day out and absolutely showered with attention they come home and do something totally silly that guarantees more attention, albeit negative. So what to do?

The following intervention is extraordinarily powerful. It works just about every time and the only reason it fails is because the adult stops. Children never tire of this intervention. The intervention takes about ten minutes each day and is focused on the child's perceptual system.

Special Time:

  • Tell the child that they will be getting a special time each day.
  • Then each day tell them that special time will start in 2 minutes.
  • Tell the child that special time will start now.
  • Engage in special time.
  • Tell the child that special time will end in 2 minutes.
  • Tell the child that special time will end now.

You have therefore told the child four times that they are getting special time.

During special time the child may choose to do anything that is reasonable. They may want to watch a video with you or make a cake (use a ready made mix) for instance. Do not teach. Simply watch the child, helping if they request it, never offer. The adult watches the child and every so often sums up what the child is doing with praise for the skills shown. For instance I love the way you cuddle me. I love the way you are mixing that cake mix. This shows that the adult is paying attention. The analogy usually used is bathing the child in a warm bath of positive attention.

  • Do this every day.
  • Do not under any circumstances take away the special time as a sanction.
  • Even if the child has had an awful day, do special time.


Tim Francis has been involved in the education of children for nearly two decades. He has worked in a number of settings: mainstream schools, units specializing in attendance issues, as part of a specialist behavior management team. Currently employed as an educational psychologist for the London Borough of Bromley in the UK, Tim has Bachelors degrees in education and in psychology and a Masters degree in educational psychology. He has a website on children's special needs at: www.educational-psychologist.co.uk
 

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