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Belief Behind the Behavior: Undue Attention

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

Why can children’s behavior be so baffling and frustrating? It just doesn’t make sense!

With Empowered Parenting, we offer you effective strategies for understanding the purpose of children’s behavior, and for taking action, so that you feel powerful instead of helpless to do anything about behavior you don’t want to see.

In the book “Children: the Challenge”, Rudolph Dreikurs explained that the ultimate goal, that children are trying to achieve, is belonging and significance. Significance is the sense of feeling important and the opposite of feeling in-significant. Belonging is a desire to find your place in the family group.

Dreikurs believed that every behavior, every action a child takes, has a purpose and is useful to parents because it communicates a need. When children behave in a way that parents don’t like, or want, parents typically describe or label it MIS-behavior. But we can look at mis-behavior as communicating to us that the child is either trying to obtain or escape something. For example, years ago, one of Ken’s daughters would pretend that she couldn't reach the cupboard to put bowls away, do simple multiplication or wipe jam off the countertop as attempts to escape something she didn’t want to do. We’ll get to obtaining something shortly.

Dreikurs suggests that, if the behavior the child is choosing fails to achieve their goal of belonging and significance, they may reconsider things and choose another course of action.

One of the behaviors that parents often describe as MIS-behavior is needing too much attention, often at inappropriate times. It can be SO annoying when your child just won’t stop with wanting to show you things or wanting you to help with something! There are times when it feels like you can’t get a moment’s peace to plan your day or talk to another adult!

Wanting too much attention is one of the most common behaviors that drive parents crazy. The belief, that children have, behind that behavior is: I belong only when I’m being noticed or getting special service; I am important only when I’m keeping you busy with me.

Let’s say you are a typical parent and you are on a phone call and your child interrupts you. You react by reminding your child not to interrupt. Your child stops temporarily, but interrupts again a few minutes later. Sound familiar? Maybe that kind of thing only happens to YOU when you’re going to the bathroom?

As parents, with an understanding of the purpose behind our children seeking too much attention (to feel important and like they belong), what seems like senseless behavior, now begins to make sense. If the child has the belief that I belong only when I’m being noticed; I am important only when I’m keeping you busy with me, what do you think happens when you tell a child with this belief to go away? What do they decide about themselves? Possibly, “I must not be important; I don’t belong here”.

Empowered Parenting is about helping parents realize that they have powerful options in helping children learn how to achieve their goal in a more positive way.

Of course, it’s natural that children want your attention… to show you what they accomplish (“Look at this!”) or when they need a playmate. You’ve seen your child do super-cute things to get attention, like when they make a silly face or do one of their funny quirks that make you laugh. You probably don’t consider those approaches to getting attention as mis-behavior. But, things go too far when their requests seem constant or the timing of the demand to “Look Mom!” is at odds with cooking, the bathroom, a meeting or a phone call.

Working in the classrooms, Kristina often sees students with attention-seeking behaviors. They're keeping their teacher busy with them by continually requesting help, even though they are capable of doing the work on their own. They're (disrupting class) causing mischief in class to obtain the attention of the teacher, even if it's the negative attention of the teacher correcting their behavior. The teacher becomes exasperated having to constantly redirect students who are seeking undue attention.

Dreikurs wrote, if taking a charming approach to getting attention fails, a child will switch to more disturbing methods. After all, what is a tantrum but a more extreme, disturbing method of getting attention! As the saying goes, negative attention is better than no attention at all.

So, what is a parent to do if a child is seeking undue attention? One of the most effective means is arranging to spend special time, one-on-one, with the child. Another is to reward the behavior you want to see by devoting more time and attention to the child in moments when they are in a good frame of mind and cooperative. These approaches help the child develop a sense of significance and to learn that, when they are in a good mode and cooperative, they have an increased sense of belonging in their family.

You can also try what is called ‘re-directing’ by involving them in something useful so they gain attention for contributing in a useful way. Hey, let’s do this [useful thing] together! When done, you can recognize/acknowledge their accomplishment. A high-five, for instance, to celebrate their contribution.

Another option is to reassure and say what you will do. For instance, you might try, “I love/care about you AND I will look at what you want to show me at 2:15” (in 20 minutes).

If you find yourself thinking “I don’t have faith that you are capable of dealing with disappointment” or “I feel guilty if you are not happy”, those are other signals/indicators that attention is at play.

In Dreikurs’ words, when we yield to their undue demands for attention, we reinforce the self-concept that children have that they are only important when they have our attention, and increase their conviction that this method for getting attention will serve to gain the sense of belonging which they desire.

Since every action a child takes has a purpose, and if a child is vying for too much attention at inappropriate times, then with an understanding of the purpose behind our children’s behavior, rather than labeling it as MIS-behavior, we can see their behavior as communicating to us. We can see that what they are trying to achieve is a feeling of belonging and significance. We can then choose, as parents, to help them achieve their goal in a more positive way, with behavior that we want to see.

Ken Becker

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