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'She’s just doing that for attention'

Great thinkers and writers often skillfully use play-on-words to communicate and drive home their philosophy and ideas. We love to remember these examples when faced with negativity:

“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” - Winston Churchill

“We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.” - Maya Angelou

In a recent article, Tamar Jacobson, a nationally-known early childhood development and education consultant, uses a similar device to drive home an important point about child behavior. In it, Dr. Jacobson rightfully challenges the notion that a child’s need and desire for attention is negative. She replaces the need for ‘attention’ with a need for ‘relationship.’

“If we know anything about child development, it is that very young children actually actively need our attention. As I wrote in my book: ‘Brain development research shows us that in order to feel attached and worthwhile, children need our love, touch, and full-on attention to survive. They could die without it – indeed, some do.'" – A child’s bad behavior isn’t ‘attention-seeking.’ She’s seeking a relationship, Tamar Jacobson, NBC News, June 9, 2019.

It is not uncommon to hear phrases like ‘she’s just doing that for attention, just ignore her’ or ‘he just needs so much attention’. But replace ‘attention’ with words like relationship, support, connection, help, or care (all synonyms for attention), you gain a whole new perspective on a child’s behavior.

A parent’s unconditional love is the foundation of their child’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth. To a child, their parents are everything. They crave their parents’ positive attention even more than they crave candy or a toy – it makes them feel happy and good inside, and they can’t get enough of it. So can we really fault our children when all they want is a caring or loving response from us?

As Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper describe in their book, Smart Love, “Starting sometime around your child’s first birthday, your child’s involvement with you will begin to deepen significantly. Increasingly, he makes clear that he cannot get enough of you. He wants to show you every speck of dust he lifts carefully from the floor, have you comment admiringly on each repetition of a hundred similar physical feats, and have you read to him every book on his bookshelf. This passionate wish for direct involvement with you is actually a sign of his maturity. Your child now recognizes the superiority of the happiness he feels when you are caring for him.”*

For too long, approaches designed to help children grow into independent adults have been prescribed to parents but instead of nurturing happy and independent adults, these approaches disrupt the relationship between parents and their children and in turn can damage a child’s self-esteem. This is when we tend to see children ‘act-out’ or communicate their unhappy feelings through their behavior. And because it has been explained to us for decades that this behavior is 'bad', parents feel compelled to respond in ways that do not solve the problem or satisfy the needs of their child. When parents respond without patience or compassion, the 'bad' behavior continues and the relationship suffers.

When a child is demonstrating immature (yet developmentally appropriate) behavior, how should parents respond? After all, parents cannot allow toddlers to juggle knives, nor can they allow teenagers to skip school. And parents will always have personal desires and needs of their own, such as going to work, spending time with their spouse or significant other, or other hobbies. Barring important commitments, try to be available when your child is needing your attention and if you can’t at that moment, let your child know. It may sound something like:

“I’ll be there as soon as I get the dinner in the oven.”

Being able to communicate to your child - if you could, you would - is the point.

The more you are able to respond in the moment, the more patience your child will have the next time when they have to wait for you. Of course, this is easy when children are happy. The challenging part is when our children are struggling with sad, angry, or frustrated emotions and need to express them. When these instances arise, we suggest using ‘loving regulation’ to manage your child’s out of control behavior.

As the Piepers define it, “loving regulation effectively contains children’s out-of-control behaviors without coercing children with rewards or adding any type of unpleasantness. Loving regulation never interrupts children’s experience of being loved, admired, and respected by their parents, and it is the only way to regulate children’s immature behavior without diminishing their primary happiness. All disciplinary measures, including time-outs, disapproval, and restrictions and other punishments, are incompatible with loving regulation and are counterproductive.”*

In other words, when your child is expressing sad feelings, try to put your own emotions and reactions aside, and gently offer your attention. How parents respond when their child is struggling is how children will handle stress and sad emotions throughout their own life. These interactions create the default template that children use when handling difficult emotions in the future. If parents are impatient, children may be impatient with themselves during a test at school, or with peers when they don’t want to play the same game, or with their siblings at home. Instead, try to save your own feelings and frustration around parenting for your spouse or an adult friend who is better able to understand and empathize with your challenges.

And when the tantrums or out-of-control behavior subsides (and with patience and compassion, they will), reconnect with your child. Help them know how much they mean to you. “Offer generous amounts of time and positive attention, and you will help build confidence and her belief in your positive regard for her. This inner well-being will, in turn, make her less desperate for your constant attention.”**

Smart Love Sources

*Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011.

**Smart Love Solutions for School-Age Children and Teens, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, Smart Love Family Services, 2012




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