Attention Seeking vs Connection Seeking Behavior in Children — Why Understanding Both Matters

Your child isn’t just giving you a hard time, they are going through a hard time.

As a therapist who specializes in working with children, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve looked into the eyes of a frustrated, sad, or angry child and known that there’s something more going on in there.

In this field, we’re taught how to address different issues with specific tools. But sometimes, we have to look at the situation a bit deeper. We have to go beyond the surface, which is the behavior issue(s), and get to the root of what’s going on. 

It comes down to this — how can you help your children navigate these behaviors if you don’t understand them to begin with?

So before we talk about how to help your child, let’s first dig into the differences and overlap between attention seeking and connection seeking behavior.

What Is Attention Seeking Behavior?

Attention seeking is a natural part of how we work and function as human beings. We crave attention, connection, and time with those around us. We want to be seen and heard, and most importantly, feel valued.

Healthy Examples

The phrase — attention seeking — can get a bad rep, but the truth of the matter is, it’s a very healthy behavior too.

Here are a few examples: 

  • Seeing if a friend has time to talk 
  • Reaching out to see if a friend can play
  • Blowing kisses or waving across the room

Needing attention is crucial for closer relationships as well. 

Unhealthy Examples

Sometimes children don’t know how to verbalize what they need. They are constantly developing, and perhaps they don’t know how to just flat out say, “Mom, I could use some one-on-one time with you.” 

This is where we see unhealthy attention-seeking behavior start to show.

Some examples of what this may look like:

  • Temper tantrums
  • Screaming
  • Biting, hitting
  • Interrupting
  • Purposefully disobeying

I hope you’re starting to see that unhealthy attention seekers are typically looking for one thing — your attention. And if they only know how to grab your negative attention, in their eyes, that’s better than getting nothing at all from you.

Connection Is the Answer

Let’s say when you’re visiting with a friend, her 4-year-old comes into the room and keeps interrupting. Next thing you know he’s throwing a fit or getting into things he’s not allowed to on purpose.

Then the mother says, “Just ignore him, he just wants attention.”

We’ve all heard that phrase or maybe even used it before. And while some unhealthy attention-seeking behavior should be ignored in the moment, I want to challenge you to not ignore the issue altogether.

If you take the time to look at the root of the behavior, you could see that it’s stemming from a basic need that’s going unmet.

It’s not easy meeting these needs, I get that.

Life is busy! As a mom myself, I think about how hectic mornings can be just getting everyone fed, making sure their teeth are brushed, and they aren’t wearing pjs to school. Am I slowing down enough to give each of my children a few moments of my undivided attention? I try to.

Let me assure you, it can be easier than you realize, and it doesn’t have to take up too much time either. Those moments just need to be intentional and meaningful. That’s it.

Strategies To Guide Unhealthy Attention Seekers

Parenting is not always easy, it’s a constant cycle of learning, growing, changing, and trying new things when the old ones stop working. The fact that you’re reading this article and trying to understand your child is incredible. 

So the next step is to guide your child and help them to grow in these behaviors. Here are a few ideas to help you along that journey.

One-on-One Time

Giving your child all of your attention during one-on-one time is the key here. I encourage you to actually put away your phone and connect with touch, eye contact, and smiles. 

This time together doesn’t have to be expensive — like going out to dinner or the movies —  or very time-consuming. It can be as simple as taking a walk together or jumping on the trampoline with just you two. Even a board game can give your child the attention they need.

Read Together

Did you know that reading together fosters brain development and bonding? It’s true. It’s one of the most impactful daily habits you can create with your child. Snuggle up, read to them or even take turns reading. Go on imaginary adventures together!

Establish a Nighttime Routine

A strong bedtime routine helps your child feel safe and secure, which in turn reduces bedtime anxiety. If you have a little one who fights bedtime, you’ll be pleasantly surprised how a routine can quickly turn that around. They’ll actually come to associate bedtime as a fulfilling time that meets their needs.

Give Them Praise

It’s so easy to notice the bad behavior first, but try to shift that mentality. Try to acknowledge the good things your child is doing. When they share a toy without being told or when they’re kind or loving to a sibling. Tell them you’re proud of them! The more positive attention they get, the less negative they’ll want.

Bring Them Into Your Day

Sometimes a child falls into unhealthy behaviors because they are lonely. Bring them into your day. It’s easier than you think! Let them help you make dinner, even if they are very young, they can help stir and taste test. I don’t think you’ll get any objections there. Run errands together, make outdoor work fun by stopping to play in the leaves a little. The opportunity is there!

Respond Differently

It’s easy to respond the same way when bad behavior starts to rear its ugly head. The truth is, your child is never going to be good 100% of the time. But how you respond makes a world of difference. Yelling, hitting, or responding in anger only magnifies bad behavior in the long run. Patience and gentleness while still being firm will foster an atmosphere for change. 

Teach Your Child How to Ask For Connection

Your child is learning from you! You are setting the example of how to communicate in a healthy way. As your child grows up, you want them to learn how to ask for what they need. How to identify their feelings and openly discuss them with their family, friends, and one day their spouse. 

They are watching the world for these answers. And you can model the appropriate ways to ask for the attention you’re seeking. Even something as simple as saying to your spouse, “I really missed you today, can we make time later to sit down and catch up?” in front of your kids is teaching them.

Your child needs you! There’s no one else who can make the impact you can. There’s no one else they desire that special connection with more. It’s beautiful, but it can also be challenging.

Sometimes, you need help understanding your child’s specific behaviors and how to balance them. If you’re looking for support, feel free to reach out for a consultation or call 443-821-7207.

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