How to manage attention seeking behaviours

Jan 06, 2021

Is it really necessary for mums to resemble Mary Poppins all the time??

I feel like everywhere you turn on social media there is post about positive parenting (or something similar) but doesn’t this put pressure on mums to be perfectly happy, creative, enthusiastic, bubbly and patient with their child ALL of the time??

The thing is, sometimes you’re going to need to turn that tap off…and it’s for the benefit of your child.

Imagine your attention to your child is like running water from a tap. When your child chooses to engage in behaviours that you would like to see more of (e.g. playing independently, sharing with a sibling, tidying toys etc) you can turn the tap on and keep the attention flowing.

However, when your child chooses to engage in inappropriate behaviours – the ones that you would like to see less of – you want to turn the tap off.

If you read my previous blogs you’ll know that as behaviour analysts we are trained to identify the function of children’s problems behaviours; that is the purpose or reason the child is engaging in the behaviour.

If your child is engaging in inappropriate behaviour and looking at you for a reaction – you know the sort of classic attention seeking behaviours – then this would be the time you need to turn that tap off, even if they might have pressed your buttons and you want to react…

Our reactions to our child’s behaviour serves as consequences which in turn mould our children’s behaviour over time. Desirable consequence strengthen behaviour and undesirable consequences weaken behaviour.

Sometimes parents choose a consequence that stops the child’s problematic behaviour in the moment but makes it worse in the long run. This is because the consequence inadvertently reinforces the child’s inappropriate behaviour.

Stick with me here and let’s look at an example. A child might start yelling when his mum tells him it’s time to take a bath. The mother may attempt to have the child follow through on this plan but the child continues to protest and so the mother backs off and says the child can take a bath tomorrow. The child is now quiet, the yelling has stopped and the mother is no longer fighting with her child.  Clearly this makes sense in the moment but the child has just learned that if he struggles hard and long enough he’ll get out of having to take a bath – in other words he escapes the demand.

Take home point = children (just like adults!) will behave in ways that work for them. If throwing a tantrum gets a child out of a demand he’ll learn that tantrums work.

But back to attention seeking behaviours. Planned ignoring is often used as a type of consequence to address behaviours that are attention seeking. It’s a powerful but difficult consequence to apply. When you identify a behaviour that is maintained by attention you can do the following;
• Avoid eye contact
• Avoid touching your child – walk away if necessary (as long as you know they’re safe!)
• Poker face – don’t react
• Don’t talk to the child or respond to his request/demand in any way
• Make sure that your ignoring is obvious, abrupt and exaggerated

I’m not saying this is easy to do and it actually took me a long time to get the hang of this as a professional (I find it hard again now that I’m a parent myself) however, the strategy should work for behaviours that are maintained by receiving attention.

Remember though, planned ignoring is a reaction/consequence strategy and we always tackle problem behaviours proactively too. If your child is continuously engaging in problem behaviour to get your attention how can you provide attention to them for more appropriate behaviours?

For example, when you see them sitting and playing quietly make sure you provide lots of attention for this positive behaviour that you want to see more of.
Fill their bucket by scheduling in time to spend with them doing things they enjoy on a regular basis so that the need for them to engage in problem behaviour to get your attention is already fulfilled and therefore unnecessary.

You’ve got this…take a deep breath and remember you’re helping your child in the long term…no quick fixes I’m afraid.

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