Do you have a kid who is always seeking attention? They are pulling on you, saying “Mommy, mommy, watch me!” Or maybe they try to one up anyone just to make themselves look bigger or better than others. Maybe they’ll even make things up to do that?
I’ve been working with a few parents lately who are at their wits end with this annoying, attention seeking behavior. No matter how much attention they give that child, the child wants more and more and more. Sometimes it’s bad enough that other siblings are getting annoyed at how the offending child just keeps butting in and trying to take over, to use up all the air in the room.
What’s up with all that? My first guess is that the need for attention is real. They are seeking love, support and care.
Three possible contributing factors might be:
- They suffer from low self-esteem, so they make up wild stories or try to out-do others around them to show off and get attention. One friend’s son after hearing his older sister saw a bird out the window immediately added that he saw two birds
- They lack a sense of belonging; they don’t know how to fit in so they try different behaviors that they think might work – they might get really loud or physical like poking their friends with sticks or maybe showing off their Pokémon cards to other kids thinking that’ll make them cool
- Lastly, sometimes they’re just immature and they don’t know when they’ve crossed a boundary of inappropriate behavior. I just did a podcast about complex kids who have ADHD, Asperger’s and other issues and learned that kids with those issues are often 3-5 years behind in terms of maturity which throws off our parental expectations when we see them interacting with other kids in immature ways.
When our kids are annoying, we often want to walk the other way, to not deal with the behavior. We let them keep interrupting, butting into our conversations, doing one-up-manship time and again. However, if you ignore the behaviors and needs, it can backfire leading to negative behaviors instead and not just getting louder or their stories getting more outrageous but where they start hitting or outright lying or being verbally abusive to you or their friends. Yikes! That is not at all what we want but… you’re exhausted and stressed… how do you take steps to deal with this everyday issue in your house?
What to do:
- Notice them!
- Remain calm – sometimes the behaviors hit our hot buttons because they are loud and obnoxious. We need to not react negatively. Reframe this as an opportunity to learn new behaviors. I know it’s not easy but you really need to move toward this being something you both have the opportunity to learn from – it’s part of promoting a growth mindset.
- Provide them with a scheduled fixed amount of time just for them, the longer and more regular, the better. This would be what I call “special time” where the child gets to determine the activity, they do with you whether its playing Legos or Barbies or run through sprinklers or go to the park. I’d be specific about the when and where so that they can count on the time with you. For one family the mom had 15 minutes after school for each of her sons. For another it was once a month an afternoon with just dad or just mom, they rotated and called the events “dates”. Statistics say that the average American parent spends 7 minutes a week with their children. Yikes! Do better than average!
- Use empathy If they beg for attention; “I know you’d really like some time with mommy right now. It’s hard to wait, isn’t’ it? I can’t wait till Saturday when we can play together.”
- Use praise for any improvements. This would be for incremental progress. “Wow, I noticed you allowed your sister to talk first at dinner tonight.” Or, “Thanks for using your inside voice. I could tell you were really trying.”
- Provide the child with special responsibilities and leadership to build self-confidence. Maybe let them pick out what you have for dinner every Monday night. Maybe they are responsible for setting up an event for your family for Friday Night Game night. They pick out the game, set up the pieces, pick out the snacks. One mom who cooks rice every night let her 9-year-old own making the rice each day. He felt so impowered!
- This one is SUPER crucial: Take time to talk about what attention is appropriate, use role-play or drama to help them understand how other people might react. If they were one-upping their sister in our bird example before you need to, after the incident is over, talk about ideas of what else they could have said. Brainstorm with them after talking to them about how it might make them feel if someone did that to them. A good way of thinking about this would be:
- Show empathy
- Verbalize what occurred
- Help your child come up with a more productive or effective way to get their needs met.
- Lastly, be patient, unlearning the attention seeking will take time!
Here’s a final idea to help make this process a bit more fun for everyone involved. Set up a non-verbal queue! If your child is always dominating the conversation and needs to learn to let others have a turn, have a brief Family Meeting with just you and them to brainstorm some signals you can use when the behavior is happening. You need to think of the signal together so that your child feels a part of the process, don’t’ just decide it for them, make this brainstorming fun. Maybe you decide to tug on your ear, maybe it’s a little stuffed animal (or a set of them) that sits on the table that you pass to them when you’d like them to let others talk. It should be something special and subtle. You might even change the signal to keep things fresh each week.
One mom whose son had a problem with getting too rambunctious at their cousin’s house brainstormed ahead of an upcoming visit. They chose a special bear that they’d put in her son’s backpack. If he started getting too ramped up, she could just lovingly give him the bear. She didn’t need to say anything. It worked wonders! They get to pick which signal they take each time they go but, you know what, things are getting so that they don’t need it. It’s been helping him see when things are getting out of control all on his own. Yeah mom! Yeah son!