The preschooler I observed in the grocery store yesterday was doing everything she could to get her mom’s attention. She whined. She squirmed in her seat in the cart. She took items off the shelf. She threw the bread on the floor. Her mom asked her to please stop whining, replaced the pilfered items, picked up the bread and pleaded with her daughter to please, please be good and she would get some candy when they left. As her mother turned to figure out which meat to buy, her daughter gave her a kick. Mom looked around and sighed. She grabbed a package of hamburger and made a dash for the checkout line. What’s going on?

Before deciding a child is a discipline problem, it’s very important to rule out medical issues. I’ll never forget a particularly squirmy and whiny toddler who had developed a gross habit of picking at his bum and smearing his poop on the floor. His mom was at her wit’s end. Sensing something was physically amiss, I referred her back to her pediatrician. The result? A diagnosis of a serious case of pinworms. No wonder the kid was out of control!

Barring medical issues, though, and before considering psychiatric ones (such as ADHD), let’s consider why any child would be so emotionally needy that she constantly makes bids for extra attention, even at the expense of adult disapproval and negative consequences.

One of my teachers, Rudolf Dreikurs, used to say that children need attention like a plant needs sun and water. Mother Nature does her best to make sure both plants and our little ones get what they need. Little children are designed to get adult attention. Watch what happens when adults meet the new baby in the family. His little face and cute little fingers and toes make adults fuss over him and even compete to hold him. His cries bring his mother running. His little coos and smiles keep her engaged.

By trial and error, growing children figure out what makes adults continue to give them attention and what drives them away. Since they are dependent on us, they do everything they can to get the love and nurturance they need. Usually their early experience shows them that when they are well-behaved, when they learn new skills, and when they are happy, they pull adults closer. When the adults react with interest, affection and approval, the children strive to please, to copy the big people, to grow in their social and practical skills, and to find a positive place in their family.

But when children consistently can’t get a response, they get desperate. Abandonment threatens a child’s emotional and physical survival. Lacking enough positive interaction, a child will develop negative tactics to re-engage the adults. Being scolded, nagged, reminded, and punished is far better than being ignored. By finding ways to be personally addressed by an exasperated or angry adult, the child makes sure that at least he isn’t forgotten.

Few parents set out to deprive their children of enough parental contact. But many parents are overscheduled, working too hard, or in distress themselves. Parents who weren’t parented well when they were young may not fully appreciate how much their children need their time and attention. And sometimes it’s a matter of temperament. Some children just need more interaction than others. This can be especially challenging to a parent who by nature doesn’t need as much connection as their child does.

Even though they’re doing the best they can, parents who are overwhelmed by the job may inadvertently create a situation where the kids have no choice but to misbehave to ensure a connection. When it’s a matter of mismatched temperaments that causes the distance, the child’s desperate attempts to engage can make the relationship even more difficult. Spilling the milk, fighting with a sibling, or pitching a tantrum may not get love and snuggles but these antics certainly get the adults involved.

What To Do About an Attention-Seeking Child

Children who are attention-seeking have a legitimate need. It’s our job to teach them how to get it in a legitimate way.

The first question to ask ourselves is whether the child has a point. Is he showing us by his behavior that we’re not involved enough? It’s easy to get so caught up with work, chores, activities, and responsibilities that we don’t spend enough time specifically interacting with our children. A shocking statistic is that the average American child only gets 3.5 minutes a day of uninterrupted individual attention from her parents! When that’s the case, the child doesn’t need discipline so much as the parents need to reorder priorities.

Parents who were themselves neglected, who are temperamentally more distant, or who are struggling with mental illness need to work to overcome their own issues for the sake of their children’s psychological welfare. Little kids need to be cuddled, played with, talked to, read to, and tucked in at night to be emotionally secure and strong. Big kids need their folks to share activities and meaningful conversations, to attend their events, and, yes, to give them hugs and pats on the back.

When children are getting plenty of parental juice but are still misbehaving, they have somehow misunderstood what they need to do to engage others. Then some remedial work needs to be done. It comes down to these not-so-easy steps:

1. Catch them being good. Give attention for appropriate behavior. Look for opportunities to make a positive comment, to pat a child on the shoulder, to share an activity, and to have a conversation. Fill up the attention hole with good stuff as many times a day as you can. Surely we can all do better than that 3.5 minute daily average!

2. Ignore the misbehavior but not the child. When the child misbehaves, resist the temptation to lecture, nag, scold, yell, or punish. Negative reactions will only keep the negative interaction going. Instead, simply quietly send her to timeout (no more than one minute per year of age). The less talking about the misbehavior, the better. When the time’s up, invite her to come back to join the family. Give her reassurance that you know she can behave now. Then find a way to engage with her positively for at least a few minutes before moving on. The same principle holds for older kids. If they won’t take a timeout, you can. Withdraw, take a breath, and make a rational decision about appropriate consequences. Institute the consequence without drama and re-engage positively. (see here).

3. Be consistent. It’s the only way children know we mean what we say.

4. Repeat. Repeat until the child gets it. Repeat whenever misbehavior is more than a momentary lapse. Repeat more than you think should be necessary. Do it until it becomes a pattern of interaction in your family’s life.

It’s normal to need attention from others. In fact, it’s a fundamental human need. Kids who are secure in the knowledge that the adults in their lives are interested in them don’t need to act up — at least most of the time. (Everyone can have an off-day now and then.) By filling them up with love and attention and by consistently redirecting negative behaviors, we can help our children learn how to get and give the positive attention that is fundamental to healthy relationships. Not surprisingly, when we parents are so positively connected to our children, we benefit too.