Behavior is communication. If you have a child acting out for attention, what are they trying to say?

When children seek attention, they might not express this need in ways you’d expect. Instead, sometimes they behave as if they’re trying to push you away. This can be a sign that they need your support more than ever.

Understanding the root of your child’s attention-seeking behavior can make it easier for you to help them.

Children depend on adults for care and security, so it’s only natural they seek your attention. While good behavior is the goal, sometimes they act out depending on their age and level of development.

There are many reasons for a child’s behavior to escalate, such as an issue with their environment or past. Or they could have a brain-based difference affecting their behavior.

Examples include:

What if your behaviors are causing your child to act out?

Research from 2017 suggests that parents’ use of technology can interrupt their interactions with their children. These interruptions are connected to children’s behavioral issues.

Technology is so weaved into many aspects of life that it’s inevitable children will see their parents using devices. You could skip social media for a day, but you still might need to read email or do some urgent banking.

You’re not alone. This type of media use is common.

Research published in 2019 suggests that multitasking with technology while parenting may be connected to:

  • less parental responsiveness, attention, and sensitivity
  • increased hostility
  • harmful behaviors in children
  • behavior in children that’s less attentive
  • interruptions to parent-child interactions

If a child must compete with technology for their parent’s attention, acting out might be a strategy that gets results.

Signs of negative attention-seeking behavior

Your child exhibits signs of negative attention-seeking behavior when they:

  • raise their voice
  • interrupt, defy, or ignore adults
  • yell, cry
  • run away
  • push, shove, hit, kick
  • destroy items accidentally or deliberately
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The cause of your child’s behavior can help you decide how to respond. Not all behaviors should be handled the same way.

For example, your child might cry because you’ve said “no” to eating ice cream before dinner. They might also cry the day their best friend moves away. You’d handle these two situations quite differently.

Understanding the cause of your child’s behavior can help you decide how to respond.

Bored, understimulated, or unchallenged

Signs of boredom, like doodles all over a math worksheet, might not be simply a lack of interest. It can be avoidance behavior for work that’s too difficult. Or, they have difficulty with focus because work is too easy.

They could also question the relevance of homework with, “Why do I have to learn this?”

Boredom during play can also be connected to a lack of stimulation or challenge. Maybe your child has outgrown their toys or needs more exercise.

Scheduling time with your child

If your child seems to be yearning for focused connected time with you, consider scheduling “special time” with your child for 10 to 20 minutes each day. Consider allowing them to choose an activity with you, such as reading or playing their favorite game.

You could check in with your child to see whether they need help with their homework. Also, you could find fun ways to incorporate more daily movement.

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Attention-seeking behavior is a symptom of ADHD. It’s often the first clue for parents that their child might have this condition.

You may have heard comments from friends and family members. Or maybe you’ve already had your child assessed and have a diagnosis and treatment plan in place.

In either case, ADHD can cause children to act out. Children with ADHD can experience difficulties with:

  • sustained attention
  • impulse control
  • hyperactivity

All of these are part of attention-seeking behavior.

Knowing that your child has this neurodevelopmental diagnosis can make a difference in how you interpret and respond to them.

A supportive environment for kids with ADHD

Children with ADHD benefit from a supportive environment that includes clear expectations and structure. Parents who remain calm and understanding in the face of meltdowns can help their children get past them faster.

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Sometimes bad behavior is a response to trauma a child has experienced. This could be from something as common as a household divided by a marital breakup.

Other examples of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include:

  • poverty
  • neglect
  • living in the same household as someone with a mental health disorder
  • loss
  • witnessing or experiencing abuse

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 61% of adults from across 25 states have experienced at least one type of ACE.

Research published in 2019 suggests that these experiences can double a person’s risk of having mental health conditions. A history of ACEs can also increase the chance of cardiovascular issues in adults, as shown in an Amsterdam study that included 22,165 participants.

Recognizing ACEs and helping children recover not only supports their mental and physical health but also reduces how often they’ll act out.

Building nurturing relationships

If your child has had ACEs, you can offer positive attention through empathetic listening and prioritize building a nurturing and stable relationship. Regardless of the type of ACE, therapy can also help. Research supports therapy as an important intervention when a child’s ACEs include abuse.

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Mood shifts due to mental health condition

Sometimes children experience big emotions because they have a mood or behavior disorder. Examples include:

  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). In children with ODD, brain differences due to psychological, genetic, and social factors lead to unruly behavior toward authority figures.
  • Bipolar disorder. Both the manic and depressive episodes of bipolar disorder can feature attention-seeking behavior. The child experiencing the changes in mood that come with bipolar disorder may feel out of control and unable to control their behavior.
  • Perfectionism. Having exacting standards isn’t a mental health disorder, but it can be connected to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Perfectionism can also trigger meltdowns in children.
  • Depression. According to 2017 research, depression in children can sometimes present as irritability.

Self-regulation skills

Children with mood and behavior disorders can benefit from learning self-regulation skills. Therapy can teach these skills to children and their parents.

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Attention-seeking behavior is part of childhood. Some young children act out because they haven’t learned calmer ways to communicate their needs. Others have underlying causes for their behavior, but you can help them manage.

One of the most important ways you can meet the needs of your child is to pay attention to your relationship with them. Building a stable and nurturing connection will be their foundation for a healthy life.