What To Do About Attention-Seeking Kids
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.