How to Deal With Attention-Seeking Behaviour in Toddlers

Is your toddler exhibiting behaviour which seeks to grab your attention? Here are some tips on how to cope with such behaviour in your child.

By Aparna Samuel Balasundaram

How to Deal With Attention-Seeking Behaviour in Toddlers

Just as a seed needs sunshine and water to grow, your toddler too needs your attention and love for him to grow and develop. But too much of a good thing can be bad, right? If you think about it, too much sunshine and water don’t do the plant any good! Similarly, if you’re paying excessive attention to your child and are constantly at her beck and call, you are actually doing her a disservice. You are sending her the message that she is entitled to anything she wants, that she is the centre of the universe and whatever she says or feels is right and others are wrong. This turns her into a self-centred, selfish individual and her thinking patterns are governed by the belief, ‘I am special; you are not!’

You will find that the skills of empathy, sharing and teamwork are severely lacking in such children. By now, you must be wondering if your child falls into this category and has you wrapped around his little finger through his attention-seeking behaviour. Well, look at the statements here and tick all that apply to you:

  • Does your child get into constant power struggles with you over food, homework and even silly things, just to make her point?
  • Does your child cry, whine or get clingy about many things because he knows you will stop whatever you are doing and run to comfort him?
  • Does your child throw temper tantrums, get sulky, withdraw or get angry when she does not have her way?
  • Does your child always ask for your help even though she can do it herself? And, do you end up doing it?
  • Does your child rule the house with his drama? Do you have to constantly put his needs first (even over those of your other children?) just to maintain the peace at home?

If you have ticked even ONE of the above questions, you have a child who is indulging in negative attention-seeking behaviour! When your young child indulges in this kind of behaviour, she is actually sending you a message – she wants your attention. However, what is important is how you respond. Many of us, because we love our children so much, respond by giving in to our parental instincts and indulge and pamper them.

Here is what you should do instead:

Reinforce the positive

Since your toddler is looking for attention and has got into a pattern of getting it in negative ways, you have to switch that around. The next time he does something good (like putting away his toys, sharing with his friend or following the home rules) praise him for it. Make it a point to notice the positive things he does, and reinforce them by using encouraging words or body language (like a pat on the back, a smile or giving a ‘thumbs-up’).

Ignore the negative

Simultaneously, start ignoring the temper tantrums and the whiny behaviour. This means, completely ignoring such behaviour. Your body language should reflect that too. I know it’s really hard to not give in to old patterns and that it’s easier to succumb to your child’s demands to keep her from screaming or sulking; but, don’t do that. Be warned. Your toddler will initially escalate her negative behaviour, to push you over the edge. Grit your teeth and hang in there! You may have to be firm and draw the line on your toddler’s behaviour three to four times. But, she will eventually get the message that this no longer works with you, and that she had better adjust to the new reality! And, it’s important that both Mom and Dad are on the same page. Don’t play ‘good cop, bad cop’ here, as that will send her a mixed message. It will backfire, leaving her more confused. Of course, the caveat here is – ensure that your child is not in genuine need of something and is safe.

Have family enrichment rituals

Most young children thrive on routine. One way to reduce the need for constant attention is to set up a routine for spending dedicated time with your child. He will then know he can count on that and that he will have your complete attention for that time (which will serve to reduce his need to seek you out constantly). These family rituals could be playing in the park, riding a cycle, doing arts and craft activities, piling up building blocks or even playing a video game together!

Create an empathy moment

Many of our children are growing up in nuclear families in urban areas where the scope to meet others in a community-like setting is reduced. We are becoming more self-focussed and the goal is ‘meeting our own needs’ because we deserve the best. While that is good, it is crucial that you teach your child the skill of sharing and empathy. This will make her understand that ‘yes, she might be special, but then so are others’!

Renowned educationist Sunitha Nambiar, Chief Operating Officer of Kunskapsskolan, India, shared tips and techniques that they use in school to address attention-seeking behaviour.

It is important to set clear expectations. Children should know what counts as acceptable classroom behaviours and the consequences of not meeting them. Let them know what to do, rather than just what not to do. Children learn that everyone in the classroom is subject to the same rules. So, all classrooms have ‘rules’ which are jointly created by the teacher and the students. This collective ownership of the classroom rules is crucial to increase the chances of these rules being followed.
All children know they can depend on their teachers for guidance and attention. This reduces their need to engage in negative attention-seeking behaviours. Teachers are also consistent in their responses. Similarly, Mom and Dad need to be on the same page and be consistent in their responses. This way, the child learns that he cannot manipulate the situation to his benefit!
We need to have constant conversations with our children. We need to find out what their feelings are. The more they know that they are heard and we will interact with them, the less they tend to ‘act’ out to demand attention. This also makes children understand that they get attention for being well-behaved. The same environment should be replicated at home, where children know that Mom and Dad take the time to ‘get’ them.

If your child does exhibit negative attention-seeking behaviour, don’t punish him. Don’t target your child – target his behaviour. He needs to know that Mom and Dad always love him, but that his behaviour is unacceptable.

Parents, you can do this! The good news is, once you start, it will only get easier. It may take time and your patience will be tested (get your ear plugs out!). But this is definitely not Mission Impossible!

As always, Happy Parenting!

Aparna Balasundaram is the co-founder of life skills expert that enables parents to raise happy, confident and successful children. www.lifeskillsexpert.com