If you feel like your child is caught in a cycle of negative or annoying behavior, and it’s affecting the mood in the house and your stress level, it’s possible that your child is actually just seeking more attention from you.
When toddlers or preschoolers “misbehave,” it usually means they need something but they don’t know how to communicate that. And more often than not, that “something” that they need is simply connection—to feel truly seen and heard.
Many of these attention-seeking behaviors might be hard to catch, because they often point you in another direction—such as wondering where they learned the troubling behavior from, or making you feel defensive, or giving you the idea that you need to assert more control over the situation.
But I give my kid plenty of attention, some parents might think. Is it the type of attention that helps them thrive, though? Oftentimes, parents get stuck in a pattern of nagging or correcting their child instead of truly connecting with them. And when you give a lot of negative attention in response to kids’ annoying behaviors, they’ll learn that whatever they were doing was, in fact, an effective way to get your attention—so they’ll probably try it again.
Whether it’s time restrictions or stress (or, as in most cases, a combination of both) that’s keeping you from giving your child enough positive attention, there are some simple changes and mindset shifts you can make to get into a more positive, confidence-boosting cycle for both of you.
Here are some of the hidden signs that your kid might need more positive attention, with suggestions for how to turn things around. There are 12 problems with 12 proactive solutions listed below, but feel free to mix and match approaches according to your family’s specific needs, strengths, and capacity.
Acting aggressively or throwing things
Sometimes kids will act out physically in ways they know are surprising, unsafe, or just plain mean, because it’s guaranteed to make you stop what you’re doing and pay attention to them in that moment.
Brainstorm more constructive ways for them to use their energy while getting to spend time with you. Schedule some active one-on-one time with them (and each sibling, separately), even if it’s just for 10 minutes. Go for a walk together, have an all-out dance party, or play a game with a ball and a target. Make sure they’re aware that you’re having Special Time together and that it’s important to you. Turn off your phone and other distractions, and just focus on bonding and playing.
Needing you in the middle of the night
If your child tends to suddenly have lots of requests—or silly energy—when they’re supposed to be sleeping, they could be acting this way because they just want to see more of you, and they know you’re available at that time.
Try to preempt the nighttime clinginess by offering extra cuddles, with an extra story or song, before bedtime even begins. If you’re busy cleaning up after dinner time, make it a bonding activity by listening to music together, and letting them be a helper or “inspector.”
Interrupting you on purpose
Kids who interrupt a lot might just have a desire to be truly heard more often. While it is important to teach kids to be patient when someone else is in the middle of a sentence or a phone call, sometimes it’s also best to save more involved adult conversations for after the kids go to bed.
Think of ways to build in more kid-friendly discussion time. When you’re on the way to pick up the kids from school, for example, think of conversation fodder that would be engaging for the whole family—these Questions 4 Kids make great prompts.
Asking for help when they don’t need it
Many kids will seem to regress, pretending not to know how to get dressed, or how to write their name, when they’ve already been doing that exact thing independently for a few weeks, months, or years.
Counteract this attention-seeking behavior by making an effort to give specific praise throughout the day: “I noticed you put your shoes and coat away without me asking. Now that’s what I call responsible!” or “It’s great to see you practicing so many letters now. Do you remember when you only knew one letter?”
Getting ready very slowly
Some kids will stretch out the morning routine because they know it’s their last chance to get one-on-one time with you—even though the dawdling just makes you more stressed and more likely to snap at them.
Next time, make it a game where you get dressed together and see if you can do everything at exactly the same time. That way you can begin to share some laughs during the morning routine instead of dreading that time of day.
Being extra picky at mealtime
If your child seems to be set on making dinner time as difficult as possible, have you considered that maybe they’re complaining and drawing things out to get more attention from you?
To solve this problem, involve kids in prepping and serving food or setting the table with you, so that instead of ignoring them during that busy pre-meal time, you’re building in opportunities to bond and to thank them sincerely for their help. They’ll also feel more ownership over the meal, which can help make the eating part go more smoothly so you can focus on other things like conversations about your day.
Drawing out bedtime
Bedtime routines can be a stress trigger for adults and kids alike, creating a negative cycle of behavior where kids resist following directions, and everyone gets more and more exhausted.
Shift your focus to make the bedtime routine more positive and comforting: put aside your anxieties about what time it is and what you have to get done that evening, and be fully present. Sing songs about toothbrushing to keep things moving, or pretend to be a funny character who’s helping them put pajamas on. Remind yourself to enjoy those moments together, so that it becomes a less frustrating time of day for all of you.
Having public tantrums
Think about it: When kids have a meltdown in a public place, it successfully shuts down whatever else you might have been focused on—whether it was buying the right brand of diapers or listening to your friend’s story.
To help prevent this from happening, give kids an active role when you’re out. Let them start a timer and help you complete your drug store run within 10 minutes, give them a choice in what route you take, or have them count the number of dogs they see so that they can be involved in the conversation with your dog-loving friend. That way, you’ll show that you’re happy to be spending time with them rather than just dragging them along while you get adult tasks done.
Exaggerating or making up what happened
Kids who tell too many tall tales might just be looking for a reaction, or a conversation partner. Unfortunately, it can make you more worried about their lying than wanting to truly listen.
Try a proactive approach: Reminisce frequently about true memories of great times you had together, and look at family photos together. Also carve out some time for imaginative play or storytelling: Make up elaborate songs or stories together while you’re in the car or during bath time, for example.
Crying or whining a lot
If you’re wondering why your child is so frequently upset or complaining, it could be that they’ve found it’s an effective way to get you to focus on them.
Try getting their input early in the day, to show that you value their opinions and needs. For example, ask them which color shirt you should wear to work, and whether they want a kiss on the forehead or the cheek. And be sure to take their answers seriously!
Saying unkind things
Although a kid saying “I hate you” when they want to connect with you seems counterintuitive, it could actually work to get your attention. It’s best to minimize your reaction to any mean comments directed at you, because otherwise they’ll want to repeat this technique.
Instead, be sure to start each day with kind words and a positive, respectful tone. Look for different ways to show your love, like leaving a cute note or drawing in their lunch box, or having cuddle time be the absolute first priority after school or work.
Overreacting to everything
Whether they’re wailing loudly about a tiny invisible injury or acting like the world is ending because their zipper is stuck, your child might be acting dramatically so that you’ll come to comfort and reassure them.
Try to preempt this behavior by showing that you care about the important things. Ask questions about what they like to play with their friends at school; what they’re looking forward to or are nervous about before you go somewhere new; their favorite part of the day and their hardest part of the day. Share “secrets” about your day too.
Once you decode your child’s negative behavior and realize it may just be a bid for your attention, it’s much easier to be empathetic and patient. Next time your little one starts showing one of these signs, see if a little attention works better than discipline for getting everyone’s day back on track.