“I am very frustrated with my son because he is not listening! I ask him to do something and he will do the complete opposite. I feel bad for yelling and getting upset at him but I don’t know what else to do. It is almost like he doesn’t care. The other day, I was busy making dinner and he asked me for a snack. Obviously, I said no because it was too close to dinner. Five minutes later, I turn around and he is sitting in front of me eating a bowl of chips! I got so upset, I don’t know why he is acting like this”
Scenarios such as the one above happen in almost every home. Eventually, there comes a time when kids start to engage in behaviors that parents deem inappropriate or negative and the battle of wills begins. Unfortunately, more often than not, parents lose most of these battles unknowingly.
When parents ask me “how do I get my kid to behave?” I share that the first step we must take in that journey is to figure out the reason why their children are misbehaving in the first place. Parents need to discover what is fueling the fire… ask yourselves questions such as “what are they getting out of acting like this? Is their behavior impacted by a change in my behavior? Are they trying to get attention, escape, access to something, stimulation? Are there any patterns in their behavior?”
In my work, 80% of the time parents and I come to the conclusion that their child is trying to get attention. It makes sense; between technology, chores, homework, etc kids don’t always get to have quality time with their parents. I recently read an article that stated that on average, children get about 7 minutes of uninterrupted parental interaction/attention per day. 7 minutes is practically nothing; think of how long it takes you to have a meaningful interaction with another person… I bet it is more than 7 minutes. Kids need positive interactions not only to learn but also to ensure their emotional and mental health.
Kids are always trying to get attention; it is developmentally appropriate. However, there are positive ways and negative ways to get attention. A positive way would be having your child put on a music show or a play with their friends or toys. We all remember having held a group of adults hostage as we performed on our imaginary stage. Negative attention seeking occurs when your child engages in a behavior that is meant to capture your attention in a negative way. Below are some signs of negative attention seeking behaviors:
- Your child looks directly at you while engaging in the behavior.
- He/she tries to get your attention before doing something they know is wrong.
- They will engage in the same behavior several times until they get your attention.
- They talk about the negative behaviors while they engage in it (e.g., look mom, I am tasting the icing mom).
- They report a negative behavior that you may not have seen (e.g., I just put your keys in the trash).
- They engage you in conversations around the negative behavior (e.g., Do I get a star for painting the wall?).
Using these signs and the scenario above, it appears that with the yelling, eye contact, and attention mom was giving her child was actually fueling the fire she was trying to extinguish. When I tell parents that they have been actually contributing to the negative behavior most of them look at me with a confused and blank stare. I do not blame them; after all how else are you supposed to discipline or redirect your child if you can’t talk, look, or give them attention?
For parents, the question then becomes “what do I do now?” not to worry; just like children have learned to get attention negatively we can reinforce them to get attention in positive ways.
Build them up
- Give them frequent and meaningful affirmations; just like we adults like to be recognized for a good job, children thrive when their hard work is acknowledged.
- Focus on the positive rather than the negative. I recommend parents use the sandwich technique; positive-negative-positive. For example; if your child has made the effort to clean their room, praise them for being responsible and having done a good job. After that, if there is anything they missed, note it lightly and help them correct it; such as “I see folding shirts is something you are still working on, let’s do it together.” Then finish with another positive comment.
- 1:4 ratio of negative to positive comments.
Give them your time
- Be intentional about your time; make sure your child is aware this time is solely for them and that they have all your attention. Be mindful of not using your phone.
- Make the time fun and positive; I know there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything we have to do, but try not to multitask quality time with other times such as homework, chores, etc.
Give them their time
- There is a time to interact and be the center of attention and there are times to be independent. As much as kids want your attention, at some point they will need to have their own time; think of a tank filled with gas at some point there is no more room left. Kids need their space as well; take your cues from them.
After I share my spiel with parents and we come up with an action plan, most parents have a moment of hesitation where they want to know what plan B is. In case all else fails and their kid begins to engage in a negative attention seeking behavior, what can they do?
Plan B involves 3 simple strategies; REMEMBER, RESPOND, AND REMOVE
REMEMBER why they are acting this way (to get attention) in order to determine how to respond; try not to add fuel to the fire.
RESPOND by calmly letting your child know that behavior is inappropriate and remind them of behavioral expectations- model for them
REMOVE the child from the situation before it escalates. Express to them that taking time off to calm down is a good thing to do.
Alejandra is a Registered Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and Professional Clinical Counselor (AMF #105469, APC# 4917). She graduated from Brandman University with a Masters in Psychology; she also holds a Bachelors in Psychology and Criminal Justice from California State University, San Bernardino. Currently, she works for a non-profit organization that provides mental health services to schools in southern California. In addition, she also works for a private practice where she specializes in working with children, youth, and families suffering from a variety of issues such as academic performance, learning disabilities, depression, anxiety, bipolar, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and grief.
Alejandra is passionate about creating a platform where individuals can be connected with quality mental health services and resources. Alejandra was raised in Mexico City and comes from a family of Argentinean immigrants. In her work, she strives to highlight the intersection between culture and mental health perceptions. Her personal interests include cooking, spending time with her family, going to Disneyland, and collecting vintage pieces. She also enjoys reading; some of her favorite books include Love’s Executioner by Irving D. Yalom, The Lucifer Effect by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, Sherlock Holmes, Mating in Captivity by Ester Perel, and The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani.