The following article is an excerpt from What Young Children Need You to Know: How to see them so you know what to do for them, by Bridgett Miller (Look With Love Press, May 4, 2020). Miller works as a teacher, parenting consultant, and remedial therapist.
If you've ever suspected your young child was just doing something to get your attention, you’d be absolutely correct. It’s completely normal and natural for young children to want to be the centre of their loved one’s attention. Newborns arrive instinctively knowing that gurgling and crying attracts people to them. Their crying helps ensure adults will meet their needs during their most vulnerable early months. After all, without our attention and caregiving, they wouldn’t survive.
Infants are typically willing to be held, consoled, and fed by anyone who offers closeness and nourishment. Some new parents feel a little put out by this during their early parenting days. Although we like to think our babies prefer being cared for by us, for many babies, anyone holding the bottle and willing to rock them will do. This naturally begins to change as they develop because they start to form a deeper connection with their consistent caregivers. They learn to trust specific people and this early experience becomes the foundation on which they build their future relationships.
Babies soon learn that in addition to crying, being cute and adorable also draws their parents in, and they delight in the warm connection that follows. With time, they may share some of these endearing behaviours with others because they figure out this garners them more care and attention. This behaviour isn’t premeditated or manipulative; it’s nature’s way of ensuring they are noticed and taken care of by those around them.
As babies grow into toddlers and then into young children, they become more verbal and independent. Although they are capable of doing many more things for themselves, their need to feel taken care of remains just as strong. Some parents start to back off some of their caregiving duties when children are as young as two or three years old as they notice their young children becoming more capable. Many consider the first signs of children managing on their own to be a limited window of opportunity to teach them to take care of themselves and in so doing, may push rather than gently encourage true independence.
When we put children in charge of too much of their own care-taking early on, some young children may misperceive this as a lack of attention. Given that all young children have an innate drive to be taken care of, they need to feel noticed in order to feel connected and so they are instinctively driven to attract attention to themselves. If they do not feel that their physical and emotional needs are being adequately met, they start seeking attention in more creative and persistent ways. Unfortunately, the behaviours that may have served them well when they were just a bit younger no longer yield the same considerate responses from parents. Their efforts may backfire on them because parents misinterpret their children’s motives and therefore resist them, leaving the young child feeling confused and rejected.
There’s a lot going on emotionally for a child who repeatedly acts out to get a reaction from their parents. Any time a young child ups their performance and becomes louder, more dramatic, or repeatedly pushes the limits, they need more attention—not less. This may sound contrary to what you’ve been led to believe, but withholding attention from a child who is acting out to get it will never resolve what’s driving them to act out. When we ignore, shame, or punish a child who is “just looking for attention,” we might succeed in temporarily shutting down their acting out, but we miss out on giving them what they truly need from us: a deeper heartfelt connection.
For a young child who is desperate for a parent’s attention, even negative attention is better than not getting any attention at all. It’s a poor substitute for the warm connection they were trying to attract, but they’ll settle for what they can get. Parents need to know that the young child isn’t going to be the one to break the cycle of acting out in order to get attention, it has to be the parent. We have to be the ones who let go of trying to justify how much time and attention we’re already giving them, and thinking that it should be enough. Only the child knows how much is enough for them. If we’re seeing their behaviour escalate, we have to approach their exasperating behaviour as an immature plea for more connection, not less, because that’s what it is.
Whenever your child appears to be doing something for attention, it’s because attention is exactly what they need. When you push back or try and ignore their efforts to get your attention, you’re wasting an opportunity to give them the connection they are seeking. By giving them loving attention, you’re not giving in or letting them have their way—you’re conveying that you see them, you hear them, and they matter to you. This provides the necessary context to convey that no matter what their behaviour, your connection to them remains strong. Tell yourself this parenting affirmation: "I choose to see my child’s attention-seeking behaviours as a plea for more connection." Use this takeaway to reframe the way you're interpreting their behaviour.