Attention Seeking Behavior

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Learn the best ways to avoid and respond to attention seeking behavior. Although this can be a common child behavior problem for all parents, it is especially prevalent in children with ADHD signs, sensory processing disorder (SPD) (usually sensory seeking type), or other behavioral disorders.

It may appear as a child being goofy to make others laugh or constantly requesting someone to play with them. It can also be in the form of self injury or aggressive behavior in children. Even though the attention may be considered negative (ie. scolding from caregiver), it can still be very reinforcing for a child seeking to get the focus on them no matter what that requires.

Usually kids diagnosed with behavior disorders or pervasive developmental disorders would be more likely to have aggressive behavior trying to get attention. This is likely due to limited communication abilities in which the self abuse and aggression are ways to get needs met that require attention in order for them to be satisfied (ex. getting food or drink).

While it may seem logical to just try and ignore all attention seeking behavior and pay attention when your child is being good, I know this is easier said than done. It is even more difficult when your child has additional behavioral problems that occur with signs of ADHD or with characteristics for autism that have a difficult time calming themselves when upset.

If your child is engaging in attention seeking behavior, then he or she has a need that is not being met. So, it is important to try to fulfill that need as much as possible proactively (prior) instead of in reaction to the behavioral problems. My son (born in 2006) has SPD and is constantly sensory seeking. Some days can be energy draining, to say the least, with the amount of attention he requires. Getting a playmate in 2010 (his little brother) has actually helped a lot, but the techniques listed below have helped even more.

Schedule special time together:

One way to ensure your child is getting the quality time he or she desires is to make sure to schedule a specific time that you spend one on one with your child for at least 15-30 minutes a day, but preferably longer. Some days may be longer and others only 15 minutes, but what’s important is that he/she knows this is your special time together.

Let him/her know this is his or her special time and allow your child to choose what activity you will do or what you will talk about.

Avoid any negative conversation or “You should do this or that” types of conversation.

Remind him/her of your special time together when he engages in his typical attention seeking behavior. Then, state that you need to finish what you are doing, but you promise to be able to do what they are asking during your special designated time.

Always follow through on this or your child will learn that you are not good on your word.

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Photo courtesy of Eric M Martin

Approach your child every 10-15 minutes:

If he/she is really demanding and seeking to get the focus on him/her, try your best to approach your child at least every 10-15 minutes along with scheduling a special time during the day.

Give frequent words of encouragement and physical affection (Ex. "Wow, that is an awesome picture you are drawing!" with a pat on the back).

If you have something you need to get done, help him/her to start an activity by also engaging in the activity for at least 5-10 minutes. Once he/she begins to play well, state you will be back in a few minutes.

Come back in 5 minutes and give the words of encouragement with some physical affection. Then leave again for 5-10 minutes depending on what he/she will tolerate before attempting to engage in attention seeking behavior.

Continue doing this back and forth gradually increasing the time between visits while doing as much as you can to get things done. It may help to have him/her near you, such as at the kitchen table doing an activity while you are trying to make dinner.

Involve your child in what you are doing:

In addition to the above techniques, if your child just seems to be seeking you all the time and requires your focus so much that you are unable to get things done within the 10 minutes, involve him/her in the job you are working on.

If this involves dinner, allow them to help in any way possible. For laundry, let them load the washer, switch the loads, pour in soap, etc.

Usually, he/she will either be excited to be involved or start seeking other activities that can be done alone without needing you as an alternative to helping with the chore.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule depending on your specific situation and if he or she engages in attention seeking behavior and has a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD NOS), you may require a different approach.

What is most important is that you provide so much attention on a regular basis that he or she will not need to engage in attention seeking behavior as a method to get the focus on themselves.

I realize this can be difficult, as I myself have a son that requires a lot of attention. However, I also realize that when I consciously focus on applying the above techniques, attention seeking behavior decreases substantially and he is much better at being able to play by himself.

It may take time to get into the habit of spending regular time together and frequently giving words of praise and physical affection, but the more you do it the more natural it will become and the more you will see a difference.

Anticipate your child's needs:

When you have a child that can not communicate as well, try to anticipate their needs for food and drink or other things in advance. Of course it is still good to work on communication strategies, such as a picture exchange communication system, but encouraging that immediately prior to providing them with wanted items is better than having them immediately escalate into undesirable responses.

Developing a routine for meals, going to the bathroom, and other related needs throughout the day will help to limit the need to display attention seeking behavior in order to get their needs met.

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