How To Deal With Your Attention Seeking Child

Attention-seeking again, but from a different perspective.

I’ve spoken before multiple times on how to address true attention-seeking. I’m noticing that a lot of parents are classifying behaviour as attention-seeking that is not attention-seeking and as you can probably imagine treating one kind of behaviour as another rarely gets us good results.

Let’s dig a little more.

Attention-Seeking Behaviour

Attention-seeking behaviour is when your child is calm, alert, and engaged and they are purposefully doing something to test the validity of a boundary.

Example: you have a firm and established schedule for your morning which includes them having breakfast, watching a show while you clean up, and then when the show is over them going to play in their play room while you take a shower and tidy the house.

Suddenly, despite this very familiar routine, they start pushing back against turning off the TV. They want to watch a show while you shower.

Usually what happens is that the original boundary pushing happens as a result of a stressor.

In this instance, maybe they were actually sick last week with a fever so you left the TV on all morning because they really couldn’t play.

This disrupted the consistency of the routine and because they’re little now they have to test under what conditions they get to watch TV all morning.

Attention-seeking is very systematic. They follow the scientific method. They have a hypothesis.

In this case: if I push hard enough, Mom will leave the TV on all morning.

They test the hypothesis: they whine and cry, then the next day they hide the remote.

The next day they try just whining. The next day they kick and scream on the floor, etc.

If you’ve been around here long enough you’ll know that this is the pattern of an extinction burst. They’re trying out different possibilities and when they don’t give the results they’re anticipating, they up the ante…They escalate.

They try to repeat the anticipated results by attacking it from a different angle. Then they get rid of the things that didn’t work, and go hard at the things that seem to be achieving results.

In this example, you might find them faking a sickness and then they try to replicate those results.

Hypothesis, test, take note of results, tweak, test again.

When you watch, it’s very clear. Parents will often say that it’s like a switch flips off when their hypothesis doesn’t work.

They just suddenly give up and move on. This is very characteristic of attention-seeking behaviour.

If they get what they want, they just stop. If the thing is very clearly not going to work, they just stop and move on.

The test is complete.

They can generally tell you afterwards very clearly why they were behaving that way.

Therefore, if after your shower you say like “Hey, you really wanted to watch TV while I was showering, eh?” and try to empathize. They’ll generally be straight up with you and be like “yup” or if you ask what’s wrong during the event they’ll tell you: I want to watch more Octonaughts!

It was purposeful and they had a specific goal.

Not Attention-Seeking Behaviour

When your child is trying to get your help calming down.

There’s no specific purpose to their behaviour.

There’s no goal other than connection with you or connection with someone.

Often this kind of looks like grasping at straws, they’re just trying anything to get your attention and draw you into an exchange.

They’re trying to force you to co-regulate with them.

Co-regulation is hallmarked by a back-and-forth exchange.

You do something, I do something. You do something, I do something. Both of us are in a competent role.

We can do our “something” without any help.

A conversation is co-regulation. Yelling back and forth at each other is also co-regulation.

Many of these “games” parents notice their kids are playing where they antagonize you or their sibling and then when you scold them they laugh and do it again.


They poke their brother, brother says stop or bats their hand away. They do it again.

Brother says stop louder and maybe moves away. They do it again.

See the pattern?

There’s no goal here. They’re not trying to get something.

The goal is simply that back and forth exchange in and of itself.

Here is the issue: Using Planned Ignoring to deal with attention-seeking.

It’s still an effective strategy but if it is actually attention seeking.

If it’s not attention-seeking, if it’s co-regulation seeking…you’re going to make it way worse.

You won’t see that calculated, predictable escalation and attempts.

You’re just going to see unbridled panic and desperation because when we’re dysregulated we feel unsafe.

Especially children who can’t protect themselves. They’re vulnerable and they know it.

They want to calm down. But they don’t know how so they’re trying to compel you to help them. They’re just doing it in a very maladaptive way.

Now that you’ve figured out what kind of behaviour you’re working with, you can respond appropriately.

If you’re dealing with true attention-seeking, then get your planned ignoring on, stick to those established boundaries, and hunker down for an extinction burst cause one is blowing your way. You can find more in this post.

If you’re recognizing whoops, this isn’t attention-seeking. It’s coregulation seeking…now what do I do?

Plan to handle Coregulation Seeking:

Manufacture that back and forth interaction!

They’re trying to draw you into a maladaptive one, so make it adaptive.

I’ll use one of my newer ParentAbility clients as an example:

Recently, her son was clearly upset while playing with his sisters. She thought it was attention-seeking at first and then she realized he wasn’t displaying any clear goal. She went to take him for a regulation break but he started hitting her and screaming in her face.

She grabbed and pillow and started blocking his blows with the pillow. Almost immediately his blows became more controlled, he started aiming for the pillow.

She started moving it into more random positions, so now the interaction had gone from her trying desperately to defend herself to her leading the interaction.

She was moving the pillow and he was targeting it vs her trying to move the pillow to intercept his blows.

After just a few minutes he just sat down and took a deep breath and she suggested they go continue the dinner prep. She’d been doing before she’d had to intervene with his siblings, and she said he stayed calm the whole rest of the evening.

He usually had a big bought of frustration at bed time and even that didn’t happen!

Now she’s thinking of grabbing some proper sparring pads so they can proactively insert this co-regulation activity into their routine and take it from a reactive maladaptive behaviour into a proactive solution.

See how recognizing the very subtle but very real difference between the root causes of the behaviour allowed her to deescalate the situation and take something very negative and turn it into a positive that’s going to reinforce their relationship going forward?

There’s even room to take this from a co-regulation activity where they’re sparring together, and eventually wean herself out of it and replace herself with a punching bag so he can self-regulate.

This is why it is so important to correctly identify the function of a behaviour.

It’s honestly a super power.

When parents can correctly identify the cause of behaviour and alter what your response is based on that behaviour, it gives you space to teach!

It builds your relationship rather than driving a wedge into it.

The best part is that when we respond appropriately, we model for our kids what to do next time.

How to get their needs met without having to resort to provoking people into it.

Going back to my client, her son now knows that when he feels like that he can ask Mom to spar with him… and he has!

Allowing him to asking for it, he’s not generally at the point where the need to spar is so strong!

He can’t wait a few minutes while she finishes what she’s doing. This means her time with him is much more calm and relaxed on the whole because the immediacy of the demand isn’t there anymore.

What started as a really annoying, persistent, constant issue in their home has now completely disappeared.

If she’d treated it as purely attention-seeking and used planned ignoring, yeah he probably would have stopped eventually.

However, he wouldn’t have built the skill and created a durable solution. It would have just continued to be a persistent problem.

It’s the difference between feeling like you’re constantly on a hamster wheel, and creating durable solutions that increase our children’s independence, confidence, and self-control.

If you are still having issues with attention seekers or wondering if it is attention seeking, feel free to join the Parenting Posse. We talk about a lot of behaviour issues parents just like you are facing on a daily.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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