It’s normal for kids to want attention from their parents and also sometimes from other adults.
However, some attention seekers insist on constantly being the center of attention.
They may go out of their way and use annoying behavior to get noticed.
It can be frustrating and problematic when these kinds of behavior become excessive.
What Is Attention-Seeking Behavior?
Attention-seeking behavior in children is actions that are carried out with the goal of getting noticed by others, especially caregivers. It is a form of emotional dependence1. Attention sought includes glances, approval, praise, affection, reassurance, nearness, physical contact, caresses, etc.
When attention-seeking problem behaviors aren’t met with the desired social attention, they may escalate into risky acts, which becomes a problem over time.
A pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality and negative attention-seeking behavior may indicate a more severe underlying mental disorder, such as histrionic personality disorder (HPD) or narcissism2.
What Causes Attention-Seeking Behavior
When children act out to seek attention, they are actually seeking connection.
Psychiatrist John Bowlby and developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth’s attachment theory suggests that babies are born with an innate desire to form attachment bonds with their caregivers to ensure their survival.
This attachment-seeking behavior looks exactly like attention-seeking behavior in infancy.
A baby might cry, whine, fuss, or move toward a parent seeking proximity.
When a baby receives warm, sensitive, and responsive parenting in response to their attachment behavior, a secure attachment forms.
Early parenting that meets a child’s emotional needs leads to a secure attachment and a lower level of attention-seeking behavior later3.
These children develop a sense of trust in their parents and feel confident that they will be there for them as their secure base.
They have high self-esteem and develop independence as they grow.
In contrast, infants whose emotional needs aren’t met during their early days exhibit more attention-seeking behavior and cry more as they grow.
They tend to have little confidence and be reliant on others’ approval and emotional support.
They are less likely to form secure attachments and the lack of a secure attachment strongly predicts more attention-seeking behavior4.
Therefore, older children who seek attention are looking for ways to connect.
The pursuit of attention is actually the pursuit of relationships.
The problem arises when attachment-seeking behavior becomes overly attention-seeking, disruptive, or dangerous.
Examples of Attention-Seeking Behavior in Children
Here are some attention-seeking behavior examples found in children.
- Throwing tantrums over little things
- Whining or crying
- Asking for help with simple tasks that don’t require additional assistance
- Sympathy or praise-seeking by sharing exaggerated stories
- Lying or arguing
- Constantly showing their work or achievements for recognition
- Acting like a clown or comedian
- Risky behavior that can put them in danger such as standing on a table
- Damaging properties
Attention-seekers’ behaviors are characterized by their emotional dependence on the validation, praise, and emotional reassurance of others5.
How to Stop Attention-Seeking Behavior in Children
Do not ignore
A child who throws tantrums or cries easily for every little thing is likely looking for connection rather than the thing itself.
Punishing them or treating them as misbehavior will push them farther away and not fulfill their needs.
Some children will stop their attention-seeking behavior temporarily when they are ignored.
But this only fixes the child’s attention-seeking symptoms, not the underlying problem.
Because the need to connect has not been met, the bad behavior will return over and over again.
Here is why paying positive attention will not reinforce attention-seeking behavior.
B.F. Skinner’s reinforcement theory is based on observations and experiments done with pigeons and rats6.
Humans’ need to connect is quite different from pigeons’ need to eat.
It is vital for parents to recognize what their children need and overcome the fear generated by outdated theories.
Call it out
Giving your child attention doesn’t mean you condone it.
Call out the unwanted behavior with empathy.
“Junior, I’ve noticed you’ve been upset easily this week over little things. Are you truly upset about this candy, or are you upset about me?”
It shows that you have paid attention to them when you say this.
Moreover, you are narrating the issue to help your child express themselves so they will use words rather than acting out.
Help them identify the issue
If you ask your attention-seeking child directly, they can sometimes confirm the issue immediately.
However, other times they may not be aware of the true cause. It is especially true for very young children.
In this case, you will need to help them discover the real issue.
Take a look back at the week that just passed.
Did you spend enough quality time with your child?
When they came to show you something, were you too busy looking at your phone?
Did you ignore them to speak with other adults instead?
If there were moments like that, ask them directly.
“Are you upset that I didn’t look at the beautiful airplane you made when you showed it to me yesterday?”
“Are you crying because you want me to draw with you instead of just handing you crayons?”
Make a plan
After identifying the problem, work on a solution together.
Here is an example.
“Mommy works from home. While I am here, I may not be able to play with you now. What if we plan to draw together after dinner every day?”
Address the problematic behavior
Once your child is calm and you have a plan to resolve the issue, it’s time to address the problematic behavior.
Clearly state that what they did was unacceptable and explain why.
Tell them how you expect them to behave.
Teach alternative behavior
Finally, teach them how to use correct behavior to get your attention next time they are upset (and remind them if they forget).
Preventing the behavior during childhood is better than correcting it
The human species is a group animal. Evolutionarily, we are driven to live in communities and maintain relationships.
Creating connections is inherently human. It’s not their fault that children seek attachment, even though they sometimes use the wrong behaviors to achieve it.
Establishing a secure attachment is critical to child development.
Prevent the problem from occurring in the first place by using proactive strategies.
Make an effort to spend time with them and give them undivided attention on a regular basis.
Notice and encourage positive behavior
It is not necessary for a parent to shower their child with attention to demonstrate their love.
Something as simple as praising your child’s appropriate behavior or having a 10-15 minute snuggle can go a long way in showing them that you care and are paying attention to them.
Oftentimes, parents pay attention to negative behaviors but still cannot stop them. That usually happens when they have the wrong priorities.
Parents tend to address the undesired behavior first because their priorities are to stop it.
They scold the child, emphasize the exact rules, and use consistent consequences.
They do all of these without attending to their child’s needs first.
This shows the child that they and their needs are not as important.
This kind of attention does not meet the child’s need to connect.
If you are struggling with this, consider reversing the order you address the issues.
Follow the steps above to connect before you correct.
Final Thoughts on Attention-Seeking Behavior
Changing your child’s behavior over time requires patience.
Don’t give up when it doesn’t seem to work at first.
Children don’t learn to walk, speak, or behave overnight.
It is important to have age-appropriate developmental expectations.
When things become too difficult or too much, don’t hesitate to seek help from professionals such as child psychologists.
Child therapy and family therapy can help.
- 1.Gewirtz JL. Three Determinants of Attention-Seeking in Young Children. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1954:1. doi:10.2307/1165567
- 2.Pfohl B. Histrionic Personality Disorder: A Review of Available Data and Recommendations for DSM-IV. Journal of Personality Disorders. Published online June 1991:150-166. doi:10.1521/pedi.1922.214.171.124
- 3.van Rosmalen L, van der Horst FCP, van der Veer R. From secure dependency to attachment: Mary Ainsworth’s integration of Blatz’s security theory into Bowlby’s attachment theory. History of Psychology. Published online February 2016:22-39. doi:10.1037/hop0000015
- 4.Sroufe LA, Fox NE, Pancake VR. Attachment and Dependency in Developmental Perspective. Child Development. Published online December 1983:1615. doi:10.2307/1129825
- 5.Gewirtz JL. A Factor Analysis of Some Attention-Seeking Behaviors of Young Children. Child Development. Published online March 1956:17. doi:10.2307/1126328
- 6.Skinner BF. Reinforcement today. American Psychologist. Published online 1958:94-99. doi:10.1037/h0049039