Chances are, from the moment your child was born he or she became the center of your world. Making your child feel secure and loved in those early months took top priority. Fortunately, the level of attention kids need lessens as they get older and gain some independence. Got a darling diva that’s not quite ready to give up the limelight? Pull the curtains on the “me” show gently and lovingly with these strategies for diverting attention-seeking behavior.
Find the cause.
A number of different factors play into why children need others to notice them. Aside from their relative emotional immaturity, there are less obvious reasons why children might manifest social neediness. Some are cognitive—a child's incapacity for inhibition, perhaps, or too many demands placed on a child's skill set may lead to showing off. Others are more emotional in nature; problems with anxiety and depression, particularly after a cataclysmic event, can be big contributors. It might even be a simple behavioral issue, such as the need to gain control (especially over siblings that may be competing for attention). Understand that attention-seeking can have many causes; figuring out what triggers the behavior problem often helps in creating the solution.
Accentuate the positive…
Especially if you have other children in the home, parenting an attention-seeking child can be exhausting. Be proactive and offer positive time daily through praise and responsibility. Just a little positive reinforcement every day can go a long way towards dissipating that need to be noticed. Make sure that you take the time every day to individually sit down with your child for time that is just hers—whether just before bed or over an after school snack, knowing that she has special time just for her every day is often reassuring. Allow your child to make reasonable requests for your activity together, spend more time listening than talking, and offer specific, warranted praise to your child: “I really appreciate it when you clean up after yourself,” or “I’m so happy that you got an A on your spelling test today!”
Another strategy, especially for the older attention-seeking child, is to delegate some responsibility. Enlist your child’s help in simple activities, such as setting the table or reading to a younger sibling. While your child is helping you, particularly with a simple activity, resist the temptation to coach or teach; instead, simply let him act on his own and compliment his skills. Children love to feel needed, and when parents can foster their independence in a setting of appropriate positive reinforcement the likelihood of kids acting out to gain attention is diminished.
. . . and ignore the negative when you can.
Know when to ignore your child’s attention-seeking behavior. This is easier said than done—naturally, when your child throws a tantrum in the middle of a crowded store, your gut instinct tells you to react, and quickly. Most experts say that how you react is the key to helping your child redirect that negative energy. For minor misdeeds (occasional noises at the dinner table, for example), it’s best to ignore them entirely. For bigger outbursts, first remove your child to a location where he will not be a distraction to others. Simply and neutrally state that you will not react to screaming and that if he wants to talk to you, you’re ready when he is. Depending on the severity of the behavior you may have to offer ultimatums (“If you cannot talk to me quietly, I will have to send you to your room until you can,” for instance), but be sure that you’re doing so calmly—anger will only escalate tension and confirm to your child that he can get your attention through negative actions.
Enlist help, if necessary
All too often, simple showing off can be misconstrued as part of a larger problem, such as ADHD. While only a qualified professional can make a diagnosis, asking yourself questions like "Is this behavior displayed only in one setting?" or "Does my child have generally good social skills when he or she is not competing with other children for attention?" will help you determine the extent of your kid's need for the spotlight. If the problem goes into the classroom, enlist the help of your child's teacher by aligning home and school behavior strategies for consistency. Finally, pay attention to the type and severity of attention-seeking your child manifests. Some behaviors can cross the line into bullying or self-harm, at which point they may be part of a larger issue that needs dealing with in a clinical setting. But luckily for most kids (and parents), the "me" show is just another phase in the process of gaining independence.