Misbehavior: Undue Attention

“Daddy, look at me! Look at me! Did you see me? Did you?”

Psychologists have observed that misbehavior is often a way children seek belonging and significance. When the child’s need for belonging and significance isn’t met, misbehavior tends to occur.  

Medical doctor Alfred Adler first identified four “mistaken goals” of misbehavior in the early 1900s, and his ideas were later popularized by other psychologists and early childhood experts. These four mistaken goals are undue attention, misguided power, revenge and assumed inadequacy, and we will dig into these over the few weeks!

Undue Attention

Do you find yourself getting annoyed or frustrated by a child who seems to constantly demand your attention? Perhaps they interrupt you with, “Look at me!” “Play with me!” Or they may resort to silliness or mischief. Or perhaps they pretend helplessness, asking for help with things that they are fully capable of. 

This child is seeking undue attention, finding belonging and significance only when they are receiving attention from their parent

Parents can either help them grow in independence and confidence or hinder their growth and keep them dependent on us. It’s important to give the child the right kind of attention but also to encourage their independence.

preschooler with sunglasses on

Do not respond:

  • By getting frustrated or angry (believing the child is unreasonable in what they are seeking)
  • By always giving in to the child’s demands or by flooding them with an unhealthy amount of attention (feeling guilty if the child isn’t happy). Montessori warned, “We habitually serve children; and this is not only an act of servility toward them, but it is dangerous, since it tends to suffocate their useful, spontaneous activity.”
  • By trying to keep the child from being disappointed (not believing the child is capable of navigating disappointment)
  • By depriving them of our attention at other times (it’s important to set boundaries, but remember that this demand for attention is actually a cry for help; it’s time to be more intentional about the quality and quantity of time we give to our child)
  • By giving attention to the misbehavior (keep your responses to misbehavior short and simple, keeping attention to the minimum; we want to give them attention at OTHER times, as attention—positive or negative—as a result of misbehavior encourages them to repeat the misbehavior in the future)

Instead, respond by:

  • Setting loving boundaries (“I would love to spend time with you, and I can do that in 30 minutes when I’m done with this work call.”)
  • Involving the child in a useful activity (“I can’t watch you color right now, but I’d love for you to help me get dinner ready. Would you like to stir this for me?”) 
  • Not negotiating (set a boundary and keep it, firmly and gently)
  • Intentionally spending time with your child on a daily basis (story time, play time, etc. where you are screen and distraction free!)
  • Establishing routines so that your child knows what to expect and when to expect it
  • Inviting your child to the planning process (“We are getting ready to take your brother to soccer practice. When do you think we could play a game together since we can’t right now?)
  • Ignoring – if you have already gently and firmly set your boundaries with your child, further demands can be handled by ignoring them, and simply giving a non-verbal cue (for example, a palm raised to indicate “stop”)

Our children, when demanding undue attention, are really giving us the message that they want us to notice them and involve them

Are you giving your child attention at the right times? 

Is your attention undivided, or are you scrolling on your phone or watching the news during these times with your child?

Are there ways you can better invite your child into your work? For example, dinner preparations, folding laundry, dusting, etc. Giving children the opportunity to contribute lets them know that they are valuable and capable, and that is the message that we want to instill in our children.

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