Behaviour Grows where Attention Goes

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As parents, we often find ourselves wearing many hats in a day. As the saying goes, “Parenting is probably the most challenging task as you are thrown into the deep end with no instruction manual”. From managing the household, our careers and ensuring the child is clothed and fed, we are also left to deal with developmental phases involving tantrums, defiance and an array of behaviours. Using a trial and error method of dealing with these behaviours can not only make things confusing for children, but also jeopardizes our relationships with them.

In this blog post, I will be discussing the big A – Attention, and its role in behaviour management.

Attention is a big underlying cause for almost all behaviours, positive or negative. As humans, we all thrive for attention and it often does not matter how we get it. When a child is misbehaving (remember, this is different to an emotional outburst if they are feeling hurt, sad, unsafe or angry) and testing the boundaries, removing attention to the negative behaviours and focusing instead on the positive ones can be extremely helpful.

Some ways in which this can be done is by ignoring the negative behaviours completely by:

  • Physically turning your body away from the child to send a strong message to the child that you are not going to get into a power struggle with them.
  • Redirecting your attention to another person i.e. praising another child who is complying to the rules
  • Redirecting your attention to a completely different topic instead of focusing on the reason of the argument / misbehaviour.
  • Refraining from engaging in negotiation of the rules and feeding into the negative behaviour (no arguing, shouting etc.).

Why?

Because behaviour grows where attention goes!

The bigger your reaction is to the tantrum, the longer it will last. Often when a boundary is placed and the child throws a tantrum because they are not allowed to have things their way, the crying shows that they have accepted the boundary and are upset by it. By giving in or reacting to their tantrum, we are sending out mixed signals and teaching our children that if they tried hard enough, the rules can be bent. Cutting out the ‘audience’ from the scene of tantrums can often reduce the length of the tantrum.

Focus less on the tantrum and more on positive behaviours.

Why?

Because once again, remember that behaviour grows where attention goes! By channeling your attention to a child’s strength and/or positive behaviours, you are encouraging the growth of positive behaviours. Your child will be more motivated to engage in behaviours that will gain your attention.

For tricky parenting issues such as toilet training or refusal to eat, try letting go of the issue and focusing on other aspects of the child that is going well. Channel your energy to look for positive things happening throughout the day. The intense focus on the ‘problem topic’ will only enhance the problem. By focusing on the many other strengths your child presents with, you are taking the stress of toileting/eating away from the child. By praising their other strengths,you are building up their confidence to be able to do well in those ‘problematic areas’ when the time is right for them. Avoid a power struggle as this often leads to a lose-lose situation and breaks down your relationship with your child. If the only time the child is getting any attention from you is during a meltdown or misbehaviour, then they will find every opportunity to have a meltdown or to misbehave.

If your child is young and unable to keep themself safe during a meltdown, stay close to them and comment on what you see happening in a neutral tone rather than react emotionally to the situation. For example you may say, “I can see that you are feeling really upset. It makes you want to cry.” Doing so will help your child understand their feelings better without suggesting that you are affected by their tantrum.

As soon as your child shows signs of being in control of their emotions again, turn towards them and shower them with positive attention (praising their effort, talking to them, eye contact, smile, cuddle etc,). This method will shape your child’s behaviour by teaching them a healthy boundary (where the rules remain followed) and helping them understand that the only way they are getting attention is in a positive way.

Some behaviours this technique will work with are:

  • Children who find it difficult to accept rules in the house/cannot take “No” for an answer
  • Disobeying instructions just to get a reaction, testing boundaries to see if you will give in
  • Arguing or name-calling behaviours
  • Whining behaviours
  • Engaging in behaviours of wanting to be in control (e.g. toileting refusal, refusal to eat, refusal to wear clothes, refusal to go to bed etc.)

This method should not be used for behaviours related to a distressed child or behaviours related to sensory integration as these behaviours are often not motivated by attention.

If being in control is an issue, ensure that you provide the child with many opportunities to make decisions and feel in control of their lives throughout the day. Through your choice of words when talking to the child and by offering the child opportunities to have a say in their daily routines (e.g. being able to choose their outfit for the day, having a responsibility such as feeding the pet or completing a household chore etc.), you will be able to build your child’s self-esteem.

Reversing the cycle

-ve A+ve

If your child has previously been successful at getting their way by crying and whining, it will take more effort to reverse the association. A child who has learned that they can get attention by engaging in negative behaviours will often rely on that technique due to predictability. The challenge is to turn the tables and help your child to understand that they will now receive attention only in a positive manner. When ignoring a child’s attempts to gain attention, we have to ensure everyone in the house reacts the same way to the behaviours because consistency is key!