Attention

Do Kids Really Misbehave for Attention?

The case for a broader understanding of child behavior.

Posted Feb 18, 2021 | Reviewed by Kaja Perina

  • Traditional parenting advice holds that children who misbehave are seeking attention, even if it's negative, and so time-outs and other responses that avoid rewarding the behavior are best.
  • Mote recent research, based on a growing understanding of developing brains, suggests almost the opposite: Responding with a "time in."
  • It can be tempting as a parent to decide on one approach to discipline and follow it in every situation. In practice, flexibility will serve most families better.

One of the ageless truisms in parenting is that attention-seeking is a primary motivation for a child’s bad behavior. If little Johnny smacks his sister, throws a tantrum, or takes that extra cookie, we are often instructed to see this action as a strategic play to get mom or dad to stop doing what they are doing and pay attention to Johnny. Even negative attention is preferable to no attention at all, the adage continues. It follows then that a parent's next best move is to demonstrate to the child that such behavior doesn’t “work” through doing things like active ignoring or even a time-out that involves the deliberate withdrawal of parental focus. 

This theory has been a cornerstone of a number of evidence-based parent guidance programs. Combined with techniques designed to help parents give additional attention and praise to positive behaviors, these methods have been shown to be helpful for many, though certainly not all, children. 

But lately, both the techniques and the attention-seeking hypothesis have been challenged. The momentum for this has come from a number of developments, including 1) increased appreciation for the effects of early trauma and adversity on developing brains, 2) awareness that these methods don’t seem to help certain children and in some cases can make behavior worse, and 3) additional understanding that self-regulation and relationships need to be taught rather than just reinforced.

As a result, many advocates and child development experts now encourage parents to respond in ways that are almost directly opposite to the traditional advice. Instead of giving your child a time-out when he gets out of control, for example, you give him a “time-in” by engaging with him in a warm and sympathetic way to help him learn how to cope when he gets upset. Instead of demonstrating your authority by enforcing limits and rules, you negotiate and reason toward a solution that works for everyone.

If the experts can’t seem to agree, the poor mother who has just witnessed her 4-year-old son throw a toy at his sibling is really confused as to her next step as she watches him run from the room, crying and yelling in full meltdown mode. Which “camp” does she belong to? Does she put the already upset child in time-out? Does she go try and calm him down and refrain from any punishments? Or does she just grab a glass of wine and let her son cool off on his own?

The major problem with these different perspectives and responses isn’t that they are totally wrong but rather that they are incomplete. Most packaged approaches to disruptive or oppositional behavior in children are generally portrayed as exclusive choices that one has to make when responding to all kids, all the time. Sure, most of these advocates, when pinned down, will acknowledge that kids are different and that one approach doesn’t work for everyone, but that admission is usually found in the fine print and does not feature very prominently at all in the blog posts, books, or training programs being offered. 

But here’s the messy, complicated, and wholly unsatisfying truth... sometimes kids misbehave for attention, sometimes they don’t. Even worse, the reasons for negative behavior in the same kid might be different at different times.

Ugh! How is that supposed to fit into a tweet? 

It’s not. Developing brains, it turns out, are pretty complex. Different techniques work for different kinds of kids, at different moments, and with different parents.

But this lack of easy answers is hardly a reason to throw your hands up in despair. A deep breath or two, some attempts to understand your and your child’s temperament, a little observational skill, and then a good dash of patience and flexibility will get you well on your way. Remember that ability you used to have to distinguish (most of the time) a wet diaper cry from a hungry cry from an “I’m in pain” cry? It’s not that different.

You will make the wrong call sometimes, but that’s okay. You allow yourself to learn and adjust, rather than trying to dogmatically apply to the bitter end some method a person you don’t know found to work best for their own kids.  

As awesome as it would be if every kid followed the same playbook and could be skillfully raised by parents all doing the same thing, it just doesn’t work that way. When it comes to many of those timeless dilemmas parents have to face about screen time, praise, daycare, sleep training, and, yes, discipline, the best advice science often has to offer is, “It depends.” Of course, there is some important general evidence on many of these topics worth knowing, but the broader principles often need to be adjusted and customized, and this requires parents seeing themselves a bit more like scientists and a bit less like converts to a particular religion.  

When it comes to discipline, I personally like to assume kids can do things until proven otherwise. Motivation can go a long way, and techniques like occasional time-outs that help control how and when you pay attention to your child are not ones, in my view, to categorically exclude from your toolbox out of hand. Yet for many kids, and especially those who really struggle with self-regulation, attention-seeking really is not the primary driver of their challenging behavior, and all the motivation in the world will not be enough to get them to change course. For these folks, engagement, empathy, and coaching are needed instead. 

When to zig and when to zag when your child misbehaves will likely continue to be a puzzle for many parents—and it should. Strictly following a recipe of what to do from some self-proclaimed expert may seem at first like a good way out of the confusion, and may be a decent place to start if you feel overwhelmed, but over the long haul, a customized approach that incorporates an honest look at the temperament of both you and your child is likely to produce the best and most sustainable results. And if you don’t know how to respond when asked whether you are an “attachment” or a “free-range” or an “intensive” parent, just say “yes.”

Facebook image: Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock

References

Rettew D.  Parenting Made Complicated: What Science Really Knows about the Greatest Debates of Early Childhood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021.