“Nicholeen, how do I help my son stop attention seeking? He is nine years old and has to be the center of attention. At scouts, school and church he blurts things out when other people are talking and when they’re not talking. He talks back to his teachers. He distracts other children too by yelling out silly things, laughing out loud and damaging property. He will do anything to get attention in a group. I am kind of worried for his future. Most other children either goof off with him and get into trouble, or they try to keep a distance from him. I don’t think he really has any friends because he annoys so many people. What should I do?”
I know this behavior is difficult, but don’t lose hope for his future. He is at an age when attention seeking is a fairly normal thing to try. He is probably not understanding proper social boundaries. Social boundaries are observed and usually followed if a child is born an introvert or is naturally a calm person. But, if a child is extroverted or not confident with himself then the child can, at times, not even see social boundaries. Parents need to teach children about these boundaries and correct situations when needed. Proper social boundaries are not often learned from peers.
You have expressed concerns about him having friends here. He will keep and make friends when he has learned boundary issues better. So, that part of the behavior issue will sort itself out when he is consistently taught about boundaries. The teaching should happen when he is with groups and when he is not. Practicing proper social behaviors at home, in your family group, is a great social training ground. In fact, home is the very best social training ground. The way we behave in our family relationships will often be how we behave in social settings later. So practicing appropriate social boundaries at home is always best.
How To Stop Attention Seeking Behaviors
Children who attention seek aren’t always aware that they are attention seeking. Many times they are monopolizing a group conversation because they just feel insecure or anxious socially. They act on emotion without thinking. So, the first thing to do is to help the child understand the behavior.
Analyzing a behavior is the first step to creating a new behavior. Take your son aside and have a special talk with him. Describe what the attention seeking behavior looks like. You could even act it out, without making fun of anyone or trying to be mean. Showing a behavior offers the child a unique opportunity to observe himself. Another analysis idea is videotaping the behavior and then showing it to the child and discussing it. As you observe or after you have shown and talked about the behavior, discuss what attention seeking is and how people feel about it. You could say something like, “People don’t often tell you, but attention seeking bothers people. They don’t feel comfortable when someone else turns every moment into something about himself. Let’s help you figure out a good way to get your friends to want to be with you.”
Step number two is to learn a new skill. The skill that needs to be understood for having proper boundaries is accepting a no answer. Boundaries are like lines that can’t be crossed. It is as if the line is saying, “no, you can’t cross me.” Each boundary line is a no answer to us. This applies to social boundaries as well as physical boundaries, etc. The steps to accepting a no answer are here.
The third step is to decide upon a way to check up on how the new skill is being learned and on a consequence system or motivation system to teach cause and effect. When I was teaching this skill to one of my foster children, I had daily check up times after school each day and right before bed. I would ask her how she felt she did with the behavior and I would tell her what I observed. If I had observed anything during the day, my child would already know about it because I would have brought it to her attention. So, this time of day was a recap, a recommitting time, and a time to be praised for good behavior too.
Cause and effect is essential for teaching a person to overcome a behavior problem like attention seeking. A negative consequence, like a chore, is appropriate for a negative consequence, and praise and a high five is good for a positive motivation. A parent might also choose to have some way of tracking progress for a few days by using a chart or bean jar. When positive consequences are earned, be sure to describe what they did good so that they see the effect of their choice, likewise, when the child chooses to earn a negative consequence be sure to describe what happened and what they should have done. Practicing it the right way is also really helpful.
With some of my children I have found it very helpful to have a reminder word or phrase for behaviors that are hard to over come, since the child will likely need to be corrected frequently. So, I have used a word like watermelon or Kentucky as a reminder of the need to stop attention seeking.
This is how a regular teaching moment would look after the behavior has already been talked about and the “accepting a no answer” skill has already been learned.
When you see your son attention seeking, you will say his name and then look him in the eye and say, “Kentucky.” If he stops attention seeking then you praise him or tell him about his positive consequence. If he continues to attention seek, you will have him come to talk to you. At this point you will do a proper correction. Describe what he did wrong, and what he should have done. Then tell him what negative consequence he earned and practice it again the right way. At this point he will use another skill called accepting a consequence.
Attention seeking is a difficult behavior, but he can conquer it when you consistently catch each instance of it and do a proper correction, and when you praise him when he behaves correctly.
My new book Big Win For Quin is about accepting consequences. It is now available for pre-sale.
Porter Earns a Quarter is a children’s book that teaches the skill “accepting a no answer” to children.