Attention, Please!

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An interview with child development specialist and parenting coach Gila Brown. 

She’s just trying to get attention.

Why is it that we say this about kids with such disdain? Think about it – when was the last time you had someone’s full attention? Didn’t it feel great? For children, parental attention is an essential ingredient for healthy social and emotional development. But what do we do when children go from needing attention to needing A LOT of attention? Do we give it to them or not? And how do we know where to draw the line? Here to explain more about attention in children, and how parents can respond in the face of clingy or negative attention-seeking behaviors, is child development specialist and parenting coach, Gila Brown. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Editor, TMC

Why is parental attention such a vital need for young children?

Developmentally, we come to know ourselves through our parents’ perceptions of us as kids. It is attention from you that gives your child a chance to see herself through your eyes. Does she see a smile on your face when she shows you what a good job she did cleaning up? Does she see a look of concern when she presents her latest boo boo? You are your child’s mirror and it is by looking in this mirror that your child sense of self develops. We all work that way — it’s human nature.

When children seem to demand or crave attention, bring to mind this image of your attention as a mirror. “I see you.” “You’re feeling sad/excited/proud/ignored/angry/etc.” “I am with you.” Consider your own adult life. Isn’t this all you want from a good friend when you are feeling in need? You want to be seen. You want to be validated. You want to know you are not alone. The difference is that, as an adult, your sense of self has already long been established. For children, it is these mirroring interactions with parents that serve to develop a deeper understanding of who they really are.

Why are parents so reluctant to give attention to kids when they seem to want it?

The answer that I get from parents is fear. If the child gets attention from his parents whenever he wants it, he will always demand it – and what parent can keep up with that?! But what is so ironic, and equally sad, is that actually the exact opposite is true. Kids need attention and the more they get it, the LESS they will come to need it; a child who feels that all their emotional needs are met has no reason to seek more attention. Conversely, the less children receive the attention they need, the more they will spend their lives seeking what they didn’t get. Simply put, you will raise more independent kids if you shower them with the attention they need right now. They are not asking for it just to get on your nerves — honestly! They are asking for it because they truly need it.

Why do some kids become clingy and need constant attention?

When your little ones are being overly dramatic, when they’re being particularly demanding or clingy, know that they need something. They are in need of the validation they get when Mom or Dad acknowledges them. They are in need of attention for any of a hundred reasons: they feel alone, they feel small, they feel proud, they feel unloved, they feel left out, they feel shame, etc.

Maybe they felt left out of a game at school. Maybe someone said something to them that they heard as criticism. Maybe you have been away at an out-of-town work meeting. Maybe there’s been a change to their routine or someone in the family has a health issue and they’re worred. Maybe they’re just overtired and unable to wind themselves down. A child may be become clingy for any number of reasons, but it is important to remember: there is always an underlying reason.

How can parents effectively respond to clingy behavior? How do we help these kids become more independent?

In the face of clingy behavior, rather than allowing yourself to become irritated, try to take a step back and look deeper. For many children, clingy behavior is so often an expression of anxiety. Remember the separation anxiety your little one experienced the first time you dropped her off at daycare and she clung to you for dear life? Part of the reason for this is that she didn’t want to let go of your attention.

What parents often find is that the remedy for clingy behavior is two-fold. First, you need to regularly set aside uninterrupted, one-on-one time with your child as a way to reconnect – and stay connected. Turn off the phone, leave the other kids with a sitter, and do something together that you know your child loves. Visit the playground and go down the slide together, go out to lunch, or just snuggle together in bed reading some favorite books.

While you are doing this, ask gentle questions to help you get at the heart of why your child is in such dire need of attention. You may be surprised by what you find. When young children see their parents stressed out about something in their grown up lives — finances, illness, or an upcoming change – children often become clingy out of fear as they contemplate some tough questions…What’s wrong with mom? What’s going to happen to me? Assuaging your child’s anxiety with just a few simple, honest, and reassuring answers can help with clinginess – even if it’s an answer like, “I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but I know everything will be okay.”

It may take time to get to the bottom of what’s going on and it’s also important to note that young kids especially are not always able to verbalize what is wrong. This is where parents have to become detectives, of sorts. Or, alternatively, just validate the ‘mystery anxiety’ with loving attention.

What about kids who seek out negative attention by purposely doing things that aggravate their parents? What are some tips for bringing attention needs back in balance?

When kids need attention, they will get it by any means necessary. In many cases, that means acting out. There are a two key things for parents to keep in mind when this happens:

1) Remember, acting out just means they need something they aren’t getting. Try to identify that instead of reacting to the negative behavior. Avoid creating an unnecessary power struggle. This isn’t about power unless you choose to make it so.

2) Prevent kids from having to use negative behavior to get your attention by giving them your attention as a preventative cure. Engage with them. Play a video game. Sing a song. Brush your teeth together. Anything, really. But if you neglect to do this, they will undoubtedly act out.

We need to remember that behavior ALWAYS serves a purpose. Whether it is just a discharge of anger or a call out for attention, there is always a reason why we do what we do. If we dismiss the reason for kids’ negative behavior – that is, if we don’t help them get what they are seeking- they will look for it out elsewhere. They will find the attention, the validation, the sense of self that they need from wherever they can get it.

This can be a scary thought for parents with older children and this is why it is so crucial that parents provide this validation for kids early on. Trust that giving them what they need when they are young is the best way to ensure that they do not grow into needy adults.

Gila Brown, Child Development Specialist & Parent Coach, is in private practice in Los Angeles. She is passionate about strengthening families and empowering both parents and children. She is the creator of Harmony Rules, an at-home parent coaching program and can be found at

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Posted in: Behavioral Issues, Expert Advice, Learn