Your Little Attention Seeker and Mine

In a bustling world where busy is the new cool, I wanted to take a moment and give thanks for the time I’m given to write these blogs and the time you are taking to read them. This is quickly becoming my favorite part of the week and I am hoping my experiences are serving you.

Last week we talked about taking care of ourselves to find the “what and why” for our children. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to do a deep dive into each function of behavior. This week we’ll start with attention.

Everything happens for a reason; we dove into this a few blogs back (check it out here). In essence, the behaviors you and I engage in, as well as those of our children, are all a result of our environment. As social creatures we are almost always in a state of seeking or satiation (fullness), using our environment to get our needs met. This can be overwhelming when we think about how many tiny actions every human engages in each day. When we break down the big picture, however, it can be manageable and, I hope, life-changing.

Finding Out Why Your Child Seeks Attention

Let’s take a moment to imagine that your child is a big-time attention seeker or that they value attention from others. To start, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, we all have our reinforcers (things we like). In a balanced life what happens is your little (or big) someone really values their families or peers’ attention. Through the day they fill this need by asking questions, playing, reading, cuddling, or overwhelming their parents, siblings, and peers. It sounds lovely, right?

In many of our homes, however, especially when our children desire a lot of attention, we ourselves become overwhelmed. I can’t tell you how many times it’s made me feel worse when someone tells me, “But it has to feel good, Henry tantrums more for you because it means he loves you! You’re his mom!” I mean come on. Who, if any of us, are high fiving ourselves at the end of the day when our child has screamed at us for the 15th time? I’m normally slinking to a quiet room with Netflix and rerunning the day to try and prepare for tomorrow. So what can you do if you have a little attention seeker whose behaviors bring Big Feelings?

First, step back and identify the behaviors that are bothering you and your child that are in fact maintained by attention-seeking. Remember, the recipe we’re talking about is first; the absence of your attention (you are busy), second; your child’s disruptive behavior occurs, and third; you stop what you are doing to provide attention. Once you identify one of these cycles, you’ll see that attention is driving the behavior. After identifying this, there is a lot you can do.

Putting a Stop to Disruptive Behavior

First and foremost, we stop giving attention to the disruptive behavior and start prompting a more appropriate behavior. For example, if Henry is yelling “Mama” fifty times while I’m cooking, I can pause, wait for the yelling to stop, and then ask Henry to say, “excuse me, Mama,” then thank him. I can repeat this throughout the day to teach Henry that yelling at me isn’t going to gain my attention. This works, I promise but it needs some supporting pieces to not exhaust you!

The supporting pieces are jobs for both you and your child; we both have work to do. Your job is to figure out how often your child needs one on one attention (in ABA we call this the schedule) and pause throughout your day to give it to them. If your little someone is filled up on attention, they won’t need to yell at you for it. Make sense, right? Sure, but you’re still exhausted because now you’re just doing floor time every hour and prompting, “excuse me, Mama,” while you’re attempting to run your home.

This is where the job for your child comes in. In my case, Henry will need to learn to wait on a schedule that works for his age and his family. I can’t be one on one with Henry all day. Remember Declan? My thriving company, sometimes cool husband, and our dogs? They all take some of my time. I also carve out time for myself every day so Henry cannot have Mama all day every day. At his age (2), what this looks like is building up to waiting for about five minutes at a time and learning to independently play for about twenty minutes.

These five-minute little wait breaks teach Henry he’s OK without Mama and I’ll be back. The playing independently part keeps my sanity and I believe that it’s also incredibly important for him. It’s not my job as his mom to entertain him all day long. My job is to love him. To me, this also teaches him to respect my time and build up empathy. It’s OK for Mama to talk to another adult, answer the phone, cook, etc. without giving Henry constant attention. It’s working well for my family as we build it in.

Keep Up With Your Child’s Development

Now, as your child gets older you’ll expect higher wait times. By the age of five, you can expect your child to build up to at least fifteen minutes of waiting and thirty minutes to an hour of free play. Then this just increases through elementary and high school years. If your child is differently-abled and has autism, you may need additional help. Communication is one of the harder things for a child with autism to learn, so they use their behaviors to tell you what they need. ABA (applied behavior analysis) is your friend here; it will do the heavy lifting when it comes to figuring out what your child is trying to communicate, then teach them the missing skills.

If your child is four or younger, a clinic setting is going to be the best place for your child to get individual support while also learning from their peers. My favorite environment is at my practice. From here a team will help you build out a routine in your home to tone down the attention-seeking behaviors and build up communication (among many other things). It’s a win-win, I promise!

I hope this message serves you well on your journey into the world of ABA. If you give it some time you’ll begin to see it’s healing benefits.


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