Hacks: Managing Attention-Seeking like a Boss

"Bronze Sculpture of Listening Man" by Couleur

One of the biggest commodities parents have is attention. Kids love the attention they receive from their parents. When they are little, we lavish it upon them. Infants and toddlers get our undivided attention a lot.

As they grow older and more independant, they still crave as much attention as their parents can afford to offer them. However, as they become more independent, parents will naturally try to spread their attention around a bit.

As a parent of a 2 1/2 year old who can now play on his own for an hour or so at a time, and entertain himself while we are out with books, colouring, or a screenless computer (more on these soon), I want to be a bit more informed about the world around me. I want to read books more. I want to spend time out with friends – or at least have them over for coffee. I want to be able to spend some time on my hobbies (building and flying drones, aerial photography, programming, and Dungeons and Dragons.) And I am definitely not the only parent I know with kids this edge who feels the same way.

But kids feel the lack when you are putting your attention elsewhere. They know intuitively that the most precious resource they have had up to this point is suddenly becoming scarce. This leads to behaviour that, for a parent, can be very frustrating: attention-seeking.

I wil preface this discussion by saying that it is right and natural for a kid to want that attention – after all, their parents’ attentiveness is their lifeline. But that doesn’t change the conundrum for parents, or how aggravating this kind behaviour can be.

When a child sees your attention is elsewhere, they going to try to get it back. Here are some tactics I have seen in my son and his friends:

● Suddenly becoming loud and destructive.

● Turning a little fall or bump into a reason for howing like they just lost a limb.

● Shoving a toy into their parents’ hand with a “Here you go,” and expecting them to play.

● Picking a fight with the nearest strange kid.

● Chanting the latest want on their mind over and over again.

● Chanting “Daddy, daddy daddy,” or “Mommy, mommy, mommy,” over again until you ant to scream “For the love of Cthulhu, what do you want?!” only to get a request for a cup of water or the time of day.

● Suddenly needing help finidng a “missing” toy that they need… right now! You know, the one that is so cunningly hidden in the middle of the coffee table.

As much as we love our kids, and as much as we might appreciate why they are deploying these tactics, it doesn’t stop us from griding our teeth into powder when they do it. Especially when we are trying to enjoy some adult company.

And as much as we love our kids, if we get exposed to enough of this sort of thing we are going to start imagining stuffing them in the laundry hamper so that we can read three pages of our book uninterrupted.

So for your sanity and their sense of security you need to nip these behaviours in the bud, and learn how to handle your kids’ bids for attention constructively.

So the first thing to do is to make sure negative attention-seeking behaviours are not rewarding.

This is really simple. First make sure that your kids know the right way to get your attention. For my son, right now, the only way he gets my attention is to put his hand on my knee and say “Daddy.” Any other tactic gets ignored, or, at best, gets me to say “Manners,” or “If you want my attention, you know how to ask for it.”

Sometimes this gets met with a tantrum (which is how I know it is naptime.) Usually though, he at least tries to patiently go through protocol. At least as well as a two-year-old can manage.

The other critical issue is making sure that they know how to wait for attention. If you can’t give them the attention they need right this second – because you are trying to listen well to another person, solve a problem, or find a good place to put down your book, for example – then finding a way to signal to your kid that you will give them your attention is critical.

I’ve seen a few techniques for signaling this to kids that works well to nip an interruption in the bud:

● Physical touch helps give your kid an attention “fix” until you can give them your whole attention. Putting their hand on your kneee, and then putting your hand on their wrist tends to be a good way to acknowledge them and  make a promise for future attention,

● Other touches that work can be to ruffle their hair, put the kid on your knee, draw them into a shoulder hug, or hold their hand while you finish what you are doing.

● Accepting the toy they are trying to give you and placing it on your knee and keeping a finger on it can signal to a reasonably empathetic kid that “I will deal with this ASAP.”

●  You can develop a “talking token” with your kids if they are appraoching school age: some object you keep sitting around that they can pick up and give to you. The rule you establish about this object is that you are not allowed to put it down until you have listened to them.

It also helps to teach your kids early how to read and signal attention. I have taught my son to show me his “listening ears” when I want him to listen to me, by tugging on his earlobe. Now, he tends to wait until I make eye contact and tug on my own ear before he says aything he considers really important. When I show him my “listening ears,” he is usually very satisfied that he has been heard and that he can get my attention when he needs it in a real and meaningful way.

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