Understanding Child Behavior: Do Kids Really Misbehave For Attention?

Understanding Child Behavior

The case for a broader understanding of a child behavior, why kids misbehave and need for attention .

  • Traditional parenting advice holds that kids misbehave for seeking attention, even if it’s negative, and so time-outs and other responses that avoid rewarding the child 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.

Understanding Child behavior

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. 

Read 8 Ways To Slow Down and Connect With Your Children At Home

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 child 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 child behavior are generally portrayed as exclusive choices that one has to make when responding to all kids, all the time.

Read Psychopathy in Children: How To Spot and Deal With Psychopathic Children

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 child behavior in the same kid might be different at different times.


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.

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