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Children Who Misbehave for Attention

Updated on December 4, 2012

Why Do Children Misbehave?

As a parenting educator I deal with this issue on a daily basis. The parents that I have worked with in the past often think that when their child misbehaves frequently it is simply because he or she is just a bad kid. In reality, there are a number of underlying factors that could cause a child to misbehave and appear to be a "bad" or difficult child. For most parents it is hard to look beyond the child's unruly behavior and delve deeper into underlying factors that may be causing this child to act out. Once these underlying factors are discovered, the parent can then develop an effective approach to modify their child's behavior and decrease misbehavior.

I recently worked with a parent who had two daughters, one was a year old, and the other was four. The four year old was constantly getting in trouble for being naughty. I soon realized that every time this four year old girl did something wrong, her mother would quickly snap at her and tell her what a brat she was being. When she was being good, however, the mother said nothing at all. Now, doesn't something seem wrong with this picture?

Understanding Your Child's Behavior

They key to uncovering the underlying causes of misbehavior is to fully understand your child's behaviors, both good and bad. Under what circumstances does your child behave well? Are there any specific environmental, social, or emotional factors involved? For example, if you spend a lot of time with your child and play a game with them, do they behave well for the rest of that day? On the other hand, under what circumstances does your child tend to misbehave? When you are busy and have a lot to do, are they more likely to misbehave then? If so, this could be because they are not getting enough attention from you throughout the day. Attention comes in two forms, positive and negative. A child gets negative attention when they have done something wrong and need to be disciplined for doing so. Positive attention is when the child is praised and encouraged for doing something right or being good.

Positive Vs. Negative Attention

It is difficult for a child to distinguish between positive and negative attention if he or she feels particularly attention deprived. If the child is not getting positive attention from mom or dad, the child will then start misbehaving or acting out in an effort to get negative attention because, after all, negative attention is better than no attention at all. Children crave attention from parents, and if they are not getting sufficient attention they will find other ways to get their parents attention. If this cycle of misbehaving to get mom or dad's attention happens often, it can turn into a bad habit for the child. We all know how hard it is to break a bad habit, and the same goes for a child who has become accustomed to getting attention from his or her parents by misbehaving. Sometimes children from big families may become "lost in the crowd" and have to really fight for any sort of attention from parents. I have dealt with this issue with many families that I have worked with. Often times there is a child in the family who gets less attention than others for one reason or another. This child may begin to act out to draw more attention to themselves.

Other Common Factors for Misbehavior

There are some factors that are commonly known to increase a child's misbehaviors. Having younger siblings or siblings that require more attention (i.e. physically disabled) can cause other children in the family to misbehave more frequently to get negative attention. Parent's need to be sure to pay close attention to the needs of all of their children, whether it's a teenager or a toddler. Additionally, if parent's are always very busy and have little time to spend with their child, that child may act out to get some sort of attention from his or her parents. Again, that ties into the fact that children thrive off of attention from parents or caregivers, and a lack of attention will push the child to find other methods of gaining attention from mom or dad. Parent's may not realize how much their own behavior can influence or exacerbate their child's misbehaviors. A parent is a child's first role-model, and as such the child wants to seek the approval of their parent or caregiver.

The Importance of Positive Attention and Praise

The goal when dealing with a particularly misbehaved child is to increase positive attention to decrease the child's need to frequently misbehave or act out for negative attention. If the child is in fact misbehaving due to a lack of attention from the parent or caregiver, that child will need strong positive reinforcement to break their habit of being "bad" to get attention. The rule of thumb is that for every negative there should be four positives (ratio of 1:4). So let's say you have to correct your child for not sharing his or her toys with a younger sibling. Once you have effectively addressed the issue, be mindful of finding four more opportunities to praise this child to counteract the negative attention that the child has received by being bad (again, the 1:4 ratio). This process in itself should help decrease misbehavior. It will help the child realize that they do not need to misbehave to get mom or dads attention.

Parent's are often quick to tell a child what he or she is doing wrong. This is a natural instinct as parents feel responsible to raise a respectful and competent child. If the parent is always correcting or disciplining the child, but never taking the time to praise the child for doing something right, that child will learn to seek out negative attention. However, if the parent is mindful of how often they are praising their child for doing something good, that child will be more likely to behave more often.

Think about the adult world for a moment. If an adult is constantly being praised for doing a good job at work, that adult will continue to do well because they enjoy being complimented and praised for their efforts. However, if that adult were constantly being told that they were doing things wrong and couldn't get anything right, they wouldn't feel the need to do a good job because they already feel like a failure. Now, apply this same basic concept to children, and you'll have a glimpse into how positive and negative attention can influence a child's behavior as well.

Always take time throughout the day to catch your child doing something right. Don't let these curcial moments slip away because these are the keys to improving your child's behavior. Effective praise and encouragement will also help the child develop self-confidence and self-esteem.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the issues discussed in this article are 100% guaranteed. There are some biological or mental health issues that can also increase a child's misbehavior, but when it comes to misbehaving for attention, the methods discussed will make a world of difference.

When I work with parents I use curriculum that will help them develop their parenting skills. Here are some of the materials that I use as a parenting educator.

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