When Children Seek Attention: What's Behind It and How to Act?

When children seek attention with a tantrum, we can help them restore calm and think about why they feel the way they feel.
When Children Seek Attention: What's Behind It and How to Act?
Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 11 January, 2023

A tantrum in the middle of the supermarket or a crying scene at the front door. Sound familiar? Every mother has a story of a child who wants attention. But what do these situations have in common? To guide us in the answer, it’s important to understand that not all children are able to express what’s happening to them with words, so they do it with actions. Depending on their age, children will find different ways of expressing how they feel. It’s a matter of going a little further and not just seeing it as a misbehavior, but as “something more”. Let’s see what it means when children seek attention and what can be done.

Why do children seek attention?

When our children seek attention, we often talk about “tantrums”, but in reality, when children behave this way, it’s because they’re going through a situation of emotional dysregulation. They are frustrated or angry and have lost control. Therefore, they need an outsider to help them restore calm. We must understand that there’s another message to be deciphered: “Mom, something’s wrong with me, I feel this way, and I need help”. In these moments, children don’t need challenges, yelling, or punishment.

How do children usually seek attention?

In general, some of the most frequent behaviors through which children seek to convey a message to us are the following:

  • Pretend they’re sick
  • Have tantrums or go into rages
  • Have crying spells
  • Provoke or challenge us
  • Constantly interrupt conversations
Tantrums in children are to be expected and don’t happen only in our homes. However, how we react to and accompany these situations is what will make the difference.

What can we do about it?

Sometimes, it seems that certain behaviors are only deactivated by giving in to the child’s request. However, this isn’t the case. Rather, what’s recommended is trying to divert attention or negotiate. For example, we can say the following: “I understand that you feel this way because you want to sleep over at grandma’s house, but today we can’t. What we can do is invite her over for a sleepover at our house another day. So, when we open up other scenarios, we help put the attention elsewhere, away from the eye of the storm.

You may be interested in: 5 Keys to Growing as Parents

How to act when children seek attention

Here are some recommendations to keep in mind when dealing with anger or tantrums.

Staying calm

First of all, we have to prepare ourselves to stay calm. Sometimes, we react out of anger or impatience, and this ends up making it more difficult to respond appropriately. It can even start an endless escalation. Getting angry, yelling at them, punishing them, or leaving them alone aren’t at all the right ways to react. What we can do is help them restore calm and ask them what we can do to make them feel better. Also, let’s keep in mind that universal recipes don’t always work, as each child’s unique. Therefore, it’s important to be guided by what we know about them, by their temperament, by the situation, and by the developmental stage they’re in.

Ask ourselves how we influence that behavior

On the other hand, we can also ask ourselves how we influence those attention-seeking behaviors. Can we dedicate more time to that child? What’s the time we share with our children like? In addition, we can delve into the context of this child, if they’re going through any particular situation such as a change at school, family problems, etc. This can also guide us both about what they’re feeling and what we can do about it.

A mother comforting her little boy.
Accompanying children and helping them to name their emotions is a way for them to learn to recognize them and manage them.

Respond out of empathy

It’s important for our response to be based on assertiveness and empathy through dialogue. We must try to put ourselves in their place and not focus solely on what we expect or want from them. Therefore, once we manage to calm them down, we can help them to think about why they feel the way they do and what they’re trying to communicate. Once they’re calm, we can move on to a second teaching phase. Here, we’ll help them think about how they might express themselves or communicate next time around.

Treat children with the same respect that you have toward others

Why do we react badly when a child does something we dislike to get our attention? Why do we leave them alone or yell louder? Would we do the same with a friend or another adult? We can’t expect little ones to always react and behave perfectly. They’re still developing and are in the stage of learning how to deal with the complex world of emotions. It’s we adults who have to pioneer and help, guide, and advise them.

Of course, this implies that, beyond the fact that we set limits regarding unwanted or inappropriate behavior, we still validate their emotions. Finally, the way we contain stressful or distressing situations in childhood will be very significant for them. The message we give them is that we love them in all circumstances and not just when they behave well. In this way, they’ll learn to self-regulate in the future.

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  • Goleman, Daniel. El cerebro y la inteligencia emocional: nuevos descubrimientos. B de Books, 2015.
  • Siegel, D. (2019). Disciplina sin lágrimas. Santiago, Chile: Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial

The contents of You Are Mom is for educational and informational purposes only. At no time do they replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. If in doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.