Children are born feeling anxiety. The world is a scary place, and the only thing that makes a baby feel safe is their parents. Their connection with their parents makes them feel safe and lowers anxiety. Our parents become our first coping skill for anxiety.
During a child’s toddler years, they go through a process of separating from their parents and establishing their own coping skills to manage anxiety. They push parents away and try to do new things on their own, which comes with anxiety. When the anxiety becomes too much, they look back at their parents for encouragement. The parents tell them they are okay, that they are safe, and the child challenges the anxiety and keeps going. When the anxiety becomes too much, they rush back to the comfort of their parents. They gauge fear, risk, difficulty, and danger by looking to their parents.
This makes the bond between parent and child incredibly powerful, and closely tied to a parent’s attention. A child feels safe when a parent is nearby, but they feel REALLY safe when a parent is paying attention to them.
It’s useful for parents to understand just how profound the impact of their attention is on a child. If a child is anxious, the child will automatically try to get rid of that anxiety. If the child’s anxiety is too high, or they haven’t developed good coping skills, they tend to default to their first coping skill: Get a parent’s attention.
This bid for attention may be asking for a hug, striking up a conversation, asking a parent to play with them, or many other forms. If these bids work and the child gets the adult’s attention, the child’s anxiety is reduced slightly. But as children grow and parents get busy, these bids aren’t always successful, and when a bid gets ignored, anxiety grows.
Sometimes, when a child’s brain works out that their old ways of making bids for getting attention aren’t 100% certain, they realize that there’s an alternative bid that comes with near 100% success.
Hit a sibling. Throw a toy. Scream. Take your clothes off. Say a bad word. Refuse to eat. Disobey.
See, the trick in the “parents’ attention reduces anxiety” thing is that it doesn’t matter to a child’s brain if the attention they get from a parent is positive or negative. They’ll take positive if they can get it, but negative is better than nothing, and it’s REALLY easy to get negative attention.
The thing about disobeying–and refusal in particular–is the child now controls the duration of the attention as well. The longer they refuse, the more the parent is compelled to try and make them, and that part of the child’s brain that wants soothing is feeling seen that entire time.
How does a parent adapt to this? Like so many things about parenting, it’s not easy or black-and-white. Parents need to be aware of their child’s needs on multiple levels.
When a child is feeling anxious and makes a bid for adult attention, we want to respond appropriately. If we make it easy and reliable to get positive attention from a parent, a child is likely to do it. If they know reliably that they can get comfort, or a hug, or an “I love you”, or “I’m proud of you,” then sometimes that’s all they need. If they are looking for positive attention in a positive way, we want to give it to them.
That doesn’t mean dropping everything and giving undivided attention all the time. Children sometimes need space from their parents, parents need space, and developing healthy boundaries is important. Having to wait a little for soothing helps encourage children to develop independent coping skills.
But if we don’t respond, we risk fueling negative attention seeking behaviors. I generally recommend responding when you can with a quick acknowledgement, then setting an expectation for following-up with the child when you can. “Hey kid, I see you. I have to wrap this up, but I’ll check in with you after that, okay?”
As long as a parent consistently follows through with the check-in, the child is getting a moment of attention, then learning to delay gratification, then gets a check-in where, ideally, the child and parent together can identify anxiety and coping skills to manage it.
On the other hand, we want to respond correctly to the moments when they are using negative behavior to get attention. We want to try and control how much attention we give negative behavior. We want to withhold positive attention until the negative behavior is over so that we don’t accidentally reinforce it. At the same time, we want to get to the heart of the child’s need and give them the positive attention they are looking for. Prolonged power-struggles tend to feed off themselves, perpetuating more power-struggles.
One way to navigate this is to offer an “off-ramp”. We want to stop the negative behavior, but maybe asking the child to calm down completely or totally stopping a problem behavior is too hard in the moment. I recommend parents to set an easy expectation for the child to meet in the situation, an easy task that they can complete positively with minimal effort, then withhold attention until the expectation is met.
We want the bar to be REALLY low for the expectation–if a child is anxious and acting out, they’re really looking for help in managing what they’re feeling and we want to give it to them. We just don’t want to reinforce the negative bid for attention. Something like: “It looks like you’re really having a tough time with this. Can you go sit on the couch for a second so we can talk about it?” Or, “Once you’re on the couch, we can talk this through and I can help you with this.”
The task shouldn’t be punitive or demanding, it just needs to require a small, somewhat positive behavior on the part of the child. Asking the child to disengage, walk away for a second, or to ask for help politely; any positive behavior that we can then respond to with positive attention. That small positive action on their part gives us something to praise, build up, and flood with positive attention. Their brain, hopefully, will connect the positive attention to the small positive behavior instead of the bigger negative behavior. By rewarding positive behavior, we can help discourage negative patterns.
Parenting, and children, are complicated, and behavior and emotions are multifaceted. No one solution fits for every situation, and no blog post is a replacement for therapy. In general, we want to be aware that our attention is a powerful motivator for children–a warm blanket that makes children feel safe and secure, seen and validated. Children want positive attention, even if they can’t articulate it or admit it. But if they can’t get it, then they can absolutely get negative attention.