Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash
Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

Setting Boundaries with an Attention Seeking Child

Question

Our 6-year-old daughter demands my attention at all times. If we’re not giving her focused attention, she’s misbehaving to capture it.  How can I get her to stop stealing the spotlight from my husband and my son?

Answer

Every normal and healthy child needs and wants the approval, validation and affection of their parents and peers.  Just as God lets us know that “we are precious in His sight” we need to let our kids know that they are precious in our sight.  That they are important, significant, valued and loved.

When it comes to dealing with her misbehavior you and your husband need to talk and pray together about what the problem is, what you’ve done that has and hasn’t worked, what some of your buttons are that get pushed, when you’re most vulnerable to losing it around her, what your next steps might be and what kinds of consequences you are willing to enforce.   It’s essential for you to be on the same page.

When you talk to her make sure she knows that you love her and that one of the core values of your family is mutual respect and that when she interrupts and interferes she is not being respectful.  Be very clear as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior and what the consequences will be.  It’s essential that any consequences be discussed ahead of time with her.

It’s easy for whiny, demanding kids to push our buttons, increase our frustration and get us to react out of anger rather than respond out of our love for them.  The best initial response is to ignore demands for negative attention rather than react or punish. You’re not ignoring the problem but you are ignoring the attempt for negative attention.  Obviously there are some behaviors you can’t ignore and they are some behaviors that need discipline.

If ignoring doesn’t work (and at first it may not) let her know in a normal tone of voice that when she stops complaining or interrupting you’ll be glad to talk with her, then be sure to follow-up on that promise.  If you ask her to “wait her turn” make sure that her turn comes and then reinforce the fact that she waited.

Many parents take good behavior for granted.  As with all of your children, make sure that you notice her strengths, call out her uniqueness, catch her being respectful and acknowledge her being helpful or waiting her turn—this is called positive attention.  Remember that what gets reinforced gets repeated.

When you compliment her make sure you look her in the eyes and include a pat on the shoulder or a hand squeeze to reinforce your appreciation.  When you pray with her let her hear you thank God for the strengths and character traits (not just her behaviors) that make her a unique and valuable part of your family.

I know this is easier said than done but I’ve worked with many parents in similar situations and have seen that as parents get on the same page, create a more affirming and supportive environment, provide positive attention, set and maintain clear behavioral boundaries and are consistent in the consequences kids will respond in ways that make them healthier, happier and a lot more fun to live with.

Gary J. Oliver, ThM, PhD
Executive Director at Center for Healthy Relationships | + posts

Dr. Oliver is the Executive Director of The Center for Healthy Relationships, and professor of Psychology and Practical Theology at John Brown University.  He has authored over 20 books and more than 350 professional and popular articles.  Dr. Oliver has over 40 years’ experience as a Clinical Psychologist, Marriage  & Family Therapist and Spiritual Director.  He leads seminars & workshops both nationally and internationally on a variety of counseling-related issues, healthy relationships as well as Emotional & Relational Intelligence (ERI).

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