Goals Of Misbehaviour Part I: Attention
Have you ever looked at your kids and thought, “What are they thinking?!?” It’s a common parental response to outrageous, wacky, disruptive, or hurtful behaviours. But there is a way to understand what’s going through their heads. We have to remember that all behaviour has a purpose. We do nothing by accident, and our children are no different. The reality is, though, that we often aren’t able to articulate what’s driving our behaviour, and, again, our children are no different. There are four main goals that motivate our kids’ behaviour, and I’m going to devote an article to each over the next few months.
Let’s start with the first, most common, goal. If you’ve ever been interrupted while on the phone, been asked “Why?” 500 times in a row, endured endless whining, or had to repeatedly put your child back to bed, you’ve got a kid who is looking for attention.
This goal comes from the unspoken belief that your child feels he only belongs or matters when someone is paying attention to him or he’s keeping you busy with him. And knowing this is the goal will direct how you respond. So how do you know when this is his goal? There are two main clues. The first is how you’re feeling. You’ll know this is you child’s goal when you feel annoyed, irritated, worried, or guilty in response to his behaviour. And the second clue is how your child reacts when you ask him to stop his behaviour. A child who is looking for attention will typically stop for the moment, but will either pick the behaviour back up shortly, or will find a new, equally irritating, attention-getting behaviour. After all, as we hear often, bad attention is better than no attention to a child.
So what can we do?
First of all, remember that everyone needs attention. The need to be noticed and to belong, in itself, is not the problem. It’s the undue attention, the seeking of belonging through annoying instead of helpful ways, that is the behaviour we want to influence as parents.
Ignore the behaviour when possible. This keeps it from becoming a “go-to” action whenever your child is looking for attention. Try redirecting your child into a useful behaviour. Give him a job to do that is helpful and allows you to give him positive attention.
Tell your kids how much you love and care for them. Let them know you have faith in them to solve their problems on their own (“I love you and I know you can do this by yourself”). And don’t forget to stop talking and act. Calling out, “Get in there and brush your teeth!” a dozen times is obviously not doing the trick. Take your child by the hand, and quietly and calmly lead him to bathroom to brush his teeth, keeping the mood firm and kind.
Set up a schedule to spend special time, one on one, with each of your kids. This is the best investment you can make in eliminating that annoying, attention-seeking behaviour. If your child knows that there will be a time when he has you all to himself, it will be easier for him to behave appropriately until that time. It also teaches him that the attention-seeking behaviour does not get him the great, feel-good attention he gets when he’s playing with you or out on a special “date”. Then again, waiting can be hard for kids. So try giving him a knowing smile that lets him know you aren’t going to get caught up in his behaviour, and tell him you’re looking forward to spending some special time with him after dinner.
During your special time together, you can practice role-playing appropriate behaviour and teach appropriate manners. As kids get older and their verbal skills improve, this is a good time to practice “using your words” instead of whining.
These are all things parents can do to foster a feeling of belonging and love, even when he’s not the centre of attention. Of course, our children won’t always be motivated by the desire for attention. Next month we’ll talk about another goal that parents are quite familiar with: power.
Want to read more about Attention and the Goals of Misbehaviour? This concept was created by Rudolph Dreikurs and you can read about his theory and practical tools for using with your kids in his classic book Children: The Challenge.
My friend and fellow Adlerian Alyson Schafer’s book Ain’t Misbehavin’ is another great resource. Lots of practical tools and strategies for today’s kids!