Power of Positive Parenting – The Power of Attention

This is not about if you have ADD or a short attention span. This is about using your attention as a powerful force that is key to helping your children develop appropriate behaviors. Attention is powerful. Believe it or not your children want it. They value it. This is evidenced by the extreme measures many children will go to get your attention – whining, screaming, tantrums, making loud noises, banging things. These are all termed “attention seeking behaviors.” They are bids for your attention. Children often make these behaviors so aversive to parents that the parent will do anything in their power to stop it. How do they stop it? By giving the child what they want – attention. By doing so they ensure that the child will do that negative behavior again the next time they want something or want their parent’s attention.

Our attention is under our control. How we control it is a very powerful reinforcer to our children because children see attention as a reward. Because attention is under our control and it is a powerful reinforcer/reward to our children we cannot let the looks and stares of others in public influence us to give our children attention at inappropriate times (for tantrums, and all the rest listed above).

The most powerful way to extinguish attention seeking behaviors is through withdrawing attention. That is called ignoring. “So you mean to tell me that when Junior starts a tantrum in the checkout line that I am supposed to ignore that?” Yes. Think back to functional behaviors. When a child wants your attention they often learn that the only way to get it immediately is through inappropriate attention seeking behaviors that is reinforced by our immediate response with our attention. This becomes functional for children. They get what they want because we give it to them. Why do we do that? Because to ignore it makes us look bad in public and is uncomfortable. The cycle has to be broken and the only way to do it is to not give children what they want (equals don’t reinforce it with the reward – attention). Your gut level response is to shout at them, “Stop that!” The better response is to ignore, turn your back on them, and continue on with what you need to do.

But that is only half of the solution. The next is critical. When they stop the attention-seeking behaviors and start acting appropriately we give them a short and specific labeled praise for the positive opposite behavior. If they were yelling and they start talking at an appropriate level you turn back to them and say, “I like it when you use your inside voice.” If they were on the floor kicking and screaming and they get up and stop their whining you say, “I like it when you stand next to daddy like a big boy.” You get the point.

How do children respond to this? It is critical that you know what will happen 99% of the time once you start ignoring those things you have always given attention to. And remember negative attention is still attention. We wouldn’t think they would like for us to yell at them, etc but they are getting what they want even in that moment – our attention. So how will they respond? They intensify and escalate! They will get louder, worse, tantrum harder, bang things harder. Our gut says, “Make it stop!” But you cannot give attention. Keep ignoring. Hold on tight to your attention. Now is the worst time ever to give attention because if you do they have now learned that tantrums must be louder to get your attention! If you give in, you lost the battle and the next one will probably be even worse. So be strong. When they stop find the positive opposite to praise and give attention to.

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About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

3 Responses to Power of Positive Parenting – The Power of Attention

  1. Lisa says:

    I’m really enjoying the series, Matt. Great job!

  2. true.. however its extremely difficult to watch a child throwing a major tantrum while you sit and stare…

  3. Amani says:

    Year Matt, you’re correct! Our attention is truly under our control.
    It is a high trophy-prize in this world that everything tries to have (be it goals or distractions)

    We mush deliberately choose what we give our attention to because,
    ultimately, what we give attention to consistently will directly or indirectly influence us.

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