When my daughter was first born I remember reading an article about dealing with ‘difficult’ behaviour. It suggested that one quick trick parents could try was spending 10 minutes a day completely focused on their child, allowing them to take charge of that time. I admit at the time I thought it was ridiculous. Ten minutes a day? I was spending 24 hours a day with my baby, focused entirely on meeting her needs. I wasn’t working, we lived off the freezer food we’d stocked up on when I was pregnant, she was pristine (other than being a little generous in the bodily fluids department). I didn’t have much at all to do except focus completely on her (and freak out that I had a baby, but that’s another story).

Fast forward three and a half years to two children, who need to be fed at least three times a day, who are frequently smeared in food, paint or the aforementioned bodily fluids, who are not yet quite old enough to play happily together and who both enjoy seeing how high they can climb when my back is turned… Ten minutes alone with one child is a rarity, let alone ten minutes with nothing else to do and the ability to focus entirely on their wishes. My focus instead is on trying to maintain some semblance of hygiene, to find some order in the chaos, to mediate battles and to stop them from breaking a bone. And of course what I’ve noticed is the more I follow my kids around with a DustBuster, the more I intervene in their arguments, the more I pull them down off the bookcases- the more I have to do it. And then I get a bit tense, and they start doing things like taking off all their clothes when we’re about to go out, whacking each other, spitting and calling me a poopoo head.

On days like that I admit my children can start to feel like a problem. It’s like that isn’t it? You’re stressed, your kid is acting up and you start to wonder what’s going on with them? Why are they being like this? Why can’t they just brush their teeth instead of chucking their toothbrush down the toilet? And then your tone changes a bit, you become exasperated, you start to criticize and wait for the next wrong move. And then you’re stuck, in a negative loop that shows no signs of ending.

On days like that (after a breather which can occasionally include me hiding in the bathroom for a few minutes) I have a ghostly voice echoing in my head. It’s from my first ever placement in a child psychology department, and is a line from the Incredible Years parenting programme designed by Carolyn Webster Stratton.
“Negative attention is better than no attention.”

It needs no explanation does it? If positive attention isn’t forthcoming, then it’s better to be told off than ignored. This ‘attention principle’ is most clearly demonstrated when you become preoccupied with something that demands a lot of focus- say trying to do a bit of work on the laptop. Even children who have been playing happily are guaranteed to come wandering over as soon as you turn it on, and if you don’t respond you’re heading into meltdown central. Of course there are times other things need to be prioritized. But your children will not be happy about it!

Given that most parents give an average of one command per minute, and children are driven by a need to assert their independence, it’s no surprise that tricky days can quickly descend into you nagging while your child does their best to avoid you, and demonstrates their annoyance through their behaviour (either because they don’t yet have the words to tell you- or because they’ve correctly deduced you’re not in the most receptive mood).

In my mind, the only way to break the negative loop is to kill it with kindness. To do whatever you need to do to get yourself back in problem solving (rather than a problem seeing) frame of mind. For me, that usually involves taking a moment to really look at my kids, which reminds me how small they are and that they’re not giving me a hard time, they’re having a hard time. You might have a different trick to break the mood- I love the idea of having a newborn photo on your phone to look at in moments of conflict, or putting on some cheesy pop you can all dance to just to change the tone of the day.

Webster-Stratton’s attention principle also suggests that, as long as your kids have some positive attention in the bank, they won’t feel the need to grab your attention in negative ways. It makes so much sense, by taking the time to acknowledge behaviour that you want to see more of, your kids have less need for the behavior you like a bit less. We’re talking simple positive reinforcement here, but the reward isn’t stars or stickers, it’s just your attention. As your kids get older it can be far too easy to take for granted all the times they sit and happily absorb themselves in play, or get their shoes on without complaint. And let’s be honest, if your kids are letting you cook the dinner in peace, the last thing you want to do is remind them you’re there! But a simple ‘thank you for playing by yourself while I cook’ lets them know you’re grateful, fills up that bank and, bonus, makes them more likely to do that again in future.
Praise has had a hard time in recent years, being criticized for creating ‘praise junkies’ motivated by external rewards rather than their own intrinsic satisfaction. But there’s a difference between a flippant ‘great job’ and a moment of sincere acknowledgement. You’re not saying it to inflate ego, or create praise junkies. You’re saying ‘I notice you’.

Whenever I hear about ‘attention seeking’ behaviour as a negative thing, I’m surprised. Kids seek attention in the only way they know how- through their behaviour. If they’re seeking it, it’s because they need it. And when you give it, you may often find it fills your bank up too.