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When Ezra was in day treatment (behavioral therapy), we were taught that there are four main reasons that children misbehave: 1) they are seeking attention 2) they are seeking power or control 3) they are seeking revenge or 4) they are feeling inadequate.
Once we were able to categorize Ezra’s deeds by their why, it became much easier to address them.
The thing I have never been able to understand about Ezra is why he has such an incredible intense need for so much attention. Because he gets a TON of attention from us, and yet, it seems like it’s never enough.
He is an incredibly extroverted child. (He once introduced himself to the moon!)
He hates to be alone. Fears it even.
Quality time is one of his top love languages (although receiving gifts is currently in the top spot).
His highest motivator on all of his person-centered-plans has always been “one-on-one time with preferred adult.”
But, however much attention he receives, he wants more. When he was a baby, he needed high amounts of physical touch to be able to get to sleep. When he was a toddler and preschooler, it didn’t matter than I rocked and cuddled with him – he wanted more. This “high needs” personality is why mothering him has been so exhausting.
Attachment parenting, the parenting style that I ascribed to when he was a baby and toddler, teaches that the primary goal of motherhood is meeting the needs of the child. You can’t give your child too much attention, or spoil your child. Thus, we quickly fell into the habit of my meeting his need for attention at the expense of my own health and well-being.
Addressing negative attention-seeking behaviors:
When we began behavioral therapy, our case manager told me that my biggest “flaw” as a mom was my failure to set boundaries. She taught me the skillful art of ignoring negative behaviors and only rewarding positive behaviors with attention. She taught me the art of maintaining my cool and not reacting emotionally to negative attention-seeking behaviors. She taught me the art of saying “no.”
These were skills that took an incredible amount of practice to develop. I made a lot of mistakes as I fumbled through long days of difficult parenting, trying to use scripting and mimic the techniques that they were using with him in therapy. It was foreign and uncomfortable, but in time, I realized it was effective.
It took him time, too, to adjust. To realize that he doesn’t have to be the center of attention ALL the time. To realize that Mommy wasn’t going to give in to his every whim just because he kicked, hit, and screamed at me. That he was NOT going to get my attention if he wasn’t calm and didn’t use his words.
We spent more than one car ride across town with him in the back seat screaming and even throwing things at me for an entire 15 minutes, while the only words I uttered were, “Ezra, when you are calm, I will speak with you.”
I did not ignore him. I ignored his behavior. I taught him (and am still teaching him) that appropriate behavior will result in him getting what he wants: attention; and that inappropriate behavior will not.
While his meltdowns have decreased in the last two years, we still use this technique on a daily basis.
Nothing deescalates him in the midst of upset as quickly as us removing our attention from his behavior.
Because if we give him attention when he misbehaves (through anger or frustration, by calling attention to and correcting his behavior through scolding or verbal correction, or by trying to administer consequences in that moment), we are still reinforcing his behavior and “rewarding” him for misbehaving by giving him what he wants – our attention.
This doesn’t mean that we ignore his behavior and let him do whatever he wants without ever correcting him. But rather that our first action is to ignore, gently letting him know that he will receive our attention when he changes his behavior or calms. AFTER he has calmed and stopped misbehaving, THEN we talk about why his behavior was wrong, what his motivation was, and administer appropriate consequences.
The other aspect that goes in hand with this technique is responding to him with as little emotion as possible. Because he feels such BIG FEELINGS all of the time, responding to him with emotional appeals (anger, upset, frustration, even sometimes excitement) escalates him further. The therapists taught us to use as little emotion and as few words as possible when dealing with behaviors, to give him emotional “space” to work through his emotions.
This technique is not only effective, but it helps me conserve precious energy to be able to mother him better.
There is one unfortunate drawback of this technique: while it takes less energy to ignore than it does to fight, it takes an incredible amount of emotional fortitude. It takes the ability to compartmentalize, to shut down your own emotions (your anger, your grief, your disappointment) and remain emotionless in the midst of attack.
And it takes an emotional toll. Especially as a woman. Because women aren’t really known for their great ability to be able to turn emotions like love and affection off and on like a lightbulb.
So, while I found that ignoring negative attention-seeking behavior and being emotionless in my responses gave me some mothering respite (in the sense that I wasn’t fighting with him all of the time), I struggle to turn back on those warm, attention-giving feelings when he is behaving and deserves (and needs) my positive attention.
A lot of times, I feel completely disconnected from him, even when we are spending time together.
Recently, Ezra’s leaps in maturity and communication skills have resulted in his ability to explain the why of his misbehavior. Surprise, surprise! What he is communicating to us with his words is what we have already known: he is acting out to get attention!
“Mom, the reason I had a meltdown is because we haven’t cuddled enough today.”
“The reason I was screaming is because I wanted to spend time with you.”
While it may seem from a cursory examination that he is trying to blame me for his behavior, this is actually a HUGE accomplishment for Ezra! Because what he is saying is this, “The goal of my misbehavior was to get your attention.”
It was at that point, we can reinforce what he has been taught: “If you want something, you have to use your words and ask kindly for it. The way to get my attention is not to kick and scream, it is to tell me that you want my attention or want to cuddle.”
Because he is communicating this more frequently, I have been convicted that he really does need more attention than what I am giving him.
Attention-seeking child meets alone-time loving momma:
This is a big struggle for ME, because whatever the opposite of an attention-sucking black hole is…um…I’m that.
While Ezra feels like he never gets enough attention, I feel like I never get enough alone time. (I talk about how this negatively impacts my marriage here.)
I always feel inadequate when it comes to meeting the needs of my extroverted family members. I carry a lot of guilt that I’m never enough to satisfy them. Can never do enough. Can never give them enough attention. All too often, I have the attitude, “Please just go away, and leave me the heck alone.”
However…rather than snapping and shutting people out to get what I want, I’m learning to…ahem…use my words. Novel concept, y’all!
To say, “Ezra, I promise we are going to spend a LOT of time together today. But right now, while you are eating breakfast, I need to take a few minutes by myself to drink my coffee and check my email.”
I’m learning to communicate to him that I need space and time, just as he is learning to communicate to me that he needs attention.
Attention and Affection Check-In:
I am trying something new with Ezra:
Basically, I check in with him throughout the day with simple questions to find out how he is feeling and if he is getting enough attention.
Now, Ezra uses a lot of very vivid imagery when he communicates. He talks about loveness filling up love machines, hearts that get cracked or blow up into pieces (and white blood cells that repair the heart), and the metaphors go on and on.
So, I’ve asked him things like this:
“How’s your heart feeling? Is it cracked?”
“Do you need some cuddle time?”
“Are you feeling sad or upset right now?”
I’m also trying to preemptively do more with him before he asks. Like, yesterday, I told him to go get a puzzle for us to do together, even though he hadn’t expressed a need to spend time with me.
I’ve also been cuddling with him every night before bed.
Last night, I was very surprised. He asked me, “Mom, is it time for you to go yet?”
I said, “No, I can cuddle a little bit longer. But then I need to go take a shower. Do you want to be done cuddling? Do you want me to go?”
He said, “No. But just tell me when it’s time for you to go. It doesn’t matter how long we cuddled. What matters the most is that we had a fun day yesterday playing in the snow.”
When I did tell him that it was time for me to go, he didn’t complain. He didn’t ask for more cuddles. We hugged and kissed, and then I left the room without a fight.
This is so huge. So very huge. Because I feel like the intentionality of giving him more attention throughout the day (while still keeping the boundaries we have set in place), “filled him up” sufficiently so that he was content. This is so rare.
I really wish this post was more put-together and tip-friendly. Unfortunately, this is kind of a big concept with a lot of overlapping factors, especially in how it touches our family.
I wrote this post because I 1) wanted to share Ezra’s improvements and 2) wanted to explain the “attention/affection check-in” concept with other parents of attention-seeking kiddos who may be struggling.