When Children Act Out: “Seeking Negative Attention” or Needing to be Seen?

Decades ago, when I was in graduate school studying child psychology, I was taught that children often do things to get “negative attention.” At my clinical training sites, it was common to hear things such as, “Oh, Johnny is creating drama to seek negative attention” and “The best strategy is to ignore him.” When I questioned the reasoning behind this strategy, I was told that children act out because “Negative attention is still attention, and children like to get attention.” Therefore, ignoring the child was an effective way to extinguish negative behaviors. Even though it was an answer, the reasoning behind this approach never really made sense to me.

Now that I’m three decades into my career as a child psychologist, I believe that the concept of “seeking negative attention” doesn’t have a basis in what we know about children’s social and emotional development. There’s another way of looking at behavioral challenges, and that’s through the lens of relational neuroscience. This lens helps us understand behaviors as what a child instinctively does to survive in a world that often feels threatening. This is especially true for children who are particularly vulnerable in light of developmental or behavioral challenges.

I first began to view behavioral challenges through this different lens while working as part of a multidisciplinary team, whose members included occupational therapists, speech therapists, physical therapists, developmental pediatricians, and neurologists. Working alongside these professionals – who were, importantly, in disciplines outside of the mental health field – gave me the opportunity to study children’s behaviors from a variety of different perspectives. In doing so, I learned that there is so much more to behaviors than what we see at the surface. I learned that in order to truly understand the nature of a child’s behaviors, we need to have knowledge of the child’s individual differences, including how they interpret sensory information from the environment andfrom inside the body, which informs emotional and behavioral regulation.

Therefore, when children have explosive and persistent challenging behaviors, it’s a signal for adults to pay attention – it’s not a purposeful manipulation on the part of the child to get attention. This is an important distinction. The key point is that every human being has his or her own triggers, and unless we understand these triggers – whether it comes from the environment or from something internal to the child, like an intolerable sensation or an emotion – we will potentially miss the bigger picture in supporting children with behavioral challenges.

What I have found is that when we redefine behaviors from a “seeking negative attention” point of view to this more complex understanding, it shifts everything.  We move from blaming to investigating and ask the question: What kind of caring attention does this child need, at this moment, from the adults around him or her?

In the wise words of parent educator, Janet Lansbury, the message that children need to hear from adults when they are in a state of distress is: “We are here to help when you are out of control and we see the discomfort behind your behavior.” So instead of assuming that a child is seeking negative attention, say to yourself “Pay attention!” and work to discover what has triggered that child into distress. And most importantly, use the child’s behavior as a guide to find out what he or she needs from you relationally at that moment.

Update May 2019: I provide a roadmap for this lens shift for parents, educators and other providers in my new book Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges.

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