“He’s just doing it to get attention”: An OT’s Perspective about meeting Behavioral needs of Children

Your child has thrown themselves on the floor of the grocery store, right in front of your cart in a sprawled and tyrannical fashion. Or, your child has drawn letters in permanent marker all over your newly painted dining room wall. Maybe your child is actively picking on their sibling, spitting gum in their ear, taking scissors to their hair, tying them to the front yard maple tree, stealing food from their plate, or relentlessly teasing them. Even worse, maybe your child is showing up for a juvenile detention hearing for the umpteenth time for typical neighborhood vandalism.

How would a seasoned parent or caregiver react to these behaviors? Be honest. Would your initial reaction be full of sheer anger and shock? Would you automatically pull out your proactive, authoritative parent tool kit and tackle this problem logically? An experienced parent who has been exposed to endless behavioral issues from their child probably has the same reaction as everyone else: fatigue, numbness, eye-rolling, and a slight dash of sarcasm. Our verbal reaction is unanimous: "He/she is just doing this to get attention".

Here is why there is so much wrong with familiarizing ourselves with this saying: "He/she is just doing this to get attention":

  • Well of course your child is doing something to get attention! The second a child is conceived in the womb, he or she is asking for attention from a loving and caring parent. They heavily depend on adults for survival: food, liquids, medicine, etc. Methods for getting attention are loud and upsetting because the child is unable to verbalize their needs at an early age. As the child gets older and gets basic language down, they communicate in ways that can be very irritating to a parent because they can't quite formulate what they want on an abstract level. This often includes a need for social interaction to communicate their internal problems that parents struggle with seeing on the surface.
  • It's a very self-limiting and degrading phrase: By regularly using this phrase, you are telling your child that you are not going to do anything to help their situation. You have decided that their problems are smaller and insignificant as compared to yours.
  • It's an admittance of defeat: You have come to terms with the fact that you can do absolutely nothing to help your child. You, the parent who is supposed to be taking the lead and guiding your child through a life that they haven't lived yet.

Behavioral problems in children are many and can be very difficult to interpret, especially if they are unable to verbally communicate. For some parents, maybe you think you have tried to provide every solution known to mankind and nothing has worked. From an OT's perspective, take a step back and try or revisit some of these approaches:

  • Get off your phone: One of the sole problems with children attempting to get attention in the most maladaptive ways is because every adult on this planet is glued to their phone screens. Put down your phone and give your child the face-to-face attention that they crave and desire.
  • Prioritize your relationship with your child: Why do you have a child in the first place? It's not usually because you need a new wall decoration or because you want someone else to raise your child. Create a lifestyle for yourself that heavily involves connecting with and providing for your child.
  • Meet the basic needs: This is essential for young children or children who can't speak very well. Review basic needs that need to be met: dirty diapers, toileting needs, illnesses, hunger, thirst, and sleep. Get to know your child and memorize what unmet needs produce what behavioral responses.
  • Check your attitude: Being a parent of a complicated child is challenging and very wearing on your emotions. The last thing you want to do is to combat your child's behavioral outbursts with your very own.  Commit to a daily update on yourself. Consistently check up on your own attitude while communicating with your child. Arrange for breaks and time away from your child and your house. Find ways to actively participate in hobbies or tasks that you find enjoyable, no matter how time-limiting your daily routine is.
  • Consult with a professional: If you are a loving and committed parent who has tried everything you can think of, consult with a specialist. This may include primary physicians, therapists, counselors, behavioral specialists, nutritionists, psychiatrists, etc. Don't stress yourself out thinking that you have to know everything about raising a child with behavioral issues.