The Attention Control Game

It often seems that as I grow as a parent that I move from one trap to another. Things may be smooth for a while but then with one child or another I find myself involved with  a behavior that I don’t want but repeatedly seem to get into with my child. This behavior  might be something that only I get. Or when I bring it up to my spouse I may find that  she is dealing with it too. At some point I realize that this behavior is driving me crazy. I  realize my child knows “how to push my buttons” again. It could be tantrums, whining,  arguing, or other noxious behaviors that I don’t want. Yet, the more I respond to it the  more often I seem to yield that behavior from my child. How do I fall into these traps?

All parents fall into traps through what I call the “Attention – Control Game”. Other  parents tell me how their children know “how to push their buttons” too. Almost  all behaviors that “push our buttons” fall within this attention – control game. To  understand this game I divide children’s behaviors into four categories.

The first behavior category is one done just for attention. We all know how children seek  and need this vital resource. In fact it is important for children to get a lot of attention to  support the positive attributes they have. We need to give our children attention in order  to demonstrate their importance to us and to build their ego so they gain knowledge about  the good things they are able to do. Giving positive attention to our children is as vital a  role for us as it is a vital need for them.

The second category of behavior is one done just for control. These are behaviors that  kids do to control us or our response. It may be as simple as a long “please” and sappy  eyes just to get something at a store. But if it works to control us it provides them a  benefit beyond getting a candy. Kids need to have more control over time. They need  the sense of power to help support their budding egos. They need to know that they have  the power to control things for themselves in order to build confidence for encountering  the world outside our family.

A third set of behaviors that are important to children are ones that yield no attention or  control from a parent. Why are these important? These are self-sufficient behaviors.  These are things such as a child who spends hours on a drawing or a child who builds  with legos for a whole morning. These are behaviors that the child is drawn to from their  inner being. These flow from talents, skills, and areas of interest the child has and for a  large part doesn’t need the reinforcement that a parent’s attention can bring. We want  our children to discover these talents and skills. They need the opportunity to use them.  The self-fulfillment becomes reinforcement enough. And the child comes to value the  part of them that has that particular skill.

The last category of behavior is the one that traps us. All behavior that drives us crazy  falls into the category that gives the child attention and controls us. These behaviors are  often negative. They serve no logical use for the child. But regardless these negative  behaviors never change so long as the child gets attention for the behavior and controls  the parent’s response. It is this category that I emphasize whenever parents talk to me  about behaviors that are bothering them. Understanding this phenomenon of attention  and control is crucial in order to change our response and get out of negative behavior  traps.

Whether it is temper tantrums, refusal to go to bed, whining, or any other negative  behavior, if a parent can understand their response and how it reinforces the child’s  behavior, parents can then change their response and modify the child’s behavior  overtime.

In order to rid your house of negative behavior, three steps need to be taken.

1) The parent needs to ask how he (she) gives the behavior (such as temper  tantrums) attention.

2) The parent needs to understand how this behavior controls the parent’s  response. How does the behavior control you?

3) And finally the parent needs to make a conscious decision to control their  own reaction to a behavior and not give the child any attention for the negative  behavior.

If done correctly the parent can watch that behavior slowly disappear. And they will  be prepared for the next behavior that will drive them nuts when it inevitably appears.  Because our kids know how to push our buttons, it won’t be long before we fall into the  trap once again.