In my opinion, a parent’s consistent and regular positive attention to and engagement with their child is the single most important aspect of the parent – child relationship. Nothing says “I love you” or “you are important to me” more than that one on one time. It is the cornerstone of attachment and bonding between the child and parent. That positive attention says to the child “you are safe and secure”, “I am here for you”, “I value you”.
A part of my therapy practice involves children or teens acting out in a negative manner. Some of the time it is in order to get their parent’s attention. If parents won’t pay attention to them when they are being good, well then they say, “I’ll do exactly what they don’t want me to do” and then see if they pay attention. For younger children, they may fuss or throw a tantrum in hopes of getting a parental response. And when the child gets a response from a parent in this way, they know which emotional hot button to push in order to get attention and the game begins.
Unfortunately, by the time a family arrives in my office for help, the problems have often escalated beyond a simple fix. What were originally minor infractions by the child in order to get a parent’s attention may have escalated into full blown rebellion with damaged trust between child and parent. Unfortunately, it often leaves the original cause of the behavior, the need for positive attention, forgotten.
Once negative attention seeking behavior starts, parents often struggle to figure out what is happening and how to effectively deal with it. Our parenting style can impact even the way in which we think about what is happening. Authoritarian-oriented parents may see the behavior simply as open defiance to their authority without stopping to examine why. And they may respond with attempts to exert more and more control of their child’s behavior, often driving an emotional wedge between them deeper and deeper. Permissive-oriented parents don’t understand why their children would misbehave when they get what they want 90% of the time. And they may have pleaded, begged and bribed their way into virtual despair in an attempt to get their children’s behavior under control.
The result of a lack of positive attention by a parent to a child, is that the child will adapt somehow, depending upon their age and personality characteristics. However, that adaptation may be in an unhealthy manner. For instance, teens’ natural developmental processes drive them to engage peers in search of their own identity. If they do not receive some balance and perspective from positive engagement at home, their primary experiences and information flowing to them about life is largely peer driven.
Pre-teens are caught in a world which, is simply confusing. Just prior to the onset of puberty, their brain grows substantially in preparation for the learning that is ahead of them throughout adolescence and young adulthood. Their bodies are growing and changing. They have begun to see, think, and feel about the world in ways which are no longer childlike, but neither are they adolescents or adults. Lacking effective understanding of their changes or possessing adult coping skills to explain their thoughts and feelings along with simply struggling to feel sane at times, pre-teens, already lost in their own world, may choose to withdraw and isolate even further. And younger children, who rely completely on parents for guidance, boundaries, values, safety and security, may feel abandoned or rejected without frequent and consistent positive engagement with parents.
In a perfect world, our time would be well balanced between work, home, and our other engagements and responsibilities to life and our communities. There would be time to spend with our children, spouses, partners and friends without having to compromise our own down time or forgoing sleep. But, the demands of life, as we often live it, encroach steadily upon our time and attention, draining away our attention from those we love in snippets of text which turn into paragraphs and pages over time and eat up our time and attention.
If we are able to put down our tablets and phones we can see the beauty and joy of our children in all they do. Don’t let the electronic tether, with its constant demand for information and engagement, encroach upon what little precious time you have available with your children at the park, beach, school functions, recitals or plays. Set your limits and boundaries and use the technology wisely. Model the limits for your children and don’t let technology take you away from your children or your children away from you.