'Silent Attention': Giving kids the attention they need without 'giving in' to their antics

This is part six of a seven-part series on the SPECIAL emotional needs of children. The S is for Smile. The P is for Powerful. The E is for Explore. The C is for Connection. The I is for Important. Today we tackled the A — Attention.

There are a whole batch of Catch-22s when it comes to raising kids, but one of the most frustrating, in my opinion, revolves around a child's need for attention. It goes like this:

Your child needs your attention.

You are busy with other tasks and don't respond.

Your child acts in negative ways to win your attention.

Now you must respond. But how?

If you give the child positive attention, you're encouraging the negative behavior that got them what they wanted.

If you give the child negative attention (scolding, threatening, lecturing, shaming, guilting, bribing, etc.), it's likely to escalate the behavior. A child will keep creating more and more drama to feel heard, felt, understood, and loved.

If you ignore the child altogether, you ignore the fact that he legitimately needs your attention! The child will either give up on you (not a great thing, when you think about it), or escalate the behavior.

See — Catch-22. Or is it?

Actually, there is a way out. And it's applicable to a whole lot of situations. By giving your child what we call Silent Attention, you ignore the child's annoying behavior while giving him the positive attention he needs.

In other words, you ignore the child’s behavior without ignoring the child.

Let's say you have an attention-seeking kid on your hands, and you're busy helping another child with homework, or making dinner, or on an important phone call. So your attention seeker starts demanding your attention by, say, repeatedly interrupting the homework session; or whining for you to pick him up while you’re trying to make dinner, or tugging on your clothes while you’re on the phone.

Silent Attention means you keep doing what you were doing before, and take the following three steps.

Step #1: Avoid eye contact.

Step #2: Do not speak to the attention-seeking child.

Step #3: Gently and calmly move toward the child and make physical, loving contact as you continue to focus on what you were doing before.

No eye contact, no speech. Just touch. It could be rubbing the small of his back, or wrapping your arms around him, or letting him crawl into your lap. Whatever works best for the child.

In other words, you ignore the child’s behavior without ignoring the child.

So let's go back to our examples:

• Your five-year-old child keeps interrupting math homework time with an older child. You keep your focus on the equations in front of you while, at the same time, reaching out toward the five-year-old and rubbing his back. Notice how he is getting the attention he craves without interrupting your task? Magic! • Your toddler starts whining for you to pick him up while you’re trying to get dinner ready. While continuing to stir the soup or read the recipe, you touch your child lovingly, and kiss the top of her head a few times, until she loses interest and goes back to her toys.

• Your four-year-old won’t stop tugging on your clothes while you’re trying to finish a phone call. Without looking at the child, you crouch down and rub her back — thus providing the reassuring comfort of your touch without allowing her to break your personal boundary. She instantly stops tugging, and you didn't say a word.

Again, demands for attention are problematic because you are trying to provide attention without encouraging negative behavior. Although it may not be the only thing that's required of you, silent attention is an ingenious tool that side-steps the problem — at least until you're able to give your child some positive attention.

After all, he obviously needs it.

Read the next in the series here.