The Negative Attention Trap

It's not just that positive parental attention has more power to shape positive behavior in a child than negative parental attention does, but excessive negative attention can help make some misbehavior immeasurably worse.

Misbehaving for Attention

Consider the following situation. Despite her father's nightly warnings about not spilling at supper, the child manages to spill something at least once a week, causing the father to regularly lose his temper in response. “What's the matter with you? How many times do I have to tell you to be careful! What do I have to do to get you to watch what you're doing? You keep on spilling when you know how angry that makes me!”

Then, after the child has been sent from the table, the father wonders, “Why does she keep spilling when she knows how upset I get?” Of course, the father's answer is in his question. That's why the child spills: to get a lot of negative attention from her father.

Why would a child want negative attention?

  • Negative attention feels better than no attention.

  • By his reacting so predictably when she spills, the child gains apparent control over his behavior.

  • There is a sense of power in being stubbornly uncorrectable.

  • When he acts so extremely upset, she knows she has his full attention.


Critical parents, who find it easier to get angry than to give approval, are easily caught in negative attention traps.

Changing Negative Focus into Positive Focus

Actually, if her father had kept a clearer focus, he could have discovered what to do from what he sometimes did. The key to his understanding is that, in anger, he believed she spilled “every night,” but on emotionally sober reflection, he realized that some nights, like last night, she doesn't spill.

Why not? What contact did he and she have before supper? For whatever reason, last night he had the energy to play a game before they sat down to eat. Maybe, because she was given positive attention to begin with, she didn't need to provoke bad attention in the end.

If the father wants to escape this negative attention trap, he needs to change a number of his behaviors.

  • He needs to withhold negative attention when the spill occurs and not act upset or get angry.

  • He should shift into neutral emotionally, and matter-of-factly ask the child to clean up the spill, asking her to get a kitchen sponge and mop it up, thanking her when the cleanup is accomplished.

  • He should give some specific instruction about how to hold the glass differently to avoid spilling.

  • He should find dinner table behaviors in his child to which he can give positive attention, like praise for helping set the table.

  • He needs to increase other kinds of positive attention he generally gives the child away from the dinner table, like taking special time to play with her when he gets home from work.

  • He needs to use his own affirming responses to encourage desirable behavior in his daughter, replacing a punitive relationship with a positive one.

Although the child is used to getting angry attention from her dad, she will quickly prefer getting loving attention from him instead. When it comes to parental attention, negative may feel better than no attention, but positive feels better than negative.

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