Is Your Attention Damaging Your Child?

Attention is a very powerful positive reinforcer. “What you pay attention to grows“. It’s operant conditioning. So if you are paying more attention to your child’s annoying behaviours while not praising the good ones, more such behaviours are going to manifest. Let’s understand this concept with the help of a simple example.

Case Scenario: Picture this. A child playing by himself, mother in the kitchen and father busy on phone. Child enthusiastically calls out “mumma come, papa see” and hardly gets a response. Mother says ” I am cooking food” while father momentarily looks up to nod and is back on the phone. “Papa mere sath khelo” is met with “hmm or khud se khelo” without even looking up from the screen. Suddenly there is a big loud noise because toys have been banged and child finds mother coming to have a look while shouting “what happened?”. Father has finally looked up from the phone to give a full glaring look and the whole conversation at the home has turned around him. Let’s now analyze different aspects of this example.

Themes in the case: Child’s self play has no observer. His attempts to engage his parents go unheeded. Bang of the toy gets him attention from all directions. What is the learning for the child?

Analysis: Self engaging behaviour is not heeded while inappropriate act is catered to; signaling to the child that something disruptive is needed to get your full attention. Child learns that his discipline and requests doesn’t get him that time of yours which he wants but indiscipline does. If such interactions are consistently repeated, child’s learning starts becoming a belief. Behaviours get ingrained in their neural structure and become part of their personality. Now it’s a habit, means it has become a repetitive enduring pattern. It happens despite of the child. It’s now the default mode till the settings are changed and we all know how daunting changing settings is.

Assumptions: In our early childhood we learn from our initial experiences and form assumptions. Later these become beliefs which then drive the pattern for rest of our lives until we make concentrated efforts to repattern ourselves. In this case child can assume “ I am not as important as that phone or that work. Maybe I am not good enough” or “Nobody needs me, they are happy in themselves”. When it happens consistently it becomes a belief. So even when they are doing well in their lives they will still feel inferior to others in their field (Belief: I am not good enough). They can develop fear of abandonment (Belief: Nobody needs me). They can become people pleasers/ commitment phobes/ indifferent to avoid being abandoned. Scary?? You need not panic. Such beliefs are formed only when these episodes occur frequently and consistently get similar response. Now that we are aware we can change our response.

Assess your Interactions: Pay attention to your daily interactions with your child. Does it feels that certain behaviours that annoy you are just to get your attention. Also notice the repetitiveness of behaviour as well as your response. Try to identify the antecedents as best as you can. The antecedent could be hunger, playing past sleep time or a rough day at school. Consequences are the way you pay attention, punishment or reward which further continues the loop. It’s called the ABC of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. It’s a very effective and widely used model. I have applied it with great success.

Solution: Increase the desirable behaviours and decrease undesirable ones. How?? Ask yourself ” Is some imminent harm on the way if I do not mediate?” Answer truthfully and do not pay attention to the disturbing behaviour if no harm is imminent. Be consistent so that new learning happen which is disruptive behaviours are no longer going to get attention. If you have been able to identify the antecedents, try to resolve them. This will help in decreasing unwarranted behaviour. At the same time start noticing and praising desirable behaviours to increase them. If you want to know more about using praise in a proper way read this article. Don’t try to make all the changes at the same time. Take help when you need otherwise it can become overwhelming.

Conclusion: The behaviours which get your immediate full attention consistently will increase. Unwarranted attention to disruptive behaviours not only increases those behaviours but also creates unhealthy belief patterns. Reinforce constructive behaviours while ignoring disruptive behaviours as best as you can. You will have to be strong and consistent. You will fail at times and need help in getting out of the old pattern. Seek help when overwhelmed.

My learnings: Not paying attention to “banging toys” is easier said than done. Inattention to undesirable behaviours is by far the most difficult task in my observation. We have been biologically wired to sense danger and react. You can only change the response. With diligent practice from launching into full condescending lecture, I have come to just one glance or sternly saying his name before looking the other way as I remember my lessons. I am not perfect yet but I do think my own experiences can be helpful. So please reach out if you want to understand more or just for kind gentle support. There is a need for balance or you can get overwhelmed and stressed out. My grounding practices are meditation and hitting the pause button. What are your’s?? Do give feedback as it helps me and also mention your specific concerns for your child. Don’t feel alone. Reap the power of the community and feel supported.

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About Dr. Mona Choudhary

After MBBS, I did my MD(Psychiatry) from PGIMER, Dr. RML Hospital, New Delhi now a Centre of Excellence in Mental Health. As a Consultant Psychiatrist I view my clients as persons and not merely an illness to be fixed. I assess and treat various mental health disorders with the goal of making my clients more resilient. My current focus of work is Parental well being and guidance as it can significantly improve quality of life and shape our kids to withstand pressure and excel in their lives.
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15 thoughts on “Is Your Attention Damaging Your Child?

  1. It’s very true especially today’s when both parents are engaged in job. Adding icing on it is our gadgets and apps which has both sides negative and positive. Well written article.

  2. It’s very true especially today’s when both parents are engaged in job. Adding icing on it is our gadgets and apps which has both sides negative and positive. Well written article helpful to today’s busy parents

  3. Very nice article. Congrats Dr Mona for making the understanding of this subject so clear for all parents. Meditation, I agree, is the game changer and brings all the pieces of the puzzle of child upbringing mysteriously in place. That’s my experience too!

  4. The child who is being so excited and enthusiastic to show his/her potential in playing that game at home with father has been a discovery for his growth and development. It could be a mere play or any miniscule act for the parents but for him it’s a way of recognising his victory over something new may be some challenge he has conquered. But alas!! Both mother and father are ignorant about this fact because they might think that it is their responsibility to show him the right approach to various activities be it a play or handling other chores. In this culture the child’s capabilities are repressed and he is commanded very effectively by the adults.
    We as parents should be ready to see what kind of discovery the child is referring to rather then paying attention to what wrong deed he has done because whatever he is doing without parents instructions or directions is like a no no for him.
    POOR CHILD..

    1. Thank you for your interesting observation and feedback. You are right that we should share in their enthusiasm when they are young else when they grow big they won’t share. Hope more parents start understanding that.

  5. Nicely written Dr Mona. I guess it is a common experience of parents. Looking forward to more articles from you.

  6. Makes so much sense! The practical examples also help illustrate the concept much better. This is not just the case with children but even puppies I think 🙂

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