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Why do kids act up when they want your attention?

If your child is seeking your attention, they might not express it as you’d expect them to. In fact, sometimes they ‘play up’ or act out, and you may wonder why your child acts out when looking for attention.

Instead of punishing them and pushing them away even more, see it as a sign that they need your support and love more than ever.

In these moments, especially when you’re feeling tested, it’s important to remember that children are just children. And sometimes, kids who need love ask for it in the most unloving way.

Why your child acts out?

Unlike most adults, children have difficulty recognising and regulating their emotions. This lack of regulation can lead to them acting out and make you wonder why your child is behaving this way.

They might feel frustrated, upset, have unfilled wants or just need your focus. Our kids feel safest with us, so they can tend to push the boundaries at times.

When trying to figure out why kids act out, you need to consider what you do as well. They know they will get your attention by acting out, even if it’s negative. So really, it’s your attention they’re looking for… just not in the best way.

One of the best things you can do is help them navigate their feelings and teach them how to express them. Try using emotion cards as a tool to help with this.

Don’t shut down any feelings they might be experiencing. All emotions should be validated, both positive and negative. We can’t be happy all of the time.

If your child says they are feeling sad, frustrated, or angry, ask them why they are feeling this way and then work together to find a solution to the problem.

Image of a young white boy with blonde hair in a yellow long sleeve top and blue pants laying on a bed struggling with a headless parent in a blue long sleeve shirt over a tablet whilst the parent is likely wonder why your child acts out

Signs of attention-seeking behaviour

In your quest as a parent to discover why your child acts out, you must first understand what behaviours may be considered acting out.

Here are some common behaviours that may be considered attention-seeking or acting out:

  • Raising their voice
  • Lashing out
  • Throwing things
  • Running away
  • Crying
  • Interrupting you
  • Playing up
  • Being destructive

How to help your children navigate their feelings

The core reason or answer to the question of ‘why do kids act out?’ all comes down to emotions. Kids don’t quite know how to properly deal with them.

This is where you come in and help them navigate things, and there are some key ways to do this.

1. Empathise

Show them you understand why they are feeling that way. Tell them it’s okay to feel a range of emotions.

Tell them, ‘I understand why you are angry, but you can’t hit Mummy. Let’s talk about why you are angry’. 

We are our child’s teacher. They learn from us. Try telling them when you are angry and how you deal with that emotion.

2. Be their ‘safe place’

If they’re upset, stay close to your child. Even if they’re lashing out or angry, listen to them and tell them you’re here for them.

Don’t send them to their room or make them go away from you. Kids act out because they want to be close to you, and sending them to their room won’t solve the problem.

3. Keep your child stimulated

Sometimes, kids act up because they are bored or unstimulated. You could get outside and play or do some cooking together.

If you’re distracted or busy doing something else, find ways to entertain them whilst you do what you need to.

4. Give them one-on-one time

Give your child some one-on-one time if you have other children. It isn’t always possible to do this.

A chat, a walk, doing a puzzle together, reading a book together – anything simple that keeps you both connected.

5. Set clear boundaries and stick to them

If your child tends to run off at the park, say in a calm but firm voice, ‘we are going to play, but if you run off, then we will have to go home because Mummy won’t be able to watch you’. 

Once there, give them a warning and tell them the next time you’ll have to go home. If your child acts out and keeps pushing, then go home. Tell them it’s okay, you’ll try again next time.

6. Make sure there aren’t any sensory issues

Image of a mixed race boy of colour screaming with a white brick wall behind probably triggering the question of why do kids act out

If your child is acting out for no clear reason, it might be down to a sensory issue or disorder. This may mean removing stimuli to help them calm themselves.

A lot of children with autism have sensory issues. You can speak to your doctor or paediatrician for advice.

7. Seek help if you suspect a health condition

Children with ADHD, anxiety, mental health or compulsive disorders also act up for various reasons.

If you’re concerned that the core issue related to why your child acts out is medical, seek help from a medical professional.

8. Get support

Image of a white female doctor with brown shoulder length hair wearing a white lab coat and stethoscope sitting at a table that has a laptop on it and writing with pen and paper with a young white blonde haired girl in a white shirt who's back is to the camera likely discussing why do kids act out

If you are still struggling with your child’s antisocial behaviour and constantly ask yourself, why do kids act out? There might be another reason behind it. They might be bullied at school, trying to impress their peers or suffering from something deeper.

Get support for your child and also for yourself. Many doctors can point you in the right direction toward psychologists or other health professionals.

Many parents wonder why do kids act out. Whatever the reason why your child acts out. Hang in there, be patient and know you’re not alone. Also, let your child know you’re there for them, no matter what. That might be all they need to stop their negative behaviour.

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