Dear Shimmy,

Lately, my son, age four, has been driving me crazy. It seems that, as long as I'm in the room and paying attention to him, everything's fine, but the second I receive a phone call or otherwise take the focus away from him, he starts whining and poking me. Inevitably, it's always at that very moment that he wants help with a toy, a drink, or to be escorted to the bathroom. Then, if I don't respond right away, he'll start poking and pushing his younger brother. I try to be calm with him, but his behavior is so irritating that lately I've been losing my temper with him. Help!!!

Irritated Mom in Teaneck

Dear Irritated Mom,

I'm sure your scenario is familiar to many a parent, myself included! I'd be honored to share with you what has worked in my own family, and hopefully it will be helpful to you.

The approach that I use is that of Dr. Rudolph Dreikurs, psychiatrist and author of, "Children: The Challenge." He identified four "mistaken goals" of misbehavior: attention, power, revenge, and inadequacy. According to Dreikurs, when children feel that their needs are not being met, they will misbehave with one of these four goals. In "Redirecting Children's Behavior," the parenting course I teach, I demonstrate what each of these goals might look like. Let's say, for example, that you ask your child to pick up a toy from the floor. A child who wants attention, for example, might kick the toy around or start playing with it. A child who wants power will most likely just refuse to pick it up. A child who wants revenge might yell hurtful things or throw the toy at someone. And a child who is expressing inadequacy may whine and complain that his knee hurts. According to Dreikurs, if you can identify the goal of the misbehavior and help the child find a productive and positive way to have his or her needs met, the misbehavior will go away.

When I read your description of what's going on with your son, an unmistakable pattern emerges. It seems pretty clear that your son desperately wants your attention and will use misbehavior to get it, and by all means, his approach is working! Sure, you may be able to stay calm and ignore him for a few moments, but as you say, eventually he'll get the attention he's asking for, in a negative way. If your son is exhibiting the mistaken goal of attention, he is, on some level at least, equating love with keeping you busy. Thus, you'll want to find a way to make your son feel loved without him forcing you to be busy with him while you're on the phone!

Here is what I recommend, based on the "Redirecting Children's Behavior" book and course mentioned above.

Step 1: Make no eye contact.
Step 2: Do not speak to him.

If you end here, however, you'll have an even bigger problem on your hands. With children who are seeking attention inappropriately, if you ignore them, they'll keep getting worse until you're forced to step in. So …

Step 3: Help your child to feel loved non-verbally.

First of all, I must tell you that, despite how strange this sounds, I've personally done this and it has worked really well. What I suggest is that you help your child to feel loved by moving toward him and stroking his hair or rubbing his back. Remember: no eye contact or talking and just the physical contact. This works because the child feels loved without getting the attention, and this forces him or her to rethink their mistaken goal. When I do this with my children, they tend to stop whining and causing trouble immediately, and they often sit next to me and wait for me to get off the phone.

It is so important, however, that (1) you ACT IMMEDIATELY. Don't wait for the behavior to get really annoying. And (2) you do it with the goal of making your son feel loved instead of just doing it to make the behavior stop.

Though it's outside the scope of this article to discuss in-depth the four goals and all of the possible redirections for each, I would urge you and those who want to learn more to purchase the book, "Redirecting Children's Behavior" by Kathryn Kvols, available from http://www.incaf.com.

I am confident that this approach will stop the attention-seeking behavior, and I hope this advice is helpful to you!

Rabbi Shimmy Trencher, MSW