By Christine Raches, PsyD, HSPP, BCBA
Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, IU School of Medicine
Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development
Sometimes the smallest things are the most important. For example, positive attention, or responding to others in a way that demonstrates warmth and interest, is a small but important part of parenting. Particularly in interactions with children, positive attention instills a message of trust and security. Parents show positive attention through smiles, eye contact, gentle physical touch, the use of kind words that celebrate and lift up others, and by showing an interest in the interests, activities, and achievements of others. Research suggests that use of positive attention when interacting with children, reduces the frequency of negative behaviors. Children want and desire their parents’ attention and will do things to get it. When children learn that parents give more attention for positive behaviors than negative ones, the negative behaviors may diminish. The importance of positive attention begins in infancy and continues throughout childhood and into adulthood.
Receiving positive attention helps babies learn that they are important and valued members of a group. Infants learn that others can be trusted to take care of them and that they can bring enjoyment to those around them. Positive attention is demonstrated through loving interactions, experiences, and positive relationships. As children grow, positive attention plays a significant role in the initial development of a positive self-image. Positive attention helps children internalize the messages shared and helps them to develop confidence and the belief that they can achieve their dreams and goals.
How to Practice Positive Attention
In infancy, positive attention can be demonstrated by comforting the baby when he/she cries, smiling back when the baby smiles at them, responding to the baby’s cues, and “talking” with the baby about the environment. Older children (toddlers, preschoolers, school-age children) enjoy positive attention and parents can show it by telling the child exactly what they like about what they are doing (called “labeled praise”), even when it seems small. “I like how you are sitting in that chair patiently” or “I like when you help me pick up your toys” are such positive things for a child to hear! The use of a positive tone and a smile helps reaffirm the words that are being said. Try to give a lot of positive feedback for desired behaviors so that children know the way to get their parent’s attention is through positive things, not negative.
Another way parents can show positive attention to young children is to get involved in an experience with the child. Take a minute or two and examine the leaf that has caught his/her attention. Wonder out loud about its color or shape. Take time and build the Lego tower with him/her. Finally, when talking with a child, always leave time for the child to reply and respond. Children will learn that what they have to say is important and that adults are willing to listen. Aim for 15 minutes a day of one-on-one interaction with him/her and let him/her lead that time together. Show them that their interests matter and that others are willing to be a part of that experience. The little things can eventually become the big things!
Oops. I wasn’t positive
Positive attention is not something that can occur all the time, every time. Parents/caregivers have all had experiences when they just could not be positive, or, the situation was not one in which being positive was realistic. It’s okay. Children are resilient and can cope with occasional times when their parent/caregiver was unhappy, insensitive, unavailable, or distracted. The journey is important and it is not each individual incident that helps your child feel loved and secure. A pattern of positive attention and more positive interactions than negative interactions are what matter. Over time, many small moments of positive attention and interactions add up. Talk with a medical provider/therapist if you would like help increasing your instances of positive attention with your child.
Mullan, K. & Higgins, D. (2014). A safe and supportive family environment for children: Key components and links to child outcomes. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Social Services.
To Learn More
If you are interested in learning more about positive attention and how to interact positively with your child, please consider these websites:
- Child Mind Institute: https://childmind.org/article/the-power-of-positive-attention/
- CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/communication/goodbehavior.html
- Parent-Child Interaction Therapy: http://www.pcit.org/
Christine M. Raches, PsyD, HSPP, BCBA is a clinical psychologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the Riley Child Development Center-LEND Program. She currently serves as the Training Director for the LEND Program. She participates on an interdisciplinary team that conducts evaluations on children with suspected neurodevelopmental disabilities, behavioral disorders, or developmental delays. Dr. Raches is also an early intervention specialist, providing psychological evaluations and ongoing services in home- and clinic-based settings.