The Power of Positive Attention

Everyone at every age can thrive on positive attention! It feels good when someone focuses his or her full attention – in a good way – on you. Children, especially, need that attention in order to grow emotionally, develop their self-esteem, confidence, and a positive sense of identity.

But as parents, we get busy and forget to pay attention and give praise when our child does something we like or are proud of. When children feel ignored, or their attempts to get your attention fail, it can sometimes lead to challenging behavior, such as coloring on the walls or throwing toys. This is sometimes known as seeking negative attention.

If you’re spending more time pointing out or correcting misbehaviors, it might be time to focus your efforts on using “positive attention,” focusing on “catching them being good.”

Why use positive attention?

Parental attention is a powerful tool. When you give your child positive attention, you are building their self-esteem and confidence, as well as trust and a closer bond with you.

On the flip side, if you mostly pay attention to your child when they are displaying challenging or negative behaviors they will learn that if they want your attention they should chase the cat around the house or hide your car keys.

“Positive attention,” notes the Child Mind Institute, “requires a lens shift in which we call out kids for good behavior and ignore (at least in the moment) the not-so-good.”

Positive attention in action

Positive attention simply means “catching your child in the act” of doing something positive, whether it’s a behavior or a task. This could include: cleaning up their toys, sharing nicely with their sibling, saying “thank you,” waiting patiently in line, feeding the dog, picking out their clothes for school, etc.

There are many ways to give positive attention to your child, including:

  • smiling
  • hugging
  • nodding
  • eye contact
  • showing interest in your child’s interests and accomplishments
  • giving specific praise, especially praise of their effort

With positive attention you can give praise for any behavior you want to see repeated. Specific phrases that note exactly what your child is being praised for are much more powerful than general phrases like “good job”. For example: “Thank you for petting the kitty so gently. Your nice touches made the kitty feel calm and happy.” Describe what you see them doing or saying. When you point out the impact of their positive behavior, the praise becomes more powerful.

Your ultimate goal will be to support your child to behave well even when you are not there to see it. To achieve this, you can help them notice when they are proud of themselves, by asking about their feelings. “How does it feel when the kitty purrs when you pet her?” This will go a long way in building your child’s self esteem.

Other points to consider:

  • Did he put away most of his toys?
    • Notice that some toys got put away, rather than what did NOT get done. “Thank you for putting those toys away. It helps Daddy when you clean up after you play.”
    • Lend a hand to finish the job. Doing a chore together is giving your child attention and support.
    • You don’t need to wait until a task is complete or “perfect” before you offer praise. Praise can be offered when your child starts a task or makes an effort. Praising the effort rather than the outcome is a powerful way to increase their effort and shows that you are noticing what they are doing.
  • To build confidence and independence, give praise when your child takes care of themselves while you are doing what you need to, such as getting their own drink of water, or picking out their clothes for the day while you make breakfast. Little ones want to be “big” more than anything. “Look at how grown up you are, getting your own drink of water! How do you feel when you can do things for yourself?”

Pay attention to your attention

Positive attention can also come in the form of intentional time spent together, such as playing your child’s favorite game, reading books together, going on a post-dinner walk in the neighborhood, or baking together. Follow your child’s lead by asking them to choose the activity and then doing it the way they want to do it. Even 20 minutes of focused fun together invests in your relationship, and goes a long way to build a solid foundation to rely on when times or situations are more difficult.

At the end of the day, your child just wants to feel loved and valued. It takes effort to incorporate positive attention into your day. But once you make it a habit to point out when your child is being helpful or making positive choices, dishing out positive attention will become second nature to you.

This article is brought to you by Parenting Now Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson ( 

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