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What Is Negative Attention?

By Megan Shoop
Updated Feb 09, 2024
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Negative attention usually occurs in two basic situations. The first is when a child misbehaves and a parent or guardian scolds him or her. In such a case, the adult is giving the negative attention, and the child is receiving it. The second scenario typically occurs between two people in a romantic relationship. This occurs when one party both gives and seeks negative attention, generally by engaging in smothering or threatening behaviors.

Children often seek negative attention when they don’t receive enough of the positive kind. Although being scolded and punished is usually unpleasant, the child feels validated by this negative reinforcement and may seek more. This pattern often starts a cycle wherein a child’s disobedience and poor behavior escalates because he or she wants additional attention.

Parents and cargivers with children in this cycle aren’t necessarily 'bad parents.' In fact, many people with seriously misbehaving children are good parents with busy schedules or who misunderstand why the child is acting out. Children that behave in this way also are not usually 'bad.' They are simply youngsters who have found a way to get the attention they crave, even if it is negative.

Those noting that their child is in this cycle can usually train themselves and the child out of giving and craving negative attention. For instance, instead of rewarding poor behavior with scolding, parents can choose to compliment the child when he is behaving well. Small rewards, like a favorite snack or a small toy given as a surprise, can reinforce good behavior. Parents might also try looking at their schedules and make time for a few positive activities to share with the child on a regular basis.

Rewarding good behavior isn’t the only way to end the cycle of negative activity. Even well-behaved children sometimes need discipline, but the key to correction usually involves handling things calmly. Instead of raising one’s voice, a soft, firm tone is typically effective. When the child begins behaving again, he or she should be rewarded with positive attention and praise.

The second kind of negative attention generally occurs between romantic partners. In this kind of case, one partner typically craves recognition and gives his or her partner negative attention in order to get it. This behavior may involve relentless phone calls or texts, inconvenient visits, or starting arguments. By doing these things, the disruptive party is trying to keep himself or herself in the other partner’s focus.

In such situations, the partner receiving the negative attention should separate himself or herself from the argumentative partner before things escalate. Sometimes, if the disruptive partner feels the other is not adequately focused on him or her, the smothering attention may shift to verbal abuse and physical threats to gain notice. In cases like this, the partner on the receiving end must protect himself or herself by separating from an abusive partner.

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Discussion Comments
By anon927408 — On Jan 24, 2014

I am in a relationship with a severe ME sufferer, whose neurological glitches mean that when energy is low, his ability to receive affectionate teasing is minimal. He has often had to end the phone call because I have laughed affectionately at something he has said that he has not understood as in any way funny or endearing. When he does react this way, it leaves me feeling upset and negates what has been up to then a harmonious conversation. So his histrionics can be attributed to his illness, but they present as histrionics all the same and it is hard. I try and be as patient and as careful with what I say as possible but if I am tired, or have a cold, or preoccupied with work, it is easy to be more offhand with him.

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