For a long time I misunderstood this term. When a friend first pointed this out to me I assumed that he meant that I was giving Negative attention. Kid's want attention. They thrive on it. They find all kinds of ways to get it. By being silly, sad, smart, helpful, whiny, sad, creative...and sometimes negative.
It goes like this: whatever guarantees the greatest response... the kid goes with it. I have been told that kids don't differentiate between the kinds of attention they get. Attention is attention. I also believe that most children accidentally stumble upon the ways in which to achieve it. For example, Johnnie was an early talker...."wow Johnnie is talking so early!" says grandma, "He must be really smart" "Look!" brags dad, "he is putting together a five word sentences at age two!" His teacher reports, " Johnnie is a bright kid, in class he is always the first to raise his hand and give the answer", You beam. I believe, Johnnie, by a fluke of being an early talker, accidentally figured out that talking was his ticket! To what? Why attention of course!!!!
Now lets look at Johnnies brother...(that would be my Michael), but we will call him Joe. Joe came into the world colicky. A beautiful child, really, but as he grew mom and dad noticed he was not quite as effervescent as his brother Johnnie. Things did not come as easy to Joe, he talked late, crawled and walked early, and had high energy. Joe was into EVERYTHING! Mom was stymied, Johnnie was so easy and here Joe had to be watched constantly. Every time she turned her back it seemed Joe got into everything. They loved him to death. He was just beautiful and had a really kind heart but lets face it, Joe drove mom and dad a little crazy. He tested everything. When they said no he did it anyway or threw a temper tantrum. He was high-strung, never sat down, and climbed on everything. He really was very sweet but getting through the day with him was exhausting. All attempts to correct behavior seemed to fall on deaf ears...Every day mom vowed not to lose her temper and yell, but lets face it the Joe's of the world can wear you down. So, what has Joe gleaned from his life so far, accidentally? That he gets attention from his over the top behavior. Joe's subconscious says "I am the naughty one". Now remember, before you say... like I did, "BUT I GIVE JOE A LOT OF POSITIVE ATTENTION TO OFFSET THE ATTENTION HE GETS FOR NEGATIVE BEHAVIOR!"
Kids will go with the behavior that gets the strongest response. Now they don't sit around and analyze you, and think "oh yeah, I"m going with the bad behavior cause look at the attention I got for that one!". No they are not that sophisticated. I believe it's more of an innate drive/need thing. I think a kids natural temperament lends itself to what type of behavior they stumble upon first. Kids come into the world with all kinds of inborn temperaments. Some are naturally bubbly, calm, patient, stubborn, more sensitive, I think you can get the picture. A bubbly talkative kid has a good chance on stumbling on the: If I talk and I am smart or funny...approach to attention, like Johnnie.
The behavior that seems to guarantee a good reaction/attention, as well as how much time spent on the response can determine which behavior they are more likely to repeat. (ex: do you spend one minute telling him that his art is beautiful and five minutes balling him out for writing on the wall). Hmmmmm. If attention is your main goal, which one would you go with?
Thus begins the vicious cycle of Negative Attention. Let me be clear, if you are giving more time and attention to bad behavior then you stand a good chance at creating a Negative Cycle. It took me years to learn this and when I did, the good news is that it is pretty simple to reverse. The one thing I must caution is, as with my Michael, if it goes on too long, it can go from an occasional blunder to who they are. It can become their personality and it will. Witnessing Michael become this child who was snarky, defensive and stubborn broke my heart.
When my friend explained all this to me I made some changes. Here is what I changed.
When my child does something positive/good behavior I give it at least ten minutes of attention. I make a VERY big deal about it. I will also refer to the good deed/behavior frequently to others in his presence. When my child does something negative/poor behavior I now give it 30 seconds to 1 min. max time reaction. I remark on the behavior, dole out the consequence, and move on. I was amazed how well this worked. Very quickly, I noticed improvements.
You will find that your child has a strength that he/she will naturally convert too as their new "go to" approach/behavior for attention. Ex: Michael is funny. I never realized just how funny. So when I catch him being funny, I really yuk it up....really yuk it up. Amazingly, slowly, I am seeing Michael use humor much more frequently, instead of using snarky comments or making poor behavior choices. Michael is re-defining himself as "I am funny" (his subconscious says...I'M GETTING ATTENTION!!)
Michael is accidentally stumbling into a Positive Attention Rut!!!!
Hope this helps! QAnnie