At times, a child’s challenging behaviors are fueled by his or her need for emotional contact with you, rather than a desire for attention. The need for emotional contact is genetically programmed, so if a child feels that connection is lost, he or she may act provocatively in an attempt to reconnect.

Of course, children do perform some types of behavior simply to seek attention. They might kick a chair leg or pinch a little sister. You may be able to ignore the kick to the chair, and you will need to have a disciplinary consequence for the pinch—perhaps a time-out or time-in—but behaviors can mean different things. The danger is in applying a one-size-fits-all set of disciplinary techniques to challenging behaviors. If a child’s behavior is saying “I need contact with you. I’ve lost our emotional connection. You haven’t said anything to me or touched me with affection for too long,” the behavior is more likely born from a need to rejoin with you emotionally. You are your child’s primary emotional regulator.

Let’s say you have been on the phone for twenty minutes. Most parents are certain kids have phone conversation radar. The truth is, twenty minutes is a long time for a young child to go without attention. So, if your child tugs on you, yells your name, or starts pulling out pots and pans, you could order a time-out, but that will result in stress chemicals flooding through each of your systems. You can instead respond playfully, which will release bonding opioids in both of your brains.

One playful approach to managing contact-seeking behavior is “car wash.” When your child’s behavior is telling you he or she needs emotional connection, pull the child onto your lap and playfully say, “Time to wash the car. Here is the car going through the car wash.” Then make swooshing sounds and sweep your hands in broad caresses over your child’s back. You will be reconnecting through fun, which is more helpful and satisfying than responding to challenging behavior with anger.

Model the joy of relationship.

Something to think about . . .

Kids love toys that make noise—especially if they are in control of the volume! If your child gets reinforcement for controlling your volume by getting you to respond with shouting and screaming, you can become, in effect, a perfect toy. If you give your child a positive moment of connection rather than raising your voice, you will be activating healthy chemicals. Over time, your child will be more likely to employ the loving approach to connection first, instead of relying on unappealing or annoying behaviors.