Quite often I meet with parents who are concerned about their child’s ploys for attention: a broody daughter’s mood swings, a tantrumming son’s belligerence, a withdrawn teenager’s prolonged silence or apathy. Should I ignore him? they wonder, concerned that if they pay their child any attention, they might be reinforcing a negative behaviour.
My answer to this is that any ploy for attention, no matter how unsavoury it may be to you, is still a cry for attention and you should listen to it. To ignore it or worse, punish it, won’t make the need go away, it will only frustrate and exacerbate it, increasing your child's sense of a deficit in attention from you and probably spurring him on to bigger and better ways of getting his needs met.
Instead, give your child the attention he needs.
Without indulging a behavior you do not condone, tell your child you’re concerned about his mood and/or acting out, and that you feel very badly that he’s suffering. Gently explain that, although you refuse to be the brunt of any aggression or rudeness (and please do remove yourself from a situation that is unacceptable to you!), you’d like him to come and talk to you when he feels ready to explain what’s going on with words. Tell him you’d like to understand him and help him feel better. Once your child has calmed down and, if he is still unable to put words on his feelings, which is pretty likely, offer some hypotheses of your own. Are you angry at your little sister? Frustrated with school? Upset about what someone said or did that hurt your feelings? Assume that your child is hurting for a reason and give him your unconditional loving support.
As a general rule, if your child seems excessively attention-seeking to you, make more time to be with him. Show him you are available and that you care. Curb the deficit by being more emotionally present. Just be there.