Dealing with Twinkling-eye, Attention-getting Behavior

by Kathleen Cuneo, PhD

How should I respond when my toddler seems to intentionally break rules just to get my attention? For example, with a twinkle in her eye, she will snag my cell phone and toddle off as fast as she can to the garbage.

twinkling eyesFirst, please accept my compliments to you for recognizing the "twinkle in her eye" and your daughter's goal of gaining your attention. One of the first steps in effectively dealing with child behaviors is to try to detect their underlying goal and message. You seem to have detected that your daughter's goal is to get your attention.

It's not uncommon for children to misbehave sometimes as a way of getting adult attention. However, there can be many reasons other than pure attention-seeking for misbehavior so make sure you're applying your detective skills with open, unbiased eyes.

So how do deal with that twinkle-eyed misbehavior? Below are a few suggestions for what to do and what not to do.


  • Use humor while acknowledging your child's wrongdoing. For example, "I see what you're up to!"said in a light-hearted, playful tone.
  • Point out your child's behavior, but redirect them to another activity, preferably a joint activity. For example, "You know you can't do that. Are you trying to tell me that you want me to play with you?"
  • If your child does not respond to the first two approaches and repeatedly insists on continuing the forbidden behavior, a time-out may be necessary. Successful implementation of time-outs can be complicated. Here is a brief description of how to do it.
    1. Direct your child to stop the behavior. Provide a warning with a consequence (e.g., "If you don't give me back my phone, you will have to go to time-out.")
    2. Follow through with the consequence if she doesn't stop as directed. Time-outs should be brief for toddlers (2 minutes) and should be followed by a brief statement of why the time-out was necessary and what can be done to avoid future time-outs.
    3. Make sure your child is able to get lots of your positive attention without having to misbehave. Take a look at your pattern of when and how you give your child your full attention.


  • Respond with anger or hostility. This interferes with your ability to provide a secure learning environment for your child.
  • Laugh, without any acknowledgement or correction of the behavior.
  • Punish your child with the goal of having your child feel "pain" in some way, and I don't just mean physical pain. I have spoken with parents who do not feel that their child has learned "their lesson" unless the child ends up in tears. And then these same parents often feel guilty for causing their child to cry, comfort them, and then confuse any potential teaching messages about behavior. When disciplining your child, always try to keep in mind the goal of teaching appropriate, acceptable behaviors.
  • Only give attention to your child when she misbehaves.

Kathleen Cuneo, Ph.D. is a psychologist, parent coach, and mom. Her mission is to empower parents to find their own parenting voice and develop strong connections with their children. Her free report, "30 Things You Can Do To Raise Self-Confident, Compassionate Children," is available at her site. Dr. Cuneo is also the director of Dinner Together, LLC. Her free e-newsletter offers consultation to families seeking to have more frequent, successful family meals and deal with the challenges of picky eaters.

Copyright © Kathleen Cuneo. Permission to republish granted to, LLC.