Thirteen years ago, my husband and I were granted temporary guardianship of a young relative of mine.  This kiddo had difficult behaviors and struggled with emotional challenges. It was a “baptism by fire” awakening for my husband and I. We had never parented before and quite honestly, had no idea what we were doing. To say it was hard is quite the understatement.

During the time we had him, I witnessed and received the force of some extreme behavioral issues. One particular moment has remained in my mind for years. This child was literally running, yelling, hopping through the house and absolutely getting on every single nerve in my body. I finally caught up to him, gently put my hands on his shoulders and said, “Do you need some attention right now?” He paused for a moment, then said, “Yes.” Aha! There it was. This was the first time I actually recognized his impulsive behaviors as a way to get my attention.

Negative attention-seeking behaviors are exactly what their name implies. Kids exhibit negative behaviors in order to seek attention from others – parents, teachers, peers. These behaviors can range from a simple annoyance to more destructive in nature. They can also become habitual. When I train foster families, I often tell them that for some kids, negatively seeking attention through behavioral issues is literally the only way they can get a reaction or interaction with their biological parents. They have learned, “In order for Mom or Dad to pay attention to me, I have to do something really bad” – thus, the cycle begins.

It is difficult but also important to work on creating new habits for children. We can teach children that they do not have to behave in an unruly or unloving manner just to get attention.  In many ways, the responsibilities solely lie on the caregivers and parents. The children who seem unreachable or hardened by an outer shell of bad life experiences deserve the warmth that love can render.

When I think of the quote, “kids who need love the most will often ask for it in the most unloving ways,” I instantly think of my relative who once lived with us (and even our kiddos right now).  It speaks of an essential truth in raising children who are a bit hard to love (at times) – the truth that it can be challenging to be super loving to a child who is extremely hard to manage, even when you know the child needs love the most. Sometimes, these kids will act in ways that feel like a rejection but it is in these moments, we need to remind ourselves that these children are in need of love, assurance, and validation and that these things are not dependent on conditions.

Kids who need love the most just might ask for it in the most unloving ways. If we look at growing these kids just like we do gardens, then we need to remember to stop watering the weeds and start watering the flowers.