Facilitating Directed Conversations

The past few weeks have brought about drastic changes for most people. This is a confusing moment for adults and likely even more confusing for our kids. No matter how old a person is, everyone’s schedules, routines, interactions, and responsibilities have changed considerably due to Coronavirus. One comment I’ve heard from several parents is that they’ve recently experienced new behaviors from their children, including neediness and attention-seeking.


Attention-seeking behavior occurs when specific needs are not being met. Typically, this is because the person is unable to identify the need or unable to work through their emotions and self-soothe. Thus, when we see attention-seeking behavior from our children, it is important to figure out the “what” and “why” to remedy the behavior. In this newsletter, I will walk us through how to initiate direct and systematic conversations with children to reduce attention-seeking behaviors.


Figuring Out the What & Why

It is vital to figure out what our child is feeling and why they are feeling it to effectively determine how to meet their needs. It is very difficult to satiate needs without knowing what they are, and attention-seeking behavior will often escalate until the need is met.


Let’s look at an example. A few parents have said that they think their child’s attention-seeking behavior results from missing their friends and school. These parents tried various ways to give their kids more attention; for example, one parent took their child on a long drive for some “quality time.” Alas, the behavior persisted. While this parent may be correct in assuming that their child misses school, it is clear that the parent is not meeting the specific need motivating their child’s behavior. If they were meeting the need via “quality time,” the drive would be satiating, and the behavior would lessen.


So, let’s talk about figuring this out! Luckily, most parents can determine what their child is feeling and why by simply having a focused conversation with them. Once you figure out what and why, you can make a plan to remedy the behavior. If your child is nonverbal, you can rely on pictures, social stories, and observation to understand how your child is feeling and the reason behind it. No matter what the situation is, parents must get these answers from their child’s perspective. Do not guess, let your kids do the hard work!


You may experience resistance from your kids when trying to discuss these topics. Be persistent and know that this exercise will be beneficial in the long run.


Asking Productive Questions

You will want to start by asking open-ended questions to give flexibility for how your child can respond. If you find it difficult for them to respond to open-ended questions, give the child choices after asking the question. For example, you can ask: “How are you feeling about everything? Are you feeling scared or sad?” If the child has difficulty choosing between similar responses, you can give a ‘fake’ option such as, “Are you feeling happy or sad?”


If this is your first conversation about COVID-19, or you are not used to discussing feelings with your child, it may take a little time to get a response from them. Make sure to give your kids plenty of processing time. When I work with children, I often count to 10 or 20 before repeating my question or prompting the child.


Here are a Few Recommended Conversation Starters:

1) The What & Why:

"What is my child feeling?"

  • I have been feeling a lot of new feelings lately, how about you?

  • Have you felt sad or lonely lately?

  • Have you liked being at home? Do you miss school? I know I would miss school if I couldn’t go.

  • Do you feel okay or is there something on your mind?

  • Are you feeling confused about anything? I know I am!

  • Is there anything you’d like to talk about? I know there are a lot of changes happening and was wondering how you are feeling about everything?

  • Are there any strong feelings that have been bothering you?

  • Is there anything you’d like to talk about?

  • I’ve been feeling really ____ (pick an emotion you think is correct), what about you?

"Why is my child feeling this way"?

  • There are a lot of things that are different. Have you noticed that?

  • What things are different?

  • Do you know why things are different?

  • Have you heard the word Coronavirus or COVID-19? Do you know what that means?

  • How are you feeling about everything?

  • Do you have questions about anything that is going on?

  • Do you feel you've wanted more quality time with mom and dad? Do you know why?

  • Let’s brainstorm why you’ve been feeling _____. We can draw a picture or just talk.

You will know when you have a solid sense of what’s going on when you can complete this sentence: “My child is feeling _____because of _____.” Try to narrow your sentence down to no more than three emotions and reasons for the emotion. When you can confidently fill in the blanks, you are ready to meet your child’s needs. I’ve included some conversation starters below for how you can develop a plan to address their needs.


To Help You Develop a Plan:

  • I hear that you are feeling _______ because of_______. I want to help you feel better and was wondering if you had any ideas.

  • Do you have any ideas for how you can feel better?

  • I know when I miss my friends, something that helps me is doing an activity that me and my friends do!

  • Even though we can’t see _______or go to _______ we can still do other fun things. Is there something special you’d like to do to help you feel better about _______?

  • I want to help you feel better. I know that you are feeling ______ because of ______. What is one thing we can do every day to help?

Parents will be relieved to find out that at this point, having a conversation about the “plan” is much more important than following through with it. While it is recommended that you follow through, our goal here is to identify and address the specific needs causing the child to feel like they need increased attention.


Once you know what your child needs, you must often check in with them about their feelings. The more you connect with them about their emotions and help them work through them, the quicker the attention-seeking behavior will subside.


Download Conversation Starters (pdf)