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In this column we are going to examine what some people have nicknamed "the Squeaky Wheel Syndrome."  Basically this refers to an individual acting out in order to gain your attention, and as the old saying goes, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

Although the specific dynamics vary according to the situation, if the individual does not get an appropriate amount of attention from you, they will act out in order to get it. This attention from you is important enough that they will suffer the consequences of their negative behavior in order to obtain it. I actually had an adolescent in prison tell me once that "it is better to be wanted for murder than not to be wanted at all!"

It is very common in a clinical setting when an acting-out child is brought in, to ask Mom to leave the room for awhile while the child is being observed. It is amazing how often the child immediately becomes calm and cooperative, then immediately begins to act out again as soon as Mom reenters the room.

While this session will focus primarily on children, the principles involved apply equally to adults, school situations, significant others, and even to household pets.

While the solution to this problem seems absurdly simple, in real life it is amazingly difficult to do. The solution to this problem is to give the child attention when they are behaving properly and thereby avoid the child's need to act out in order to gain your attention.  

Here is a common example. You have two young children, one has been quietly playing with his toys all morning – the other is screaming, throwing his toys, and having a tantrum.  You grab the acting out child and give him a firm lecture and send him to his room. Then you go back to whatever you were doing.  

What has happened here? The acting out child received a large amount of individual attention from you, and the well behaved child was ignored and received nothing for his good behavior. The one child has learned that acting out behavior will get him the attention that he wants, and the other child is learning that his good behavior gets him nothing.

Am I suggesting that the acting-out child should have been ignored? Absolutely not! So what is parent to do? First of all, the child should always be reinforced for good behavior. The reinforcement should be specific so that the child can make the necessary connections. An example in our sorry might be telling the child "You are being so good playing with toys quietly! Mommy is proud of you!" Saying that took all of 5 seconds. Saying such positive things only once every hour or so is sufficient.

In our example, after the acting-out child has been scolded and sent to his room, take about the same amount of time that you spent with the other child to sit with him and tell him how proud you are of him for being so well behaved. Now, both children are learning what we want them learn. The lessons are that positive behavior gets you good attention and negative behaviors only get you negative attention and loss of privileges.

When your child is quiet and behaving well, do you take the time to praise him? By the way, once in a while you might want to ask yourself the same question regarding your significant other.  

Like most parenting skills, learning to notice the well behaved child and then praising him, is a skill that takes some practice to remember and to do well. The temptation is always to just ignore it.  In the beginning you will often forget, but after a while this skill will become almost automatic.  

This is one skill that you definitely want to learn. Not learning it will usually create lots of escalating problems for you in the future.

**James is a Masters level Child Psychologist and Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked with distressed families for 40 years. He is the author of the Seamus the Sheltie series of children’s books that were designed to assist parents in discussing difficult issues with younger children. Both books have received multiple national awards from parenting organizations. Mr. Beverly has written and published articles on parenting in a variety of media.

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