Why there’s no such thing as attention-seeking
We recently had an excellent training session with Jo from Well Within Reach all about the concept of ‘attention-seeking’ in children and young people. It was an insightful session and Jo has kindly allowed us to share her blog post on the subject.
Some years ago I was working with a group of adolescents, one of which managed to bring the group to a complete standstill. Were they being aggressive, outwardly disruptive, or confrontational?
No. They simply started tapping the radiator every time someone started speaking.
Enter the not-so-wonderful world of ‘Attention-seeking’.
Most of us are familiar with it in some shape or form: ‘fake’ crying, the silent treatment, saying things to elicit a particular reaction from an adult.
And how do we often respond?
Society, and frequently, our own experiences of childhood, have long since advised and conditioned us to turn away from attention-seeking; giving attention to an attention-seeker is ‘rewarding’ the behaviour, and we should ‘ignore’ it instead.
These beliefs are actually quite wide of the mark: outdated, unhelpful and largely inaccurate, and it’s time to challenge and demystify them. I’ll start with this; we should never just ignore attention-seeking. And here’s why…
At birth, we listen out for an infant’s cries. That newly born brain is a blunt instrument but it’s effective, reminding the care-giver to stay close, not to forget about them or to lose them. That baby isn’t making a conscious choice, it just knows how to tell the world ‘see me, hear me, meet my needs’.
And that is attention-seeking: a primitive survival mechanism that helps keep them alive and feeling safe in the world. I know, your attention-seeking child isn’t a baby anymore. They need to get their needs met in more appropriate ways. But right in that attention-seeking moment, just see what you have in front of you: a child telling you they have unmet needs.
Attention-seeking may not be the most sophisticated form of communicating them but, as frustrating or infuriating as these behaviours may be, being ignored or chastised WON’T teach a child better communication skills.
The very real risk of ignoring children when they seek attention is that – albeit unintentionally – we can instead teach them that their needs aren’t worthy of being met, that they aren’t important enough to be noticed. And that has inevitable impacts on self-esteem and mental health.
If we want to change attention-seeking behaviour, IMO, the first change to make is ours.
And that is to throw out the term ‘attention-seeking’ altogether. WHY?
Start with this; if our kids tell us they’re hungry, or cold, or in pain, what do we do? We respond. We give them what they need.
Children seek attention because they need attention. See an attention-needing child. Or a connection-seeking child. Or an attachment seeking child. But unburden them of the accusation of being an attention-seeker, and all the negative connotations that come with it.
Of course they need to learn more effective and pro-social ways of expressing their needs. And we can always support them to do that; in fact we must. But our kids will only be receptive to learning those skills when their ‘thinking brain’ is engaged.
And while they’re in attention-needing mode, it’s not. Hold in mind that first cry, the relief when the new-born arrives and declares ‘I’m here! I don’t like this. Make me feel better. Attend to my needs’…
And know that that, regardless of the three, or ten, or fifteen year old body in front of you, that primitive part of the brain is doing the work right now, just rather inarticulately.
Giving attention to your attention-needing child can feel counterintuitive. And it won’t always be met with the approval of others who favour the ‘ignore it or you’re rewarding it’ approach. Ignore them.
We don’t need to defend or explain our decision to let our kids know that we’ve seen them, we’ve heard them, and that their needs matter. And that is what really deserves our attention.