You know what makes me crazy? (Can I work in mental healthand use the word “crazy”? Doing it anyway.) The phrase “attention-seekingbehavior”. Are you familiar with that song “Kill a Word”? Well, if I could killa word, it would be this particular combination of them. We all know whatpeople are talking about when they use this phrase—it’s in reference tobehaviors that demand attention. It’s the child throwing a fit, the woman whocreates drama and starts gossip, it’s the teen who knows what to say in orderto get people to swarm. But I reject the notion that it’s “attention-seeking”.No. It’s “attention-needing”. The simplefact that we are human means that we all need a certain level of attention; sure,some need more than others, but it’s a need nevertheless. Attention translatesto a sense of belonging, a sense that we’re worth someone’s time, a sense thatwe’re important and valuable. And it’s a need we will have forever. Everyperson, regardless of their story, needs attention.
I once worked with a girl in residential programming who had practically grown up in a group home. I worked with her when she was 16, but she had lived in placement since the age of 5. There was always some kind of drama going on in her life: an issue with a friend, a boyfriend, her parents, her sister, the cheer squad, or something else. Her house parents often brought up how loud she spoke even during a one-on-one conversation. Even the way she animated her conversations with her gestures and body language drew attention. Yes, it would be easy to call it attention-seeking behavior, but it isn’t so simple. This 16-year-old girl was once a 5-year-old girl who no longer had the attention of her parents—parents who struggled to give her the attention and care she needed. She now had to figure out how to survive and get her needs met in a world with 8-12 other girls in the home and only two house-parents. To minimize this girl’s behavior as “attention-seeking” is insulting. With everything this girl did, I didn’t see a girl who fed off the attention of others, I saw a five-year-old little girl starved for the attention of others. With every move she seemed to be asking, “Do you hear me? Do you see me? Do I matter to you?”
Dan Seigel says that we need to feel seen, safe, and soothedin order to feel secure. This is a deep intrinsic need we all have from thetime we are born and that doesn’t change. Even as an adult today, I need thatin my relationships. I need to feel like someone sees me, understands me, andcan be a safe place for me. I don’t just seek that—I need that. So do you. Sodoes your child. We all NEED attention. Did you know neglect is moredetrimental to development than abuse? It does something to us when we feellike we don’t exist.
When it comes to helping parents with their kids who are acting out or throwing fits, I suggest getting in front of the behaviors by scheduling one-on-one time with their child every day. That could be part of the bed-time routine, playing catch after dinner, having a snack together after school, or doing an activity of their choice (manicures, coloring, reading a book, etc.) Maybe going on dates once a week. Attention from both parents is also super important. Kids form attachments with both parents, and it isn’t necessarily the same style of attachment. And if you’re thinking there’s no time for that, then there’s a good chance you’re overscheduled. There’s also a good chance your child’s behaviors are related. Keep in mind, all behavior is communication. Children need to be filled up. It’s our job, and it sets them up for success in a number of ways.
When it comes to talking with my teen clients, we talk abouthow important our need for attention is and how there are both healthy andunhealthy ways of getting our needs met. We also talk about the reality thatthere will be phases of life when our needs aren’t going to be met and how dowe learn to be okay with that? We know that getting needs met in unhealthy waystends to lead to some negative natural consequences. Are those consequencesworth momentary relief? Does authentic attention feel different than inauthentic?We can still feel lonely in a relationship. Many married individuals know thatreality all too well.
So, to me, there’s no such thing as attention-seeking behavior. Attention translates to belonging. And having the sense that we belong is a life-long need.
*The information contained herein is not therapeutic advice nor a substitute for therapy. It should not be used to diagnose or treat any mental health problem. If you are located within the United States and you need emergency assistance please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. If you are located within Colorado you may also call the Colorado Crisis Line at 844-493-TALK (8255).