You know what makes me crazy? (Can I work in mental health and use the word “crazy”? Doing it anyway.) The phrase “attention-seeking behavior”. Are you familiar with that song “Kill a Word”? Well, if I could kill a word, it would be this particular combination of them. We all know what people are talking about when they use this phrase—it’s in reference to behaviors that demand attention. It’s the child throwing a fit, the woman who creates drama and starts gossip, it’s the teen who knows what to say in order to get people to swarm. But I reject the notion that it’s “attention-seeking”. No. It’s “attention-needing”. The simple fact 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 translates to a sense of belonging, a sense that we’re worth someone’s time, a sense that we’re important and valuable. And it’s a need we will have forever. Every person, 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 soothed in order to feel secure. This is a deep intrinsic need we all have from the time we are born and that doesn’t change. Even as an adult today, I need that in my relationships. I need to feel like someone sees me, understands me, and can be a safe place for me. I don’t just seek that—I need that. So do you. So does your child. We all NEED attention. Did you know neglect is more detrimental to development than abuse? It does something to us when we feel like 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 about how important our need for attention is and how there are both healthy and unhealthy ways of getting our needs met. We also talk about the reality that there will be phases of life when our needs aren’t going to be met and how do we learn to be okay with that? We know that getting needs met in unhealthy ways tends to lead to some negative natural consequences. Are those consequences worth momentary relief? Does authentic attention feel different than inauthentic? We can still feel lonely in a relationship. Many married individuals know that reality 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).