Health and Wellbeing

Reframing ‘Attention Seeking’

As a society, we have come to express an abhorrent view of attention seeking behaviours. One only needs to look at the Aesop fable “The boy who cried wolf” to remind us of this. The way a child acts with their peers, the way they dress or express their emotions, or even damaging acts such as self-harm, disordered eating/ exercise, can be construed by some as attention seeking behaviours. Catch phrases such as “Class clown, drama queen, cry baby, show off” are some of the more common terms associated with such acts.

A common response by parents is to simply ignore the behaviour for fear that ‘giving in’ would only ‘reward’ it. Furthermore, they rationalise that by ignoring the behaviour the child will not receive any reinforcement and therefore the behaviour would eventually extinguish. The reality, in most cases, is this approach simply does not work. In fact, what we tend to find happens is the child escalates the behaviour even more, or turns to their peers to satisfy this need.

The emotional needs of a child are no less important than the physical – only we can’t always see it. The need for attention is one of the most basic underlying human needs – much like we need food, water and shelter to survive. If we are unable to attain the attention we require to satiate our emotional needs, or we have not developed the skills required to seek it in healthy ways, then it is only inevitable one would begin to seek this attention through unhealthy means. The alternative is to give up, shut down, and make ourselves emotionally numb which can lead to far more dire consequences. So, what is the solution?

The solution is connection. Children will continue to seek attention naturally, and we need to be there to give it to them. We need to look beyond ‘attention seeking’ and reframe it as a child ‘seeking your connection’. The early formative years of the parent-child relationship are a particularly critical period in development as they lay the schemas by which all future relationships are based upon. In the world of psychology, we refer to this process as attachment.

So the next time you encounter a behaviour you would otherwise classify as ‘attention seeking’, see if you can reframe your approach. Try asking yourself the question ‘why’ is the child behaving in this manner? What fundamental needs of the child are not currently being met? And what can I do in order to better meet the needs of my child.

The illustration below is an excellent illustration by Tracey Farrell which provides some prompts as to how we may classify behaviours to unexpressed needs and what strategies may be helpful for the child at the time.

Chris Clements
School Psychologist