“Doing something for attention” gets a bad rap.
Today, I want to talk a little bit about what that actually means. Doing something for attention has a negative value, but what if we consider another viewpoint? Is doing something for attention actually a bad thing?
As a therapist, communication through behavior- especially attention-seeking behavior- is something I regard with so much honor. Often, a person begins to act in this way – asking for attention via behavior- because attempts to express themselves verbally have not worked. Humans are expressive and creative, and it is a sign of a healthy brain that to keep trying to find ways to get our needs to be met. Humans – children and teens especially- DO need attention in the form of being seen and noticed, listened to, and made to feel safe to be who they are.
What the Behavior is Saying
View from this perspective, “attention-seeking behavior” can be viewed as a child or teen’s way of initiating a connection with a caregiver. If instead of responding with openness, we offer responses that might be experienced as shame (such as telling a child or teen directly that they are doing something for attention, insinuating that that’s bad) we invalidate their vulnerability in asking. Usually, we respond this way because we were parented that way, or because we feel overwhelmed or exhausted by trying to locate and meet our child’s needs. Particularly with adolescents, it can be frustrating to be pushed away and simultaneously needed so deeply.
The reality is we may not have the resources to provide what they need. When children and teens ask for attention the job of the parent, caregiver, counselor, or educator is to show up, affirm, and do our best (and when our best is not enough, to access outside resources even if that means facing our own fears of having our limits seen by someone else).
Attention Seeking Kids in Therapy
A key principle in child and teen therapy is that behavior communicates, and a good therapist is a translator for families. Often, children and teens don’t really know what they are asking for through their behavior- impulses may come and go before they are understood. Kids are often distressed by their own acting out. When their behavior causes their parent’s or caregiver’s anxiety to increase, the child’s distress is multiplied. This shared distress may seem to grow larger as focus directly on behavior management takes up more and more space in the parent-child relationship.
This is one reason why therapy, even short-term, can be helpful to families: The role of there therapist is often one of interpreter: helping kids and parents understand what’s really happening, so the family can work with the underlying challenges instead of the behavior.
By interrupting the cycle in which (1) kids act out, (2) parents respond with their own distressed and anxious response, and (3) kids respond with increased impulsivity, the family can begin to recover. As the child learns to identify and verbalize their need and the parent learns to be curious about behavior instead of reacting with fear that they’ve messed up, problem behaviors typically reduce or resolve.
Next time you think someone is doing something for attention, think about the role the behavior is serving. What might it be saying? How might it be an attempt to access the resources the person needs in order to function?
Need more support for your family? Click “Counseling” in the menu above for more information about the services I offer in Seattle, Washington and surrounding area.
When you aren’t the Parent
Often, for those of us on the outer edge of someone’s life, if can be easy to take on a mindset of “that person doen’t have it so bad” or “aren’t that troubled,” creating less tolerance within us for handling the attention seeking behavior of a student, friend, etc.
You can balance support and self care by offering only as much support as you can offer freely, and setting boundaries for when you are being asked for more than you are able to give (your irritation here is a clue: learn to pay attention to when it comes in order to locate your personal boundaries are around this). When you reach that point, you can say something like, “It sounds like you are really struggling. I care about you, but I don’t have the skills to help. You mentioned wanting to (use x resource/see a therapist/etc) and I think that’s a great idea. Can I help you connect with that?”
The crisis text line is a fantastic resource when you can’t support someone but want them to have skilled support.