“Doing something for attention” gets a bad rap.
Doing something for attention has a negative value, but what if we consider another viewpoint?
As a therapist, communication through behavior- especially attention-seeking behavior- is something I regard with so much honor. Seeking attention through the behavior is never our first attempt to get that attention. Often, a person (sometimes a teen but often a adult) begins asking for attention via behavior because attempts to get care by asking verbally have not worked. Humans are expressive and creative, and it is a sign of a healthy brain that we to keep trying to find ways to get our needs 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.
Ask What the Behavior is Saying
Viewed from the communication perspective, “attention seeking behavior” can be viewed as a child or teen’s way of reaching out to initiate a connection with a caregiver.
If we respond in a way that induces shame (such as telling a child or teen directly that they are doing something for attention to show they’ve been “caught”) we invalidate their vulnerability in asking, which can increase problem behaviors.
Usually, we respond negatively to attention-seeking behavior because we were parented that way, or because we feel overwhelmed by trying to locate and meet our child’s needs. It can be frustrating to be pushed away and simultaneously needed so deeply, but such is the nature of parenting an adolescent.
The reality is we may not always (or even, often) have the capacity to understand whats not being spoken or the resources to provide what kids need from us- and that’s ok. Parents don’t have to meet every need, respond to every bid for connection, and resolve every issue: we just need to do our best and call in backup when we need it.
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. When our best isn’t enough, it’s our responsibility to reach out to 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, a 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 a child learns to identify and verbalize their feelings and a parent learns to be more 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?
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Dealing with Attention Seeking Behavior When you aren’t the Parent
Often, for those of us on the outer edge of someone’s life, it can be easy to take on a mindset of “that person doesn’t have it so bad” or “aren’t that troubled.” These automatic judgements create less tolerance within us for empathically 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). 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.