We tend to think of “doing something for attention” as a bad thing- but what if it isn’t?
Every single one of us needs attention. Attention- especially from those we love- is an essential ingredient for the attachments that empower us to grow as individuals, that supports mental health, and that develops our template for healthy relationships.
If attention is something we all need to thrive and even to survive, then attention-seeking behavior in children, teens, and adults becomes important communication (rather than just an irritation!).
What Attention-Seeking Behavior Might Be Telling Us
Seeking attention through behavior is never a person’s first attempt to get that attention. When you perceive attention-seeking behavior in teens, kids, or adults, it’s typically a sign of an unmet need.
People seek attention through behavior when attempts to get care by asking verbally have failed.
Humans are expressive and creative. It is a sign of a healthy brain that we creatively try different ways to get our needs met.
Three Reasons People Act Out for Attention:
They’re a healthy human asking, in a creatively human way, for the connection and validation we all need. Occasional attention-seeking behavior- especially in adolescence- is part of normal development, identity formation, and finding our place in the world.
Long-term unmet needs have shaped a behavior pattern. This can happen when a person has spent formative years of their life in relationships where verbalizing their needs (example: “I need a hug”) or healthy bids for connection (example: crawling into a parent’s lap) were ignored, rejected, or even punished. As a result, when these individuals feel an attachment figure (parent, partner, or friend) is distant, they may default to attention-seeking behaviors instead of communicating.
Attention-seeking due to a short term breakdown of communication in a relationship. Attention-seeking behavior is a way of- well- getting attention! And it works! It’s not uncommon for attention-seeking behavior to show up in otherwise healthy relationships when two partners are out of sync or when one partner is simply distracted. Attention-seeking is a result of a normal- and often healthy- escalation of communicating needs.
When Attention-Seeking Behavior is Healthy
Faced with a partner that is pulling away or distant in a relationship, a healthy response might flow through these escalating tiers:
1. Naming and communicating a need. Example: “You’ve felt distracted. I miss you. I need to know you care about us.” Or, for kids, it may sound like: “You work too much.”
2. Initiating connection Examples: initiating physical intimacy in a romantic relationship or inviting a friend out for a day spent one-on-one. For kids, it might be a toy plopped in your lap or a request for a bedtime story even though they’re a little old for one.
3. Attention-seeking behavior. Attention-seeking behavior communicates needs that cannot be ignored any longer. Attention-seeking behavior takes many forms from fabricated drama to overly/uncharacteristically sexualized behavior, or from pranks, gags, and performative behavior to tantrums.
Relationships that consistently reach this third stage and rely on attention-seeking behavior to elicit a response that stabilizes the relationship tend to be exhausting, stress-filled relationships that cycle between extremes of drama and stability.
Ask What the Behavior is Saying
Because “attention-seeking behavior” is often an adult, child, or teen’s way of reaching out, it is critical to avoid a shaming response. Invalidating their vulnerability in asking for care (even if we don’t like how they asked) can increase problem behaviors.
A common response when we realize someone is doing something for attention is to “catch” them in the act, naming “you’re just looking for attention,” but this is rarely a constructive response. On the contrary- it pushes the person away instead of inviting them into the connection they are seeking.
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 by adolescence, and many parents can use support navigating this time in their child’s life..
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.
The reality is we may not always (or even, often) have the capacity to understand what’s 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 time 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
This is one reason why therapy, even short-term, can be helpful to families: The role of the therapist is often one of interpreter: helping both kids and parents understand what’s really happening, so the family can work with the underlying challenges instead of the behavior.
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.
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?
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 judgments 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 irritation rises in order to locate your personal boundaries).
When you reach your limit, 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.
What is Negative Attention?
Negative attention in response to attention-seeking can take many forms.
Negative attention comes through lecturing, yelling, punishing, or threatening the person asking for attention. Our negative responses aren’t always on purpose- often they are an automatic conditioned response shaped by how others have treated us in our neediest moments.
Example: Imagine being the parent of a toddler incessantly pulling on your leg in the middle of an important work-from-home meeting: a negative response to the child’s bid for attention could be punishing the child or muting yourself long enough to yell “STOP!”
What is Positive Attention?
Alternatively, when a person of any age is seeking attention, we can respond mindfully and with positivity.
This can look like giving someone gentle physical contact, spending time with them, listening to them, expressing empathy, playing with them, or simply noticing them.
Let’s revisit the tugging toddler example again: Instead of brushing them off or responding punitively, a positive response to their attention-seeking could include acknowledging they need something, holding their hand, or assure them that you will be available for them in (x) amount of minutes.
Taking a moment to notice the attention-seeking behavior and respond compassionately can interrupt the annoying escalation of increasingly dramatic attention-seeking behavior. Knowing they are seen and heard can make a difference.
The Importance of Noticing Attention-Seeking
As the comic above depicts: attention-seeking behavior typically does not escalate in one instance, but over many instances of not feeling responded to, seen, or heard by those around the person who is asking for attention.
Remember: every single one of us needs attention because attention is an essential ingredient for attachments, mental health, and healthy relationships – attention is something we need to survive and thrive. Attention-seeking behaviors are important pathways for communication, so if we mindfully tune-in to our child, teen, or partner’s attention-seeking behavior, we may learn something important.