When someone offers as an explanation for a child’s behaviour that they were ‘just attention-seeking’ it is generally meant as a bad thing. All sorts of adults are used to explaining children’s behaviour in this way; parents, teachers and carers.
When a 3 year old has a tantrum in a supermarket, yelling and crying loudly and embarrassing her parent, she is certainly drawing everyone’s attention to her. When your 5 year old comes downstairs over and over again after having been put to bed she is interrupting your grown up time and seeking attention for herself. Doesn’t she realise you’re exhausted and the kind of attention she’s likely to get isn’t positive! When a 7 year old is disruptive in the classroom, getting in the way of the teacher’s class plan, it’s said he is just looking for attention. When a 9 year old constantly interrupts his mum’s efforts to help his sister with her 11+ exam revision he is definitely, selfishly, looking for attention for himself, isn’t he?
You’d think that when they enter adolescence and go in for much introspection and self-consciousness that attention-seeking would die down. But even a 12 year old who tells tall stories about people he knows or places he’s been is still trying to get attention, even if it’s from his peers now.
All of these examples in some way are a bid for attention, an attempt to connect with another. But there are two problems with an analysis of behaviour that minimises it as ‘just attention-seeking’ or assumes that it is a sign of a flawed personality or even as a poor strategy:
1. It misses the real reason for the behaviour and prompts ineffective responses from the adult
2. It misunderstands and dismisses the child’s very real need for attention
The human baby is born in a very immature state. It is completely vulnerable and utterly dependant on the adults to care for him. He needs the attention of his parents in order to survive. When we first become parents we’re very aware of this and the huge responsibility it brings. My granddaughter has just celebrated her first birthday and her uncle wrote to his brother in a typically brotherly jokey fashion to wish the child a happy birthday but also to congratulate the parents on keeping her alive for a whole year!
So children are born with an instinct to connect with their primary carers, to get their attention. Once their basic physical needs of safety and nourishment are taken care of the child also has a very strong need to connect with others, to belong. Since the 1950s through the work of John Bowlby and Margaret Ainsworth we’ve been aware of the need for a child to be securely attached to a primary caregiver to create a sense of safety and stability. We are all born with the drive to form attachments. Babies try to connect with their primary caregivers from the very first moments of life. Attachments are formed in infancy by carers meeting a child’s physical and emotional needs. If a baby’s caregiver recognises and meets those needs consistently in the first year of life, then the baby begins to trust that their needs will be met. This trust creates a secure attachment, which gives a child a safe base from which to explore the world around him and return to when he needs comfort and safety. If children do not have secure attachments this can show up in anxious or angry behaviours. They may try to get their needs met by being loud, demanding, clingy, aggressive or controlling. These are the behaviours generally described as ‘attention-seeking’. Sometimes children also withdraw until it is safe to make their needs known. And sometimes their needs get missed.
So children need the attention of the adults in their lives and they are not wrong to seek it. They are trying to meet a need. It is up to us to teach children more palatable ways to get our attention. The fact is that we tend to pay more attention to the behaviour we don’t want to see than good behaviour. When our kids are sitting down quietly to do a drawing we just get on with our ever-expanding to-do lists and don’t pay much attention. But if one child screws up the other’s drawing we leap to attention. We’ve just taught them how to get our attention.
So how do we respond to those sorts of behaviours described at the start?
First by trying to understand why it is happening. Bonnie Harris puts it this way: Your child is having a problem, not being a problem. The tantruming 3 year old wants something and doesn’t have the maturity or the vocabulary to express herself appropriately. She needs help from the adult to calm down. She needs be understood, not to be judged. The demanding 5 year old may be seeking connection because it has been broken. Parents may have been cross with her or distracted with other things. The disruptive 7 year old may well be trying to deflect attention away from the fact that he is struggling with the work; he may be having difficulty focusing or processing. The interrupting 9 year old is looking for assurance that he matters. He measures your love in the time you spend with him and right now that time is directed toward his sister. He doesn’t have the perspective to understand the importance of entrance exams, at least not when his own needs are threatened.
• Empathise. When your 5 year old comes downstairs, again: You are having a hard time settling down tonight. Maybe you think you’re missing out on something fun. You want to be with mummy and daddy.
• Say what needs to happen. Mummy and daddy need to have a meal and to do some grown-up chores. You need to get a good night’s rest so you’ll be fresh tomorrow. It can be hard to settle sometimes. Mummy will help you think of some things you can do to help you get to sleep. I will come and check on you when I’ve had my dinner.
• Give attention in the right places with lots of descriptive praise .
So the next time you hear yourself describing a behaviour as ‘just attention-seeking’ say yes, and what does my child need?
Today is International Women’s Day and there have been many reflections on how far women have come since this day was first instituted and how far we have yet to go. 100 years ago Britain gave the vote to some women, lagging somewhat behind its Antipodean cousins, but ahead of the poor girls across the Atlantic and well ahead of most of our European friends. But Britons and Aussies cannot congratulate themselves too quickly while there is still such sexism and gender disparity in pay and so many examples of sexual harassment and violence towards women in these so-called developed nations.
The #MeToo and #TimesUp movement have shown examples of great courage and the sisterhood banding together to fight injustice. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes women are not supportive of each other. In Australia (from whence I write) there have also been Harvey Weinstein-type exposes of TV personalities and there was recently a scandal with a politician having an affair with a much younger staffer (who’d have thought?) in response to which the Prime Minister made a highly moralistic speech and banned sex between ministers and their staff. This was said to be to correct the power imbalance between men and women in the hallowed halls of parliament. Shortly afterwards a female politician who was being grilled in a Senate committee responded to questions by threatening to name young women in the opposition leader’s office “about which rumours in this place abound.” This kind of ‘s- -t-shaming’ is hardly pulling together for the common cause. And it’s not confined to the ranks of politicians.
I am often dismayed to note how quickly women judge each other. Of course judgment abounds online and any chat room will show up many examples of blame and criticism in the very forums that are meant to provide support for their members. But it exists in the face to face world as well. Have we yet got beyond the position where stay at home mums judge working mums (why did she even bother to have a child?) and working mums judge stay at home mums (she’s just letting her brain atrophy) for their choices? We know that women are often the harshest critics of other women’s appearance. ‘Fat-shaming’ is not confined to the teenage years.
Well this is a parenting blog so you’d expect us to have something to say about how we bring up our children in the face of this. Our advice may seem an old-fashioned kind. We have to raise our children to be kind and respectful. Both our boys and our girls. Of course we need to raise our sons to be respectful of women, to really value the work they do and to reward appropriately with pay commensurate with their input, to encourage them to ask for the pay rises and the promotions they deserve, to give them full credit for their ideas and to recognise their contributions even if they are not pushing themselves forward. Of course we need to teach our boys to respect women’s bodies and their ability to decide what happens to them. Of course we should teach our sons to relate to women as people instead of just objects of sexual gratification.
I was heartened to hear about a new film being released this year about Mary Magdalene, a more historically accurate account which portrays her as a fully-fledged apostle with a brain and a spiritual instinct, not as a ‘fallen woman’ as she has so often been cast or as the ‘love interest’ of Jesus. (Ironically the film was to have been produced by Harvey Weinstein.)
But as well as raising our sons to have respect for women we also need to teach our girls to be kind to each other.
How do we do this?
Those readers familiar with our work at The Parent Practice will know that emotion coaching is a very powerful way of connecting with children and that connection makes it possible for us to have influence with them. Also when we show our children compassion and kindness they will be compassionate and kind to others. When we respect how our children feel they will learn to respect others.
We teach respect and kindness in 5 ways:
Raising children has never been easy but this generation of parents are incredibly well informed with great resources and have behind them great examples of activism to inspire them. It gives hope for a future generation of respectful adults.