Do your kids get on your nerves with all of their attention-seeking behavior? Yep, mine do too. Bear with me on this post because I want to be direct in addressing this issue.
I have worked with children and adolescents for over a decade, and I have heard many parents, teachers, and school administrators talk about how the children and students are manipulative and attention-seeking. The tone is, “Oh you know Abbie (made up name). She is just attention-seeking. Don’t worry about her. It is all a manipulation tactic.”
Do we ever stop to consider why kids and adolescents do what they do? Maybe we should stop pathologizing them and start listening to them. All people have a yearning in their heart for love and acceptance, for someone to notice and value them. Kids and adolescents are no exception.
From an adult perspective, we may work hard in our jobs to be recognized or noticed for the things we accomplish. This might lead to a raise or a promotion. We are all attention-seeking in one way or another.
Kids and adolescents don’t always go about getting these emotional needs met in a way that we want them to, but they do tend to find what works for them.
Consider this case study:
John is 13 years old. He doesn’t have a lot of friends at school and tends to live life just outside of the limelight. His parents are both busy people. Dad works out of town for a regional electric company as a lineman and mom tries to hold things together at home the best she can while dad is at work. Mom goes to work in the morning and drops John and his siblings off with a babysitter that makes sure they get on the school bus.
John is in 8th grade and is an average student. Sometimes John tries to be a class clown, but others get annoyed with him and pull away. John gets in trouble and is told that he needs to get his act together. In the halls, John tends to go between classes looking at the floor. He will joke around sometimes, but the smile never lasts.
His teachers talk about how much of a nuisance John is in class. “He will do anything for a laugh.” They believe that if they don't acknowledge it, he will stop.
What’s going on here?
John is desperate for connection. He is not a bad kid, but he is lonely. He doesn’t feel securely attached at home, at school, or anywhere really. He tries everything he can think of to get noticed. Inside, he is screaming, “When will I be noticed? When will I be important? When will someone make me a priority? Sometimes people laugh at my jokes, but they don’t take the time to get to know me. I wonder if anyone would even notice if I weren’t here."
What do we do about it?
This case study is fictional, but it is relevant. My heart breaks a little as I consider John’s plight. It’s true that when he is disruptive in class, the teacher has a hard time teaching. It makes sense that she would be annoyed. However, discipline is not the answer. Relationship is! People are “attention-seeking” because they need attention. It is innate to our very being. Practically, we cannot always cater to one child’s or adolescent’s needs all of the time. But we can change the script with a little intentionality.
Changing the script:
1. Take time to recognize what emotional needs are present.
2. Be intentional about making the child or adolescent feel important, accepted, and valued.
3. Spend non-judgmental time talking about thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
4. Don’t pathologize annoying behavior.
5. In private, ask about the feelings and thoughts that are driving the behaviors. Offer validation.
6. Spend quality time with the individual regularly, even if it just a few minutes.
7. Teach social cues and encourage healthy outlets for getting noticed.
When we take the time to know the heart of a child or adolescent, offer respect, and validate their needs for connection, their attitudes soften. When they know that they are accepted and loved just as they are, they feel securely attached. This lessens the need for the “attention-seeking” behavior that was so annoying. When the emotional needs are met, the behavior improves.
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