Dealing with attention-seeking behaviour…

The other day I heard myself saying it again, “You’re just trying to get my attention!” And I was right.

Child with megaphone...

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/hidesy

Kids’ behaviour can be infuriating. And never more so than when we know they’re pitching for our attention.

We’re busy. Life is busy! And yet they insist on saying and doing things just to stop us from getting stuff done. Or thats what it feels like.

So what’s this kind of behaviour all about?…

Some time ago I was listening to a colleague of mine training professionals about child development. She was talking us through the reasons behind babies’ crying – saying that it is literally a cry for help.

Crying is designed to bring the adult close in order to relieve the child’s distress. It’s instinctive.

Whilst crying is piercing and grating to the ear, it does it’s job. We go to see what’s up. We check things out and do what’s required. And, hopefully, baby is happy again. We don’t question it; we just get on with it.

This process is called co-regulation – when baby and carer deal with the distress together and things return to calm again.

Not so with older children, particularly with teenagers. When they do things that we suspect are designed to get our attention it can be irritating. Very irritating, particularly if we’re busy (and who isn’t!?).

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This phrase accurately describes behaviour that grabs our attention. But it has become a negative thing. It’s something we say when we’re frustrated that something has been said or done that demands our attention. I’ve heard myself and others say it countless times-usually when a child is being told off.

As my colleague continued her lecture about child development, she said something that stuck with me. She was describing behaviours in older children and teenagers that have the same effect as crying does from infants – grabbing the attention of adults. She said this:

It ISN’T attention-SEEKING behaviour – that’s NEGATIVE and implies that we disapprove.

It IS attention-NEEDING behaviour – that means it’s NECESSARY and we should respond.

Kids grow fast. When they’re no longer babies we tend to forget that they still need us. Sometimes they need us straight away; without delay. But because they are older, we respond very differently.

Same need, same strategy…

Just as very little children need to bring their carers close to get the help they need. Older kids do too.

Co-regulation still applies – even to teenagers.

Child runaway image

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/mandygodbehear

This is particularly true of young people from difficult backgrounds. They probably didn’t have the response they needed when they were little, so they didn’t learn to regulate their own feelings properly. As a result, their coping isn’t very good.

When young people like this begin to feel distress, they may struggle to know what it is or how to deal with it. So they do the only thing they know how to do: they say or act in such a way as to get our attention. They exhibit attention-needing behaviour.

Final thought…

If we respond by giving our attention and helping them to return to calm again, they will eventually learn to do this for themselves.

If we respond with irritation and fob them off, we let them down. Because we limit their opportunities to learn independence and self-confidence in dealing with their own distress.

We wouldn’t ignore a crying baby. So, when an older child or a teenager demands our attention…

What do you think?…

  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

Credit and thanks to Dr Tricia Skuse for the learning I’ve gained from her on this topic – and many others!


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Cat Gaweda

    Interesting read Jonny. My Leah (8) is currently struggling with anxiety and panic attacks. It’s took a new level other the last few days where she is battling with eating. Because she feels panicky and her throat in her words feels “like she’s being strangled” she is avoiding eating.
    It has been mentioned about how part of the cycle in why she has been so anxious for a week now is because she knows she gets attention.
    That automatically makes me think in the negative way of being an attention seeker. But her fear is very genuine even if she stirs things up in herself initially for attention. But like you said maybe it’s needed attention.
    In all honesty I haven’t got a clue how to help her other than lovingly try to calm her fears.

    • jonnymatthew

      Hi Cat, You seem to have nailed it! Regardless of why it’s happening, the reality is that it IS happening and that’s what needs dealing with. A couple of things come to mind that might be worth thinking about:

      – Helping her to calm her breathing (slow it down a little) might help. Have her sit down and talk her through taking slower breaths with the out breath longer than the in breath.

      – Relaxing her body as much as possible can help too. Have her mindfully consider each part of her body (e..g. from the toes up or from the head down) and relax each part in turn. Better if she can sit or lie down for this (not easy if you’re in ASDA!). If there’s some familiar and calming music she likes, this might help her too.

      – Help her construct a “safe place” in her mind – somewhere she loves and feels safe. This can be real or imaginary, essentially it’s a distraction technique, but it can be quite powerful, especially if it’s a real place with positive memories attached, etc. You can then prompt her to “go” here in her mind when she starts to wind up and is getting tense. Decide on the place while things are calm and have a name for it or trigger word that will bring it to mind. Initially, when she’s panicky, you may need to ask her to actively describe it to you, tell her what she likes about it, ask about happy times, etc. in order to help her “get there” in her mind. In the longer run she’ll do this for herself.

      In the end though, having you there to support and calm things is the main thing. If you can actively respond, remain calm, keep your voice measured and unworried, she’ll pick this up and let you walk her through it. Try not to get too hung up on why it’s happening for now. Though if this becomes clearer as a result, all the better.

      Hopefully other commenters may have more ideas…

      Well done, Cat. Hang in there!

      • Melissa Bailey

        Thanks for sharing your situation cat – this is a simular thing my niece (who now lives with me) is goin through and what u have said in your blog Jonny has helped me make sense of this. Great advice!! ! I will be trying these techniques with my niece as she’s now starting to get really panicky when going outside! 🙁 she’s 16 so potentially this could really disrupt her life because she’s due to start college in September.
        Thanks guys x

        • jonnymatthew

          Hi Mel, I’m glad it’s been of some use! Try and keep going outside on the agenda as much as possible, without making things worse, obviously! Sitting outside in the sun, driving with you in the car (without having to get out) – whatever you think she can deal with. Then use the techniques mentioned above – they have as much currency for older kids and adults as they do for little ones. Be available to respond as much as you possibly can and keep heaping on the reassurance and encouragement, too. Hang in there! Cheers, J

      • Cat Gaweda

        Thanks Jonny. That’s helpful advice. Appreciate it.