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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Attention-seeking…

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?…

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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!