—Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP
Children will seek attention from their parents through a myriad of ways, such as hanging onto them, pulling on them, whining, complaining of stomach aches and headaches, and poking at their siblings. What is a parent to do?
You may find yourself responding with irritability and frustration. “Knock it off!” “Get off me!” “Go to your room!” You may be tempted to scream, yell, or spank. The problem with this type of intense reaction is that your intensity is satisfying your child’s strong need to feel seen and heard. The rule of thumb is this: As your reaction intensifies, it more strongly reinforces and promotes the behavior.
You may be thinking, “OK, I’ll refuse to respond at all. I will look away, walk away, and remain totally unresponsive.” This idea may seem logical, but in truth, it, too, is not helpful. Underlying your child’s strong attention-seeking behaviors is fear about being disconnected from you. If your child receives what would be the equivalent of the “silent treatment” from you, his anxiety will sky-rocket. The most helpful response is the calm, but attuned response. Attune to the anxiety underlying the attention-seeking behavior by providing reassurance and closeness.
I remember when my daughter was around seven and she started complaining regularly about stomach aches. It suddenly struck me that she may be seeking attention, which made complete sense, considering that I had recently given birth to her younger sister. I reached out to her one morning and said, “I wonder if you are needing some extra attention from me right now and you don’t know how to ask. You deserve all the attention you need, and I know that I have been really busy with the baby. Let’s rock awhile, and from now on, you let me know when you need some attention from me.” That was the last I heard about stomach aches!
Children do need attention, and lots of it. All children deserve to feel special and important, and most children experience periods during which they feel anxious, alone, unseen, and unheard. When children’s attention-seeking behaviors escalate, it is a sign that parents have become distracted, busy, or overwhelmed. Children with a history of trauma and out-of-home placements are often especially sensitive to feelings of loneliness or alienation and need extra-high doses of attention, affection, and reassurance. Simply ignoring your child’s attention-seeking behaviors is not enough. Low-key responses to your child’s behaviors along with expressions of affection and reassurance will lead to healthier functioning and greater happiness for both of you.