Why I Stopped Using the Phrase “Attention-Seeking”

“She’s just throwing tantrums to get attention. Ignore her.”

I hear it all the time in sessions. Parents are exhausted, overwhelmed, and frustrated. Whether their child is displaying a mild behavior such as whining or begging, or something more serious such as physical aggression or self-harm, parents often describe their child’s behaviors as attention-seeking. Even amongst my colleagues, the phrase “attention-seeking behaviors” is used all too often.

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So why is “attention-seeking” unhelpful?

The phrase “attention-seeking” has developed a negative connotation. When you hear it, your brain automatically jumps to works like ‘spoiled’ and ‘dramatic’. We think of children who are ‘difficult’ and must be disciplined in order for them to obey directions.

As babies, we need attention. Our brain can’t develop properly without it. Babies need love, touch, and attentiveness to create positive, secure attachments to their caregiver. Research has shown that without a secure attachment, the baby develops an insecure or resistant attachment style. This results in lifelong affects on the individual’s ability to self-regulate, communicate emotions, and develop and maintain relationships. In fact, research has shown that toddlers who are taught to communicate their negative emotions, rather than learning to handle anger or sadness on their own, are better able to self-regulate in kindergarten.

In addition, mental health professionals, teachers, and anyone who has worked with children know that kids who need attention the most express it in negative ways. These challenges often look like verbal and physical aggression, defiance, non-suicidal self-injurious behavior, etc. However, when babies are seeking attention, it is also in a “negative” way: crying. Where’s the magical cut-off? Where on the timeline do we say, “Babies are allowed to cry until they are ____ years old, and then they must know how to express themselves like little adults.” It’s not realistic.

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So, what do we say instead?

Children are connection-seeking.

What if, now hear me out on this, we changed our language from “She’s just throwing tantrums to get attention,” to “She’s looking for a relationship.” In relationships, we desire connection, communication, patience, and understanding. When we understand that a child’s behaviors are connection-seeking, we suddenly become more capable to stop and listen to the reason why the child is upset in the first place. It implies empathy to support and nourish the whole child- not just a summation of their behaviors.

If a child is connection-seeking, there are many ways you can help them feel a relationship with you.

Make time to get on their eye level and interact. Watch a show, color, play with their favorite toys, listen to why their favorite color is blue and not green. Listen to hear what your child thinks it’s important. If you believe that their words matter, eventually, they’ll believe it, too.

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Praise the positive connection-seeking behaviors using detailed language, but keep it short and sweet. When encouraging a specific behavior, you want to identify exactly what you want your child to do again. “Good job!” is nice to hear, but it’s not specific enough. “I love the way you calmly picked out a story for bedtime,” is perfect. Here is where most caretakers tend to veer off course- “Wow, good job cleaning your room. Why can’t it be clean like this all the time?” You see the difference? It was nice at first, but then it quickly turned into a backhanded insult. There’s no need to insult your child when praising them. Keep it short and sweet.

So, in conclusion, I hope you consider changing your everyday language to connection-seeking. If you feel like your perspective changes, we’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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