Just doing it for attention
In a recent conversation with a desperate mother, I was told, “Thom is having these tantrums. But I’ve decided to ignore it. He’s just doing it for attention.”
There is a dominant mindset in parenting that when our children are seeking attention, we ought not to give it to them.
I have heard variations of each of the following:
- A toddler is misbehaving: “Oh, it’s just for attention. Ignore it and she’ll stop.”
- A five-year-old is whining, but it’s “all for attention”.
- A tween is bashing a ball against the wall, or kicking the door against the doorstop because he’s upset. “Don’t respond. He’s just trying to get your attention.”
- A teenage girl is self-harming – cutting herself with a razor – or she is starving herself “just to get attention”.
- A teenage boy is smashing things, or getting drunk and taking drugs, but don’t do anything because, “He’s doing it for attention. He’s always been an attention-seeker – and so I just ignore it when he does stupid things.”
“Don’t give the behaviour the attention,” the theory goes, “and somehow everything will magically stop, or get better.”
But here’s the thing …
If a child is seeking attention, it is because they need attention. Regardless of how inconvenient and challenging the behaviour may be, there is a reason for it.
So … what’s the reason? Why are they such little brats?
All children need our attention – some, more than others – but they often don’t know how to ask for it. They need us to be attuned to their cries. If we are not responsive, research shows that their behaviour gets more desperate – and challenging. They act out more. The things they have to do to get our attention become bigger.
In other words, they become such little brats as a result of our inattention.
Turning away, against, or toward
Relationships expert, Dr John Gottman, identified that in our relationships we all make ‘bids for connection’. We reach out in the hope that someone will respond to us with love and kindness.
Dr Gottman recognised three patterns of responding to bids for connection:
1. Turning away
Turning away occurs when our child looks for our attention and we are dismissive. We ignore them, or we shrug our shoulders, or we humour them with a “that’s nice, dear”, before resuming our previous activity. Dismissal and turning away are the central components of the “He’s just doing it for attention” mindset.
2. Turning against
Turning against occurs when we disapprove of our child’s behaviour, and we let them know it. We tell them to “cut it out”, “get over it”, or threaten them because we’ve had enough, as in, “If you keep that up, you’ll go straight to your room.”
3. Turning towards
Turning towards our children and their bids for connection means we do what is often inconvenient: we stop what we are doing and recognise how our child is feeling. We understand. We listen. We are involved. We make ourselves available. We give them the attention they are seeking.
So how do we turn towards?
The car scenario
You may have noticed that young children often fight against being put in the car, or they fight to keep their seatbelt off, or they fight with their siblings once they are in the car. My response to this situation is to pull the car over, get my child out of the car, and … hug her.
It is time-consuming. It can be inconvenient. But my child has an unmet need of some kind. She is acting out because she wants attention. So I stop and give it to her. Sometimes we might lose five minutes. Sometimes we may be late. As long as it is not an aeroplane I’m late for, I’m willing to deal with that. It’s worth it. I want my children to know that I will always turn towards them, give them the attention they need, hug them and help them.
The principle applies to almost every relationship and context.
Give them the attention
The remarkable thing about “She’s just doing it for attention” is this: when we ignore or get angry (by turning away or turning against our child), we create in our child an even stronger need for attention. They’ll continue to try to get our attention in increasingly challenging ways, or they’ll go somewhere else where they can get some attention – any attention.
When we pause, turn towards our child and give them the attention they need, research shows that they settle down faster. They require less attention, rather than more. They learn to better regulate their emotions and behaviours. They feel worthy. They feel safe. They feel loved.
“They’re just doing it for attention?”
Yes. They are.
This article was written by Justin Coulson - child psychologist, parenting speaking and author, and father of 6 daughters.