This past school year, my daughter had a boy in her class who misbehaved a lot. He used potty talk to make all the kids in the class laugh. Some laughed, my daughter told me, but many rolled their eyes and groaned. And the teacher would sometimes say, “Don’t give him any attention. He’ll just do it more.”
Seems logical. If his attention-craving behavior is met with indifference, he’ll likely stop the wild bids for attention, right?
But another of my daughter’s teachers didn’t respond to this child that way. Rather than snap at him or direct the other kids to ignore him, Mrs. Cook leaned in to this child’s unorthodox bids for attention. She laughed at his “butt” jokes and then asked him to come to the front of the room to help her demonstrate a concept for the rest of the class. She kept him busy with jobs, high-fived him, and told him how unique and cool his ideas were. My daughter says that in Mrs. Cook’s class, this child behaved better than in any other class.
Mrs. Cook either knows intuitively the most effective way to respond to kids with behavioral issues, or she has done her research. Either way, she knows that a child who is “attention seeking” is really looking for connection. They are looking for a relationship.
Tamar Jacobson, early childhood development and education consultant, thinks parents and educators need to rethink how we respond to attention-seeking behavior in children. But first, we need to acknowledge that attention-seeking is not inherently a bad thing. It is natural and healthy for children to seek our attention. Jacobson suggests we reframe this kind of behavior. She suggests that, instead of calling it “attention-seeking,” we call it “relationship-seeking.”
Young kids legitimately need our attention. Jacobson says, “Brain development research shows us that in order to feel attached and worthwhile, children need our love, touch and full-on attention to survive. They could die without it — indeed, some do.” And if a child doesn’t feel they’re getting enough, “they compensate in all kinds of ways: repressing their needs and wants, shouting and becoming aggressive or violent, going underground and harboring resentment alone, or seeking it from anyone who will give it to them.”
That’s not to say the little boy in my daughter’s class isn’t getting the attention he needs at home. But, for whatever reason, he requires a higher level of attention than other kids. He needs reassurance; he is looking for a relationship. And when he gets it, he behaves better.
Of course, children of all behavior levels and backgrounds require our attention. My son Lucas has ADHD, and one of the things that happen with children who have ADHD is that they are constantly corrected. They are told so often that they’re doing something wrong that they began to internalize that there is something wrong with them. This can destabilize their sense of security and cause them to engage in the type of relationship-seeking behavior Jacobson talks about.
I’m fortunate that one of my dearest friends is a psychologist and advised me early on to lean in to Lucas’s behaviors that might be considered “annoying.” Ignoring him definitely didn’t help; it made it worse. He was literally screaming for attention, or, more aptly, for a relationship. He needed my reassurance that he is worthy and that our bond is solid even if he requires more redirecting than his little sister.
Jacobson references a 5-year-old child who had bounced from foster home to foster home and struggled to self-regulate at school. His behavior was such that he ended up being expelled from school and was moved to yet another foster home. Jacobson wondered if the outcome could have been different for this child if at some point an adult could have given him the amount of attention — the relationship — he needed to heal. “How does a young child express to adults their fear of abandonment or their longing for more of us,” says Jacobson, “if not by seeking our attention?”
For us as adults, reframing how we think about children seeking attention can have a huge impact on our responses to them. When we think about someone demanding attention, the idea of having to deal with that feels burdensome, too much. It puts us out. “Learn to self-regulate!” we sometimes want to snap. But if we think, “This child is seeking a relationship,” we humanize the child’s behavior and empathize with their natural need for attachment. Just by changing the words we use, we can increase our focus on the child and become more patient.
As Jacobson points out, the idea of self-regulation is relatively new. Obviously we want to teach our kids to be self-reliant so they can adapt to and succeed in today’s world, but a huge part of giving them this skill is establishing strong bonds of attachment. It’s counterintuitive that a strong childhood attachment later yields a more independent and confident adult, but that is exactly what research tells us it does. A strong attachment with parents leads to feelings of security and confidence. These are the foundation for independence. In fact, says Jacobson, “children can’t learn to self-regulate unless they receive enough attention through their relationships with adults.”
Children literally need for us to turn to their bids for attention. We should never make a child feel unwelcome or unlikable by simply ignoring them when they’re reaching out with what we consider to be annoying behavior. We need to recognize that they are asking for a need to be met in the only way they know how. They are the child; they are still learning to self-regulate. We are the adult and supposedly already know how. So we are the ones who must first adjust our behavior by giving the child the attention they seek. Only then can a child begin to learn to adjust theirs.