Have I got your attention?


Ignoring a child who is seeking your attention may be the worst thing you can do, writes Tony Humphreys

A frequent complaint of parents and teachers is that a child is "an annoying attention-seeker". Typically, the labelled child is highly demanding and wants attention centered upon her and her alone. Whenever anybody else is receiving attention this child will escalate her efforts to get attention back to her.

When adults label a child (or adult) "an attention seeker" they would do well to recognise that there are good reasons why a child acts in this way and attention to those underlying issues is crucial to resolving the child's unhappiness.

What is certain is that children who seek constant attention are unhappy children. They have a deep insecurity about not being loved. Their attention-seeking behaviour is both a cry for the emotional security of unconditional love and a protection from anonymity. The problem is that there is no real understanding of their longing as parents tend to get irritated, frustrated and, sometimes, aggressive with the attention-seeking behaviour.

Any of these responses further convinces the child that he is not loved and there is a spiralling of his difficult behaviour. Some parents may "give in" to the child's demands, but are at a loss to know why their patient response does not reassure the child of their love. Very often the difficulty here is that the child is the one who gets the parents to go to him, but they do not spontaneously go to him. Sometimes, too, there may be an inconsistency in the parent's response, so that he or she is patient in one situation, but not in another. Unpredictably

You might well ask why does a child persist when the responses are frequently of a punishing nature? The answer to this question is that attention, even of a punishing nature, is still attention. For a child who experiences little or no spontaneous attention from his parents, the pain of total invisibility is considerably greater than being punished by his parents.

Do parents have to put up with endless attention-seeking? The answer has to be no, but how parents convey that they are not available at certain times is central to helping their child become secure. Take a situation where mother is on the phone and the child continually nags her to do something for him. Staying separate from the child's attention-seeking behaviour is fundamental to addressing the child's hidden insecurity: the child's behaviour is about the child and not the parent. When a parent personalises the child's behaviour as the child deliberately being out to annoy her, she fails to stay separate. Getting enmeshed with the attention-seeking behaviour generally leads to ill-temper and blaming of the child. Such a reaction serves only to reinforce the child's hidden insecurity.

There is a notion in behavioural psychology that when a child exhibits an attention-seeking behaviour it is not the time to show interest in him. However, I believe this is the very time when he needs his parents' attention.

The mother is best to explain briefly to the caller what is happening, ask for a few minutes to deal with the situation, put the phone down and go to her child and positively tell him she loves him, give him a hug and request that he not interrupt her talking on the phone. When she returns to the phone she needs to be determined to follow-through on the phone conversation, throwing a look of appreciation for his co-operation.

Children need and deserve our attention. Parents who over-attend and over-protect their children invite attention-seeking behaviour as the children rightly surmise that is what their parents want of them. From the earliest stages, infants are comfortable with time on their own and this urge for privacy needs to be nurtured.

Dr Tony Humphreys is a consultant clinical psychologist and author of Self-Esteem: The Key to Your Child's Education