The attention-seeking child

All children crave attention, but some demand far more than others
By Glynis Horning

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It may drive parents mad, but attention-seeking behaviour is, at its base, a survival mechanism. Getting attention can help keep us alive in a crisis. As vulnerable newborns, we wail to make known our need for feeds, nappy changes and to be held – to feel safe and protected. But as we grow, the craving for constant attention should decrease as we learn to meet our own needs and become independent.
When that primitive survival drive persists at full bore, it’s counter-productive, alienating others. So why do some children still do it?
“Mostly it’s because we’ve inadvertently taught them that in the short-term, at least, it produces the responses they want,” says Joburg counselling psychologist Karin Steyn. If constantly whining “Uppy, Mom, uppy!” gets them carried, and tantrums produce packets of chips or later curfews, they are being encouraged in that behaviour. And even if it comes with negative consequences – angry words, a smack from an over-stretched parent – this can seem preferable to being ignored.
In some cases, research now suggests attention-seeking may be more than a behaviour problem, or a character trait (if your child comes from a line of extrovert, drama-queens) – it can be hard-wired into the child’s brain (see “talking science”). Mostly, however, the way to manage it is to see it for what it is, understand it, and once health or other possible problems have been ruled out, to counter it with unsolicited love.
“Children don’t just need attention, they need to feel connected to their parents, to have their feelings validated and their experience of their world understood,” says Anwen Scholtz, an educational psychologist at a Durban primary school for children with learning difficulties. “In our fast-paced world, this is something harried parents can compromise in their survival within a cut-throat concrete jungle. “A child’s behaviour might be a message that more authentic connection is needed. You might need to slow down and talk about the day, the children’s worries and dreams. You might need to learn how to listen and genuinely enjoy the time you spend with your children. A recent study in the US found the average family spent 52 minutes a week in quality time. Of course, screen time was not considered quality time...”
At home
Constant interrupting, whining or throwing tantrums can turn home or social visits into a minefield. But until around age seven, children can struggle to prioritise their wants and express them clearly, and their easiest option may be attention-seeking behaviour.
“We often expect children to behave in a certain way without teaching them the skills that they need,” says Scholtz. “You need to take time to help children verbalise their feelings. Dan Siegel calls this ‘name it to tame it’. Children who can ask for what they really need will not need to whine, cry or scream as much.” It can seem exhausting to have to teach these skills, but part of teaching is modelling, she says. Telling a child: “I know you get so angry when something disappoints you” can diffuse a situation much faster and more gently than offering a punishment or reward.
“If my daughter is not centre stage, she’s acting up,” sighs Durban interior designer Martina*, mother of lively four-year-old Kelly*. “I’ve started working from home and have a part-time nanny, but Kelly plays up unless she’s ‘working’ near me. Then she constantly interrupts, even when I’m on the phone. And when I leave to visit clients, she throws tantrums unless I promise to bring something. One reason for working from home is to spend more time with her, but I’m beginning to think play school is an option.”
  • Try to understand the attention-seeker’s reasoning. “She might need more stimulation than a nanny can give, especially if you are not available to play either,” says Steyn.
  • Keep calm. Yelling back or lashing out will just make her more anxious (that you may leave her) and likely to seek attention. It models the very behaviour you don’t want. Take a time-out yourself if need be – breathe deeply and regain control.
  • Use distraction. “It’s the best way to prevent meltdown,” says Scholtz. Equip yourself with a few stock options – things your child enjoys and will find more interesting than continuing down the whining road. A younger child might be happy with “Let’s make tea for teddy,” she suggests.
  • Help your child calm down. “When she’s very emotional is not a good teaching moment,” says Scholtz. “Calm her by empathising with her feelings: ‘Oh no! I see the lovely ship you just built has broken. It’s okay to be sad and frustrated’.” Then talk about making a plan. Tell her you can’t understand whiny voices, and it’s not polite to interrupt. Perhaps organise a secret signal for when she does this.
  • Give plenty of unsolicited attention. “Put aside even a few minutes a day for one-on-one time, allowing your child to direct the play or choose the activity,” says Steyn. “She’s more likely to feel recognised and important.”
  • Actively reward the child when she is not playing up, says Scholtz: “I’m so happy when I’m cooking and listening to your quiet playing noises”.
  • Don’t try to make her feel guilty by telling her what a tough day you’re having and how she is adding to it – you can compound her worry and the problem. “But if you over-react to a child’s behaviour, it can be helpful to tell them you’ve had a rough day, but shouldn’t have taken it out on them,” says Scholtz.
  • If the behaviour persists, see your paediatrician to check there is no underlying health or mental health problem, such as ADHD.
At school
From constantly raising their hands (“Me, pick me!”) to acting class clown or bullying, attention-seeking behaviour at school can be hugely disruptive. It can affect an already stressed teacher and the class, and lead to the child being labelled, judged and shunned, making the problem worse. It can also have various causes, including concentration or other learning problems and low self-esteem, though some children are just more outgoing than others, says Scholtz.
“Jabu* was always joking around, and when that didn’t work, he’d start fights,” says the eight-year-old’s mother, Thabeka*, from Pietermaritzburg. “The teacher wanted him out, especially because he was behind in his work. But when I was called in, I explained that his dad left after I got breast cancer last year. Jabu also helps look after two younger children.”
  • Speak to teachers about problems at home that may affect your child’s behaviour in attention-seeking or other ways.
  • If you are unable to give your child the attention you would like to, try to find someone who can – a gran, teacher, church member or NGO worker.
  • Make sure you find time for your child in the evenings, over weekends and holidays, and do your best to attend special events in her life, says Steyn.
  • Teachers should be trained in deflecting attention-seeking behaviour, from ignoring it to diverting children, and giving praise for good or calm behaviour.
  • If the behaviour is linked to poor self-esteem, help them find an area in which they excel, from art or sport to just tidying the classroom. “Help them feel they are special and lovable and not known only for their problems,” says Steyn.
The only child
Because only children don’t have to share your love and affection, or their toys and clothes, some may see themselves as the centre of the universe, causing complications outside the home and in later life.
“Avisha* was a real little princess by the time she started pre-primary,” laughs Lallie*, Benoni mom of the 10-year-old, ruefully. “But her teacher was great, teaching all the children to share and take turns. She put Avisha gently in place, and put her in charge of a smaller girl, praising her for being a good role model. The tantrums stopped, and this year she was voted class monitor.”
  • Talk to your child about sharing and helping others, and, more importantly, model it, to encourage empathy and help them be less self-centred. “Help them create an opportunity to show their love and care for others through planning surprises,” says Steyn. “Encourage the child’s own initiative.”
  • Arrange visits with other children from a young age. “Children will learn from natural consequences that to share and be kind and generous takes them further,” says Steyn.
Arrival of a sibling
Adjusting to the change from being an only child can trigger attention-seeking behaviour, but this can also happen when there are already other siblings. As Adele Faber, author of Siblings Without Rivalry, puts it, “The arrival of a new child is interpreted as ‘less for me’. Less lap, less time, less attention…” It can be threatening, especially for children aged 18 months to three years old – earlier they are largely oblivious to the change, and later they have other interests. Some act out with jealousy, aggression and regression (bed-wetting, thumb-sucking).
“I caught my son pinching his baby sister, then one day he bit her toe. I was horrified,” says Cape Town mom Heather*, of her three-year-old son. “I bit his toe, to show him what it was like. But the next day I found him putting our cat on her face. His granny had told him cats could smother babies.”
  • How well children deal with the arrival of a sibling depends on how well you manage this transition and reassure the child they are still safe, loved and acknowledged, says Steyn.
  • Be empathetic and reassuring: “It’s hard with changes in the family, but it will be fun, too.”
  • Set realistic expectations: don’t promise an instant playmate. Tell the child about when he was a baby.
  • Give him a role: “You’ll be the baby’s teacher,” and involve him in showing her to visitors. “Remember to talk about the older child’s accomplishments to others, especially when they can overhear you,” says Steyn.
  • Plan one-on-one time each day, perhaps snuggling and reading to him while baby nurses.
  • Give lots of hugs and remind him that love stretches and there’s plenty to go around.

*Names have been changed

Talking science
According to reports in Psychology Today and the American Journal of Psychiatry, extreme attention-seeking and “drama addiction” can sometimes be a response to early developmental trauma triggered by neglect, abuse or trauma. The developing brain adjusts to early conditions so as to survive in a world where these prevail. Lack of attention can then be registered by the unthinking amygdala area of the brain as a frightening threat; and while the thinking parts (anterior cingulated cortex) should be able to counter that, extreme stress can limit the availability of serotonin to manage that, suggest the researchers.
Drama can also stimulate the pituitary gland and hypothalamus to produce endorphins (natural opiates), resulting in an addiction, of sorts, to drama. But while you may not be able to rewire the brain, it’s possible to manage the effects of early neglect, abuse or trauma, with counselling, psychotherapy or play-therapy for children, says psychologist Karin Steyn.

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