“They are just doing it for attention”, this happens to be one of the comments I dislike hearing more than almost anything else, especially since it is most often followed by, “Just ignore them”. Whether it pertains to children or adults, attention seeking behavior is NOT “bad” behavior, it is a demonstration of a need not being met. Did you know that attention is a basic need? Attention is as necessary to survival as food, water and shelter.
Failure to Thrive*
The need for attention as a part of survival was demonstrated in the 1920’s. Infections were known to spread rapidly whenever children lived in groups, as a result, hospitals and orphanages in Europe went to extremes to promote sterility – particularly in infant wards. Infants were given the basic needs of food, water, and shelter and by all known standards were well taken care of. However, in an effort to prevent infection and disease these children were taken care of while virtually being untouched by human hands. Despite these efforts there was still a 10% mortality rate and a consistent growth in psychiatric admissions.
In 1942 pediatrician Harry Bakwin went into an infant ward and replaced signs reading, “Wash hands twice before entering this ward” with signs saying, “ DO NOT enter this nursery without picking up a baby”. The skeletal infants made an almost immediate turn around – gaining weight & color while becoming more alert and responsive. WE NEED attention and love to SURVIVE!
Meeting the Need
Based on the aforementioned study, it became clear that there are emotional needs, as well as, physical needs that we need to live a healthy and productive life. It is because of this that I encourage individuals to think before they respond to anyone who is “doing something for attention”. I tend to think of the behavior as a symptom of a lack in the need and try to think of ways in which that need can be more productively met. While they may be going about it the wrong way, the need is still real and will not be met by simply ignoring. If you are a parent of an attention seeking child, it may be useful to explain to children, “I understand that you are needing me right now, however lets try to find a different way for you to get my attention”. This acknowledges the need, but does not condone the behavior or shame the child. Unfortunately, it may not be as easy when dealing with adults, however it might be helpful to think of their maladaptive behaviors with more appreciation for what might behind it.
*Karen, R. Ph.D. (1998). Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How they Shape our Capacity to Love, New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Pg 18-20