Attention, Please. Listening to Tweens Expressing a Genuine Need

by Katherine Schneider, LCSW 

As a psychotherapist working with kids, tweens, teens, and families, a phrase that is like nails on a chalkboard to my ears is, “they’re only doing it for attention.” 

I hear this often from both kids and parents, and it is typically said with exasperation. The “it” can refer to any of a million things: throwing themselves on the floor kicking and screaming, hitting a sibling, throwing things, self injury, threats, outbursts, infuriatingly obnoxious behavior, or something that will once again prove to me that no matter how much I have seen, I will never have seen it all. 

When I first heard the phrase, “they are only doing __ for attention”, my knee jerk reaction was to say “No, they are not!” The behavior, experience, or whatever was going on, was real and needed to be taken seriously. I still believe this, but I have also learned that, often, yes, they want attention. And that is okay. 

Our culture has made the idea that seeking attention is wrong, selfish, or childish. We can post our every thought to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or whatever new platform has come out in the past week, but to seek attention is shameful. This hypocrisy is both morally and scientifically wrong. 

Humans need attention. As herd animals, we are biologically programmed to need attention. From the moment we enter this world, we learn that our needs are met when we are attended to: we cry, we get attention, we get our needs met. Internally, our brains are releasing oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates bonding, and soothes feelings of fear and panic.

I like to imagine the baby’s brain having an internal monologue, in which it states, “I’m hungry and cold, the world is too bright and scary, this sucks!” The baby communicates this panic through crying. The caregiver then swoops in and gives the baby food, clothing, and cuddles, which causes oxytocin to be released, as the baby thinks “Okay, this big human heard me crying and gave me what I wanted. I like this big human! I will cry again to get more food!” This conditioning continues throughout the lifespan: whether it’s through a tantrum/ or a cute dance, we get rewarded through attention.

Reports from school, either or good or bad, mean we were attended to by the teacher, and then by our parent. The brain is continually reminded “I did a thing and that got me attention and that spurred oxytocin! Oxytocin makes me happy and less scared. I should do that thing again so I get more oxytocin!”  

Attention is how our needs are met when we cannot meet them for ourselves. When someone cries out for attention, it is a signal to their pack of humans that they are seeking help or support. Attention lets us know we are not alone in the world. 

So, maybe your kid is acting out for attention. Maybe they need to know they have not been forgotten, and they are not alone in the world. The tantrum in the grocery store may be their way of saying “I am hungry and surrounded by food that I cannot eat” or “I am tired and overstimulated and I need help to know what to do with these feelings.” The smack to their sister could be how they are trying to communicate “I feel so alone that I will take desperate measures to get you to notice me.” The self-injury marks might be the only way they know to express how much anxiety they are struggling with, and that they do not know any other way to deal with it. 

Seeking attention through inappropriate behavior is a coping skill, albeit a maladaptive one. When our tweens employ it, they may not yet know a better way to cope, or are trying to let us know they need help. When someone is seeking attention, they are trying to communicate something. It is important that we listen. 

Kat is a psychotherapist in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, PA. She works with kids of all ages, adults, couples and families. More information can be found on her website at: www.KMSPsychotherapy.com