How often have you heard someone say, rather derisively, “Oh, s/he’s just looking for attention!”? There is an implied understanding that this is not good… that somehow the person in need of attention is too needy, or inappropriately needy, or perhaps even that their need is wrong, or not real.
We might even feel an implication with this statement that the person in need should be ignored or punished somehow, so they stop seeking attention, or at least stop the behavior driven by their seeking.
Do you know what I’m talking about? People label “attention-seeking behaviors” and proceed to respond to those behaviors by ignoring them, or getting upset with them.
There is something inherently wrong with this negative implication surrounding attention.
Imagine you are in a shop and you see the perfect house plant for your office. You’ve been looking for something for that one corner for a while, and this plant is absolutely perfect. Excited and pleased, you buy the plant and bring it to your office, only to discover you were absolutely right! It’s just the thing for the space!
Then you go about your business, doing your job, going home at night, and within weeks the plant starts to look droopy. You might wonder what’s wrong, but you think, “oh, it will be fine,” and you continue on with your work.
A few weeks later the plant looks like a shriveled, dried up disaster. “What happened?!?” you wonder. You consider taking the dumb thing back to the store, because clearly they sold you junk. But, you know a good plant person, and decide to first ask her to come into your office to take a look.
She looks at the plant, observes your office, and puts her finger in the soil in the pot.
“What is wrong?” you ask.
“Well, your office has no windows, so your plant hasn’t gotten any sun. And when was the last time you watered it? The soil is so dry it’s like rock,” she responds.
The plant that was so perfect is dead, from lack of attention in the form of the right amounts of sunlight and water.
We could up the ante a bit and talk about puppies. If you went out and adopted a puppy, (cutest wittle fing you ever saw, all fuzzy and wiggwy and sweet!!) and brought it home, but then gave it no attention, within hours your house would be a wreck and you would be wondering why you were so insane as to think this was a good idea.
Or, how about your spouse or partner? If I came home from work and my husband was home before me, sitting in the living room watching his favorite show, and didn’t greet me… ignored me… he would be in SO much trouble! Same thing if the situation were the opposite, and I ignored him, I would be in trouble!
When we get home, we greet each other. We hug. We kiss. We ask about the other’s day and tell about our own. We give each other attention. And if we didn’t, our marriage would not be a happy one.
My point here is that attention is a basic need of all living things, and we need to stop thinking about it as “bad,” especially in children. Our children need our attention.
In fact, I would posit that healthy relationships — between parents and children, partners, friends — are all about the quality of our attention!
So, what do I mean by that? Well, there are three components of high quality attention:
1) Good observations
High quality attention begins with good observations. It’s all about noticing the small things…downcast eyes, slumped shoulders, a change in tone of voice.
These are not things we will notice as easily if we are rushed, or sick, or having a bad day. Our ability to make good observations is strongly dependent on our own internal climate, which is part of my case for good self-care and self-regulation, which you can check out here and here.
2) Accurate interpretations
The second step in high quality attention is accurate interpretations. If we are making good observations, are we also making accurate interpretations of the things we notice?
We are most likely to misinterpret things when we have unresolved trauma, or when something we see in this moment is linked in our minds with something else that happened before.
We also are more likely to misinterpret our observations when we are dysregulated in other ways, perhaps feeling lonely, or angry, or overwhelmed, or tired, or even hungry.
Another thing to consider here is the power of an open mind that believes the best. This does not mean ignoring a problem, but to consider as many possibilities as we can, and to make interpretations which honor the highest good in the other person.
3) Respond in a way that meets the need
Once we have made good observations, and have accurately interpreted what we notice, we then have an opportunity to respond to the need in a way that the other person feels it is met.
Let’s think about an example of this process together. Imagine with me that your child has just come home from school. You are waiting at the bus stop, and notice him getting off the bus quietly, looking down at the ground. You know that usually he comes down the aisle giving fist bumps to all his friends and hops down the steps to the sidewalk, a stark contrast to what you just witnessed.
You give him a sideways squeeze, kiss the top of his head, and then ask, “what’s up, buddy? How was your day?”
You notice he is still looking at the ground as you walk and hasn’t spoken to you yet. He kicks a small rock hard enough for it to ricochet off a sign post and ping your ankle.
At this moment, you could be feeling many things. You might be worried about your typically energetic and engaging child. You might be upset that he isn’t speaking to you, and frustrated, or even angry that the rock hurt your ankle. The amount to which those things bother you is likely correlated with what type of day you have had so far and what your expectations are for your child’s behavior.
How will you interpret these behaviors? To honor the highest good in your child, you certainly would NOT assume he was just being a brat. Instead, you might start thinking that perhaps he’s had a hard day, or maybe that something has happened that has upset him somehow.
How will you respond? Knowing your child and relating to him in ways that are appropriate for his age and personality are at the foundation of your response. You might say something like, “it seems like something is upsetting you.” Or, “seems like it’s been a hard day.”
You probably don’t want to focus on the rock that hit you, or the fact that he is not speaking to you. Instead of being punitive, believing the best of your child, and understanding that he is having a hard time, will help you hear and respond to his need in the best way possible.
It could be that this is all your child needs — a bit of compassion and a ready listening ear. It could be he needs time just to be close to you, walking home, and will be ready to talk later. It could be that he needs a hug or time to snuggle together.
Meeting his need will result in the two of you feeling connected. If it all goes as we would hope, you will come through this situation with both of you feeling better. He will feel valued, understood, and cared for. You will feel like an effective parent.
Attachment research tells us that if we give our loved ones high quality attention (making good observations, accurate interpretations, and responding in ways that meet the need) a mere 30% of the time, we will have a secure relationship! This gives us so much room to be human. We can be distracted and miss the behaviors showing us there is a need. We can misinterpret the behaviors. We can respond in ways that don’t meet the need. But if we are giving it our best, choosing to learn and grow, we can repair mistakes and strengthen our relationships.
“Needing attention” is the state of all things, ourselves included. Let’s embrace our ability to meet that need for those we love, and enjoy the deep and lasting relationships that result.
So much love,