by Mary-Anne Tandy (Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist)
How often do you find yourself saying, “He or she is so attention seeking,” when referring to your child?
It is so often negatively attributed to children by parents or teachers or friends and yet is it such a bad thing? Is there a way of understanding that attention is what makes children thrive and the distinction lies in whether the attention is negative or positive. Desire for attention is usually met, particularly in children, as something which should be ignored, dismissed, or even punished. But perhaps the contrary is true.
Perhaps it is a communication asking to get closer; a communication that something is missing. Perhaps this is partly why people often come to therapy, because something in them hasn’t been attended to which the careful listening of a therapist can provide.
What kind of attention are children looking for – this seems to be key. Often the attention they are looking for, they cannot get, and what they do get is shame and rejection instead.
I remember seeing an 8 year old boy, who had been permanently excluded from a mainstream school and had been placed in a specialised unit. He could not function without the one to one attention of an adult and the attention he provoked was usually negative and rejecting. I had gone to fetch him in a crowded waiting room. When I arrived he was nowhere to be seen and I realised he was hiding from me. So I pretended to be looking for him until he leapt out from behind a chair and beaming, announced himself. I responded by saying what a surprise I had and how pleased I was to see him. He seemed to be delighted to be found. Sadly in the therapy room, away from others, his mother began to berate him for behaving as though he was two. It was embarrassing – for her – and he had shamed her in some way. And so she turned her shame onto him. Needless to say the session turned very sour and his spontaneity and playfulness squashed so that all he was left with was disapproval and a feeling of having been crushed. His next step was to storm out of the room enraged.
Our dependence on, and need for attention starts from infancy and is needed in order to survive and thrive but as infants develop, and as they grow older, this is often seen as something no longer needed or least of all demanded. But we all need attention, despite our age, so how do we find ways in which we can get the attention we so need. It is often hard to read what attention is being asked for especially in children. As parents and teachers this can take a great deal of personal resource, especially when as a parent or teacher you feel stressed yourself or feeling unattended to, and now someone else is making yet another demand.
As adults, we are often attending to so many other things, rather than that which should be attended to; relationships both with ourselves and others. Often the attention we give ourselves is full of recriminations; a constant critical voice that has far more power over us than a kinder, more compassionate voice.
What psychoanalysts would call this a “harsh superego”, which strips us of our assets, unable to hold onto the good qualities and accepting our more challenging ones. Children learn, very early on, to take in the negative feedback which parents may give them, not only through words, but through actions, through being distracted, through their gaze – the way in which you are looked at.
Donald Winnicott, a renowned paediatrician and child analyst, writes beautifully of the way in which the child, through the “mother’s gaze” develops a sense of having been seen. The infant depends on their mother’s facial responses so that when they look into their mother’s face, and she returns the gaze with love, the child takes this in and develops a sense of being loveable. This is taken for granted as most mother’s naturally do this. But what if the mother, is depressed, overwhelmed, hateful, what does the baby see reflected back? The infant has to quickly make a forecast; do I need to withdraw, increase my demands, soothe myself, enliven the mother? This places a huge burden on a tiny infant.
Children, through attention seeking, are often asking for help in trying to understand their own thoughts, their own worries, their own muddle. It is what the parent actually sees in their child and what is missed. Often seeking attention is a way of saying I am not the person you insist on telling me I am, I am someone else who is not being recognised and nurtured. Disapproval makes children lose heart in themselves and then they begin to behave in a way that provokes the response in adults that confirms their beliefs about themselves. If a child believes they are unloveable they will then generate that in adults which then confirms their belief.
Another way of thinking about this is how does the child feel they can be in the parent’s mind. When they have little experience of this they keep upping the ante until they feel they get the attention they so desperately need and want.
Children and later adults become extremely adept at gaining attention. Needing reassurance is often linked with vulnerability as the child has to admit to how much they depend on their parents to survive psychologically and asking for this , can at times, seem too great a risk. So the child gets your attention by igniting anger rather than love. Parents often, at their limit, wait until the child is over-tired or distressed and then react with a volley of criticisms and complaints. Underneath this, the child is really saying, I love and need you – I need your approval. Kindness, enthusiasm, warmth, care are exchanged with frustration, despair, anger and disappointment.
So perhaps when children start provoking us and seem attention seeking all they are really asking for is to come closer, to feel valued and loved.
Mary-Anne is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist (ACP), Psychoanalyst (IPA) and Parenting Practitioner. Mary-Anne is also a Child Psychotherapy Supervisor at the Ububele Therapy and Assessment Clinic.
If you feel like you and your child would benefit from some psychotherapy support you can contact us at email@example.com or on 011 786 5085 to book an appointment