“She’s Just Trying to Get Attention”

Maybe try giving it to her.

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As a junior high tutor, I really get to know my students. I work with kiddos that the school district identifies as being both “at-risk” and having strong academic potential. They are kids who have looked around at the world they were raised in and have decided that they want more.

These kids have stuff.

These are kids who have alcoholic mothers who don’t always come home at night. These are kids who often aren’t able to get their homework done because they are tasked daily with the full-time care of three younger siblings. These are kids without reliable transportation. These are kids in the foster care system. These are kids whose parents are incarcerated. Before all of this, these are kids who are determined. They signed up for a program that means more work, more effort, and higher expectations. No one forces them into it. They have to apply. They have to write an essay. The have to attend an interview. And what do they get if they are admitted? They get more responsibility, higher expectations, and more work.

They also get more attention.

I help them with their content areas. I help them with their study skills and time management. I help them learn to take notes and memorize the four ways to solve a quadratic equation. But there’s one thing that I do, above all else, that is not specifically in my job description. It’s the thing for which I get so many excited, “Hi Ms. Kay!!!”’s when I walk into their classroom at 8am. It’s the reason they break from their friends to hug me in the halls and write me heartfelt thank you letters at the end of the year and stay in touch with me once they’ve moved on. And it’s the most important thing I do as a positive adult role model in their lives. I pay attention to them.

It feels like such a small thing, but we’ve been conditioned to dismiss our children’s need for attention.

“Why is Hayden acting like such a little shithead today?”

“Oh, its nothing. He’s just trying to get attention.”

Give your kid some fucking attention, Mama.

I know you are exhausted. I know you have enough going on. I know that it feels like if you don’t put them to bed right fucking now you will lose your goddamn mind. It will pour right out of your ear into your bowl of cookie dough ice cream that is a metaphor for the feelings you feel like you need to eat to make them disappear. But this one is big. And their behavior will be more difficult tomorrow if you don’t take the five minutes to do this now.

And, more importantly, their little hearts are hurting.

What is the need for attention anyway? We all have it. Jesus, look at Instagram and Facebook. Attention is what social media is about. Find the people on your social media who are constantly engaged and posting multiple times per day. If they’re not selling something, those people have an unmet need for attention in their “real” life. Now find the people who post here and there for a special occasion … the people who will post a pic of a graduation or a trip to Italy. Those people are getting their attention need met in their “real” lives. Thus, you won’t find them begging for attention all over social media. My point is that adults needs attention, too.

Here’s why:

The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s apathy. When we are apathetic, we don’t pay attention. We attend to the things that are important to us. We attend to the things we love.

Your kiddo needing attention is your kiddo needing to feel love. It’s your kiddo needing to feel safe and important so that they can focus their energy on doing the important work of growing up.

As adults, we are responsible for our own emotional needs. We aren’t owed love or attention. If we want to be loved, we need to become a person who is worthy of love and that means being willing to love first without expectation of anything in return.

Kids are different. Kids are vulnerable and dependent. They are little plants that need soil and water and sun to grow. They haven’t learned how to meet their own needs yet. They know that attention means that they are loved and they will seek out the wrong ways to meet that emotional need, that will persist into adulthood, if we aren’t present to meet it for them now when they are dependent on us.

We have a protocol in our house for attention-seeking. My kids openly ask for it.

It started out as kind of a joke. If one of my girls was acting out on any given day, I’d say, “Kiddo, do you need some attention?” One day, my autistic daughter took the question seriously and deadpanned, “Yes.”

Oh shit.

So attention she got. I sat her on my lap and rocked her back and forth. We talked about her feelings and she confided some of her fears and anxieties. When she felt better, she jumped out of my lap and went about her day. Her behavior immidiately improved. She got her need met.

So, we continue to use the protocol. If I get a, “Yes”, to the attention question from any of my girls, we snuggle or talk or hold hands or play a game. If I have work to do or errands to run, I’ll invite that kiddo to do those things with me. And it works. It has progressed to the point that my girls will independently come up to me and say, “Mama, I need some attention” when they recognize that their need is unmet.

This doesn’t mean I’m at their beck and call 24/7 or that responses are always immidiate and unmitigated. What it does mean is that my kids have learned to recognize when they have an unmet emotional need and we have found a productive/positive way to get that need met. It also means that I am on notice, as a mom, that I can do better.

Aside from a little sibling squabbling, usually between the youngest two, we don’t have behavior problems in our house. What we do have is plenty of attention.

For all the resources and services that the school district directs toward them, I believe its the attention that keeps my at-risk kiddos on the right track. It’s not the lectures on study skills. It’s the 5:1 student to teacher ratios in their classes. It’s the “Hey, kiddo…You didn’t turn in your homework today. What’s going on?” It’s the face of the adult that lights up when they walk in the room. It’s someone saying, “Dakota. You have incredible leadership potential. Why aren’t you on Student Council?”

When they get attention, they feel loved. When they feel loved, they feel safe and valuable and they can direct their energy toward growing.

On the flip side, if they are denied positive adult attention for long enough, they will start to settle for any attention, including negative attention, and they will start to seek it elsewhere. A kiddo, especially a teen, in desperate need of attention is a danger to him/herself and others.

I know that I don’t need to write an article advising people to love their kids. That seems silly. But what people don’t realize is that the need for attention is the need for love and that kids can’t thrive without it. At worst, they will self-destruct. At best, they will be tied up in emotional knots that they will spend their adult lives trying to untie.

Get into habits. You can go conventional: Read your kiddos stories before bed. Give them a bath or, if they are bathing independently, sit on the floor of the bathroom and talk to them while they bathe/shower. Or have a bathroom sing-along. If they are older, have music lessons in the car. Share with them why you think that NKOTB is the fucking best! (or the fucking worst!) Teach them the things you know, whatever those may be … let them help you change a tire or, if that’s not your thing, show them how to call AAA. Make them a part of whatever you are doing. They will be happy to help you clean out the fridge or get your car washed or whatever other mundane shit you have to do, because they get to be with you.

And watch their IG. It will teach you about which needs aren’t getting met.

I propose we stop dismissing childrens’ shitty behavior as “just seeking attention” and start calling the need for attention what it is: The need to feel love.

If these kids are going to make it to 18 relatively intact and ready to face the challenges that life will inevitably throw at them, they need to feel loved and valuable.

I’ve heard so many times, “Oh, She’s fine. She just wants attention.”

How would we, as parents and caregivers react if we heard, “Oh, She’s fine. She just wants love” ???

Because that’s what they are asking for. And they’re not okay without it.

Mama, writer, lover, fighter — I wear my heart on my sleeve because my pants pockets are too small. www.ajkaywriter.com

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