“He’s just attention seeking, if you give him attention it won’t do him any good” – this phrase and words to these effect are typical words we hear as parents and professionals. When you see a child tugging on their parents clothes, demanding to be seen and heard it’s very often felt that the child is a spoilt child who should just be able to wait until the adult is ready to talk to them.
For those of you who work with vulnerable children you will know that those who have experienced trauma have a very different need for attention. It’s actually attention NEEDING more than attention seeking. The fact that they have not had their needs met sufficiently in the past means the need to be seen and heard is a much more powerful feeling for them.
One of the attachment styles theorists talk about is AMBIVALENT attachment. For a child who experiences this kind of attachment their whole purpose in life is to be noticed. They are the in your face children, chattering non stop, helping when you don’t want their help, constantly demanding that you give your whole attention to them and no-one else. This is like a primal instinct to them. The need for attention is such a strong driving force they cannot help themselves.
Behaviour communicates a need. It’s not that this child wants to be awkward and manipulative but the need for attention drives their every move. If they have particularly turned up the volume on the attention needing behaviour they are trying to communicate to you their anxiety and fear about something. It may be a trip coming up, the holidays coming, a visit with a sibling or a birthday/special occasion that reminds them of their birth families. It could be anything! The behaviour is a real indication that something is wrong.
I can hear some of you saying “his behaviour is constantly the same – always needing my attention” and that is true for many vulnerable children. It can be very draining and of course time consuming. Here are some simple tips to help you support a child who needs constant attention:
1) As much as you can use their name and look at them when you talk to them. Even though they may not be able to give you eye contact they will feel that your attention is on them if you look at them as much as possible.
2) Try to remember facts about them and ask them how things went. For example if they have a birthday party coming up or about to take a music exam or go on a special holiday. The fact that you remember and ask them will mean a great deal to them – showing them that they are important.
3) When you cannot be with them give them something to look after for you. I heard of a great idea at one school where a teacher had a cuddly toy that she put on the table of the girl when she left the room. The teacher told her that she had to look after it until she came back. That gave the child the sense that the person trusts them enough and of course will be back.
4) When the child interrupts you if you’re talking to another adult, instead of telling them to wait, turn your attention on them and ask them what they want. This is a difficult one for adults to accept as we tend to feel that we have to teach children to wait and respect adults as they speak to each other. I agree this is a social nicety but for children who don’t feel valued they need to know they are important to adults. When you do turn your attention to them for a second and let them speak many times they will ask a simple question or will actually say “nothing” – they just want to connect with us. The other adult you are talking to should be able to understand and accept the interruption.
5) Remember above all else no matter how much attention you give this child it will feel that it is never enough. It is like their bucket has a hole in it, as much as you fill it with water it will always run out. Don’t give up though – the more you can reinforce their self-esteem the more they will be able to relax their attention needing behaviours.