Kids clinging to our legs. Incessant questions and interruptions. Constant over-the-top silly, disruptive or challenging behaviour. Needy. Needy. Needy.
Attention-seeking is just what it sounds like: seeking attention. What we often forget is that we seek attention to fill some kind of need—perhaps a longing to be special, to be accepted, to belong, to feel safe. When a child is hungry for connection, it can manifest in inappropriate behaviour. These behaviours can be annoying and exhausting for parents, teachers, and those around them. It can be helpful if we remember that behavior always tells us something and if we are able to look at what lies beneath attention-seeking behaviors we might be able to bring this intense seeking drive to rest.
Hungry for connection
Connection can fill us up emotionally, and thus bring down our alarm. Therefore unconsciously, when a child is hungry for connection we are going to see connection-seeking behaviours. Unfortunately, these kinds of behaviours tend to alienate, rather than draw out, our caring instincts. Endearing it is not. Our impulse may be to push the child away and say “Give me space!” or to admonish them, “Stop interrupting me, you are not the only one in this class,” or even to confront them, “Why are you always putting on a show and drawing attention to yourself?”
And yet a child hungry for connection needs us more than ever to step in, take the lead, and draw them close. When we push them away or inadvertently cause them to feel shame for their behaviours, it often reinforces their need for connection and therefore “up” the very behaviours we find challenging. Simply put, pushing away or asking kids (or anyone, for that matter) to stop being needy just doesn’t work. At least not the way we wish it to work.
What does a child who is hungry for connection need?
Get to them first! This is an approach I use all the time while working with children who I sense are seeking attention and are hungry for connection. It can work remarkably well — if we can get over our resistance to reaching out to a child who is clamouring for our attention all the time (which, if I am honest, I often find hard to do myself).
I once taught a teenage girl who was very disruptive. She had a comment for everything, constantly blurted out questions, and took up an incredible amount of space in the class. It was exhausting, as it took a lot of energy to make room for the other students’ voices. The very last thing I felt like doing was reaching out to this girl; in fact, she made me want to withdraw. However, it seemed to me that this young woman may have been both anxious and seeking attention. I, therefore, knew that I had to reach her in a way that would help her to feel my wish to connect with her. In other words, I had to reach out to her first, not simply respond to her attempts to reach out to me.
Being responded to doesn’t feel the same as being reached for.
There is a big difference between filling a need proactively versus responding to a demand, in terms of how it affects a child who is feeling insecure and hungry for connection. Being responded to is not the same thing as being reached for. It is very human to want to be wanted.
I decided to make sure this student felt wanted. But supporting a student in this way can sometimes be challenging for the other students in the class. They may feel resentful if their teacher gives attention to a student who they already feel is taking up more than their fair share. So, I tried to do this in a way that wasn’t quite as visible during class time and was also considerate of everyone’s needs. I knew that if I could fill her up, even a little, then she may not be so needy. I asked the student about her day when she walked into class, before she came up to me. I would go out of my way to say hello if I saw her in the hallway. And I would make sure to say goodbye at the end of class. She often lingered while gathering her things, and knowing she was about to ask me a question or comment, I would first ask her to share her thoughts about what we did in class that day. This was hard to do as there were so few moments in which she was not already commenting or reaching for me—and when she was not reaching for me, it felt like a reprieve, so it was hard to force myself to reach for her!
Somehow, I managed to push through my resistance and found small moments in which I could get to her first. It took about five months, but it worked. She stopped interrupting and didn’t need to take up as much space in the class. When she felt secure that I would freely give attention to her, she no longer sought it. She became much more pleasant to teach, and I truly began to enjoy her presence in the class, as did many of the students.
Perfection is not needed. In fact, it’s impossible.
This can be hard to do sometimes when we have busy families, or a class full of students seeking our attention. It might feel almost impossible (which it is!) to reach each one before they reach out to us. Perfection here is not needed, so we can just let that go. However, it can be helpful to remember that getting to these children first can help satiate them. And even very small moments in which we can initiate contact or indicate our interest in them can go a long way to shift the disruptions and behaviours that exhaust us.
Filling their attachment bucket.
Reaching out in small ways that indicate our interest and our wish to connect with them can help a child feel safe, wanted, and find some emotional rest.
What might this look like? Imagine the difference in how the examples below may feel. In both examples, the end result is the same; the adult reads to the child. But the energy behind them is different and may impact a child who is hungry for connection:
I was just thinking of how much I’d enjoy reading with you …
would you like to join me for some snuggles and a book?
A child comes to you and asks you to read them a book.
You respond with a yes, OK.
In the first example, the child experiences you proactively wanting to be with them. They sense your desire and interest to spend time with them. In the second example, although the child still receives your attention, it may be perceived by the child as you doing something for them only because they asked you to, rather than you also wanting this closeness with them.
When we can’t get to them first
As stated earlier, for some children it is hard to even find opportunities to invite and provide connection first as they are constantly demanding it from us. In these cases, we can still try to fill their attachment bucket by conveying our desire to be with them, even when it is in response to them. Such as:
A child comes to you and asks you to read them a book. You respond with a:
- How did you read my mind? I was just about to ask you the same thing!
- I sure do! I was just thinking how nice it would be to spend some time with you.
- I can’t read to you right now but I sure wish I could! I love our reading time together. Let’s have book time together tonight before bed. I will look forward to this all day.
If we can remember to re-frame attention-seeking to connection-seeking, it may more readily draw out our warmth when we see challenging behaviours that would typically make us want to withdraw or push back. Wanting connection is human and it’s a good thing. Kids simply don’t have the words to say I need you. Am I special? Do I belong? I don’t feel safe right now. Instead, their behavior does the talking.
As parents, teachers, mentors, helping professionals – all of us that work with children and youth – we can support kids finding emotional rest by helping meet their relational needs. This might take time. Some kids have empty buckets. Some kids have buckets with holes. And every child needs connection. There is nothing like the warmth and invitation of a caring adult to help repair and fill the bucket of a child hungry for connection.
For more information on the power of attachment, please see Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s course The Vital Connection through the Neufeld Institute and read Chapter 10 in Reclaiming Our Students: Why Children are More Anxious, Aggressive, and Shut-Down than Ever – and What We Can Do About It.
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