Seeking Connection or Attention Seeking?


In this term’s blog, Lisa A invites parents to consider if our child’s attention seeking behaviour may be an expression of their need to seek connection?

We are frequently told in parenting advice books and on the internet that attention seeking is bad and we must ignore the ‘behaviour’ because otherwise the child will learn that all they have to do is scream to get our attention.

However what if we challenged that idea and told you that our children are not ‘attention seeking’, but rather they are ‘seeking connection’ with us?

Let’s first look at this concept called “attachment”. Attachment is a motivational behavioural system whose purpose is to seek proximity to a caregiver. The attachment system includes both exploration, where the function is for learning/playing; and it also includes protection, where the function is for safety. Children use their caregiver as a ‘secure base’ from which to go out and explore the world. When the threat of danger is present, exploration is inhibited, and the child turns to the caregiver for safety and security. This is a really important point to understand and observe in children, as the “proximity seeking” behaviours look different in different children. For some it is them asking for help, others it may be to cry, for others we may experience them as being “whiny” or “clingy”, and some children become explosive and aggressive. We also need to keep an eye out on the ones who retreat away and are the quietest.

It is important to understand what ‘danger’ might mean to a child. It could be saying goodbye to their caregiver; going to sleep by themselves; or the new person that they are unsure how to interact with them. It could also be as simple as an unexpected noise or a new food they are trying for the first time. When a child experiences something as a danger, they will stop exploring/playing and being independent and return back to their caregiver for safety. Is this attention seeking or seeking a connection with someone who they trust to validate their emotions and provide reassurance, supporting them to feel safe enough to go back and tackle the same situation?

The research now suggests that if children haven’t yet mastered the skill of emotional regulation, they are likely to find other, insecure ways to bring their caregivers and attachment figures closer. Often this makes it confusing for caregivers to know whether or not their child needs comfort or support.  Because of this, we often mistake children’s behaviour as  ‘attention seeking’ or ‘being naughty or silly’.  Often these are the times are when our children are struggling emotionally and not knowing how to cope or how to get help from their caregiver.

Indeed children can be skilful in getting our attention in all sorts of ways (i.e. kicking the back of our chair, screaming, saying they need our help when we know they can do the task themselves, withdrawing etc). However there is a need that underlies these ‘attention seeking’ behaviours. To be able to support our children to gain our attention in more secure ways we need to look past the behaviour and discover the underlying need for connection and emotional organisation and address that. For children to be able to self-regulate and calm themselves down, they first have to experience this calming down with someone.

Here at Inside Out OT, we look further past the behaviour, to look at what the underlying emotional needs of our children are, and support families to address those needs. Programs such as the Circle of Security and reflective based discussions with our Occupational Therapists can help support you to be with your children when they are upset. Through this, we can support your relationship with your child which enables enhanced emotional regulation and self esteem.