Attention Seeking is a Big Fat Lie

This post has been re-printed (with permission) in the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness Dec 2012.

You don’t have to spend much time around parents or teachers, or experts, to hear the phrase… “They’re just attention seeking.” While tricks abound about how to suppress attention seeking, what continuously baffles me, is the lack of interest in what lies behind the behaviours. Yes, children can be irritating, rude and sometimes down right naughty in this state, but why. Biologically, what is going on for the child?

When we realise that so-called attention seeking is actually a child seeking to [communicate a need and] feel connected: all becomes clear. The need to feel connected is fundamental to our biology. Many of us have had times of feeling isolated and alone. In the past, to be alone would have meant death or at least to be in great danger. Children are biologically driven to connect with the significant adults around them. [Their survival depends us understanding their needs – if they feel no sense of connection, they have no faith in us understanding and meeting their needs.] The more disconnected they feel, the higher their levels of stress hormone – they will act up until they achieve some sort of connection: then their bodies can naturally calm again. Some disconnections are inevitable (some valuable), but how we handle them and, more importantly, how we handle the reconnection phase is fundamental to parenting. The more we muck this process up, the more often we have irritating, rude and naughty children. Fact.

(Some children are so suppressed behaviour wise that they appear to be managing. Of course they’re not if they’re emotionally disconnected. Revolting tweenies and teenagers or college and adult children who go ‘off the rails’ or ‘shut-down’ are signs this has happened.)

I now have to blog when the Butterfly is asleep. If I don’t, he is continually pulling on the mouse and tapping at the keyboard, and the noise he makes gets louder and more urgent. He is annoying, and as rude as a 17 month old can get, and yes, I could interpret his behaviours as naughty. Sometimes I find it difficult not to snap at him – often it would only take 10 or 15 minutes of concentrated effort to achieve what I want to achieve. His interruptions are damned frustrating! But he is showing his sense of disconnection: as soon as I reconnect – he’s quiet and calm again.

Unlike natural separations (they choose) children feel a sense of disconnection every time we force a separation: when we choose to be on the computer or speak to someone else; go the loo or have a shower without them; or even just by being on the phone. Many people treat these as times for discipline, star-charts or other training, when there’s a much healthier way to manage. It’s all in how we use our eyes. 

When you greet your children first thing in the morning, or at the end of the day, or when you have just been concentrating somewhere other than on them try this:

1.Focus your eyes on theirs. 

2.Stretch your eyesockets as wide as you can and,

3. Immediately afterwards, crinkle the muscles around your eyes to make them smile. (You might have to practise.) 

4. Then enter their world for a few minutes. Let them tell you something, show you something or give you a hug. Just concentrate all of your attention, even your thoughts, on them.

If reconnecting properly (this is biology not opinion) is new for your children, they’ll initially not believe what they are experiencing, and it might take a while for you all to get used to it. Conscious eye-contact still feels un-natural to me, but for our children it’s now normal and the results are fantastic. Aside from everything else: they behave better.

There are three regular daily times of disconnection for most of us. Firstly, immediately after they wake: consciously reconnect, and it will be a smoother process getting out the door. Secondly, when on the phone. If you can see your children, use your eyes to keep contact: connect to them with your eyes (walk around phones are great). Even so, don’t spend too long chatting. If they’re out of sight, make it as snappy as you can without being rude. You’ll save yourself a lot of bad-behaviour and bother by making this little sacrifice. Truly serious phone calls happen rarely. 

The other common disconnection happens, particularly for small children, when you’re on the loo or in the shower. For these times, please consider putting aside your discomfort and allowing them in the room with you. They are going to feel anxious otherwise, and most children will do a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g to get you to reconnect. If they appear to be managing, what’s their behaviour like afterwards? Well trained children, show their stress after an event, not during it. They’re still having the same biological reactions – it just manifests at a different time or in a different way – sometimes even as a health issue.

(Besides, with all the anxiety around bodies, the better it is – the more normal, misshapen, baby stretched ones they see.)

The younger the child, the shorter the amount of time it takes for them to experience disconnection and the longer could take them to feel reconnected. [They instinctively know they could not survive without us, any time we are ‘absent’ they experience it as disconnection.]  It’s like everything else with parenting: the better the results over time, the bigger the right sort of commitment in the early years. (Hint: if it involves the words ‘training’ or ‘self-esteem’…it’s not the right kind of commitment.)

And temperament matters. Our highly sensitive Owl has a much smaller tolerance for separation from me, and he generally needs longer to reconnect than our more sociable Butterfly or Hare. We could train him not to show us his stress – with stickers, praise or punishment – but then it wouldn’t go away, it would fester. Rather we choose to use the above technique alongside Boring Cuddles (Quick Way to Stop Children Fussing) – so he knows we’re there for him and he learns to manage his emotions for himself.

There are two keys ways to tell if children are well-connected and, therefore less likely to show attention seeking behaviours. Firstly, by recognising how excited they are when they greet their parents after daycare, kindergarten or school – the more excited the better [with the caveat that a more ‘shy’ Owl child could be less demonstrative than others, and that might just be them]. And secondly, by checking how easily they make eye-contact with their mothers: calm, steady and expressive, and all is well.

[The bits in square brackets  I’ve added since I first posted, after hakea’s comment, I realised I needed to clarify further. Thanks, hakea.]

For more innovative ideas about dealing with tantrums buy my book,


About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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49 Responses to Attention Seeking is a Big Fat Lie

  1. Interesting. And where were you when my parents were raising me?!

  2. hakea says:

    the biggest and fattest lie!

    Fifteen years ago when I was working in the disability field, I was doing some relief work in group homes for adults with disabilities. I frequently went in without knowing the residents’ idiosyncracies. There was a young man with severe cerebral palsy in one home. He got around the home by shuffling along on the floor. He was getting himself worked up. I asked the regular staff what he might need. He didn’t communicate with words. They said he was attention-seeking. The young man started banging his hand on the floor, and then banging his head on the tiled floor. Again, the staff insisted he was attention-seeking, and told me he could get violent. I thought to myself, who bangs their head on a hard floor for attention? I started with the basic needs. Did he need the toilet, food, water, clothing? He accepted a drink of water, and asked for another. Ever since that incident, I cringe when I hear the term ‘attention-seeking’.

    All behaviour happens for a reason, and frequently it is because the person’s needs (emotional, physical, intellectual) are not being met.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I’m with you on that one…obviously…I just hope that as many people as possible read this and take it on board, too.
      That’s awful about that particular man, and I’ll bet it happens in institutions all around the world every hour of every day. Tragic.
      Thanks for your support.

    • Oh, that breaks my heart. My brother has cerebral palsy, yet he is fortunate that it only affected his legs slightly, however, many are not so lucky. As an emergency medical tech here in the US for many years, I have been to hundreds of what we call “long term care facilities.” I have seen tragic standards of care and neglect which is considered acceptable. It makes me sick, I cannot understand how people can be treated this way. People in this condition and others are brushed aside and I feel it is a symptom of our busy culture. We simply don’t have time or money to care for someone in this condition. Our politicians do not set aside money to help pay for a higher standard of care (insurance certainly does not here in the US). Sad.

  3. I completely agree with your post! Great pin-pointing the real issue. Our son never “acted out” until his baby sister arrived. The first four weeks were hard regaining balance in our household and with the new dynamics in our relationship with him. Things had changed, as he was no longer our only focus (child-wise). Now that we are a bit more organized with our time, we are obtaining a balance with him again, and it reflects in his behavior. He is VERY connected to his parents, and sensitive to any change in that. Good post! Thanks!

    • kloppenmum says:

      You’re welcome: thanks for the thumbs-up.
      I agree with you too, it is incredible to see the changes in our children’s behaviour, when we make the connection between true cause and effect and make changes. Times of disconnection happen, that’s life, but helping our children to reconnect again is so important. Thanks for commenting.

  4. Thank you, it’s great to be reminded of this. Love the eye connect trick, I’m going to try it in the morning.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thanks for commenting. The eye trick still feels odd to me, but it seems to work – just shows you what we don’t know about our own biology some times. Writing this post reminded me to be more connected to our kids, too – made my parenting more conscious for me, I guess.

  5. Love this, Karyn!

    We even have our older girls do similar reconnection with the 3 year old, when the little one starts wrecking the game her older sisters are playing. She’s coming at them with the wooden block, and we’re in the background, coaching, “OK, now pause and hug your sister…” Even though she’s been a bit more sensitive lately, and so more likely to resort to radical connection methods, the simple body-check-turned-embrace works every time.

    Thanks for putting it out there, Karyn!

  6. Elena says:

    Wonderful, lots of food for thought here. As I read through I just kept thinking, and for those of us held at arm’s length our entire childhood, how to bridge the gap given up as impossible so many years ago? I guess sometimes healing takes generations, which is little consolation to a small child frightened by the disconnect today. Thanks for sharing some tools for moving in the right direction.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Hi there,
      It can take generations, but all it would really take is a generation of parents who picked their babies up when they cried. Those babies then have the brain structure to make different choices when they are parents. It might not be an easy childhood for some in that group, but it would dramatically shift society in a more humane and calm direction. If we all used our eyes like I have suggested, that could be an alternative for those of us held at arms length who have to consciously break the old patterns, which would also end in a lot of positive change. Pleased you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  7. I love the eye exercise!!!!!!

  8. I admit, I can tear up easily. But your post really spoke to me. And yes, I did tear up. As much as I intuitively “know” much of what you talked about, it serves as a heartening reminder to stay present with our children. It is far too easy to slip into trying to just control their behavior. Easy for us. Devastating for them. Thank you for your words of wisdom and spirit of support.

  9. This is fantastic, I’m going to repost it.

  10. Natalie says:

    I have to say I am so happy to have stumbled on to you blog! Thank you for taking the time to post!

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thank-you for taking the time to read! I was trying to keep each post short…but they seem to have crept up and up…
      And thanks for commenting, too. 🙂

  11. Juliana says:

    Great post! As much as we love them, it can be a constant struggle to just pay attention to our children, but it does mean so much to them!

    • kloppenmum says:

      It’s that ability to stop and really connect that takes so much time doesn’t it? The busy-ness of life can push our connections with our children to the back of our agenda, yet, you’re right – they long to feel connected to us.

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  13. fiona2107 says:

    This sounds great!

    Does it work without the eye contact part though? That’s a bit tricky with autistic kids, but I’m willing to give it a try 🙂

    • kloppenmum says:

      Hi Fiona,
      I understand what you mean about autistic kids and eye-contact. Could you start with less than a second of eye-contact and build up, always allowing for your son or daughter to break away when they want to? And stop if it becomes an issue? And while eye-contact is the quickest and strongest way to reconnect, I would think any way of reconnecting that is significant to them would work. I’d love to know how you get on.

  14. Pipi says:

    I wish I read this earlier, because there had been times when I yelled at my toddler son because of his endless whining, which turns out to be a request for me to open his snack. Sometimes, we are too busy concentrating on our own world and forgot about our child’s existence. It’s worst for toddler, because his imperfect communication abilities, limited speaking capability and vocabularies, all he can do is whine, whine and whine..

    One thing I learned though, if we don’t stop whatever it was we’re doing and listened to our child, we can be sure that the next time we try to get their attention, prepare for a disappointing result.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Pipi, we all have days that our not our best! You’re right, it is hard for children to communicate just through their words and I’m sure things get worse the less we listen (and really hear) them. 🙂

  15. cjdwhite says:

    I’m becoming really, really worried about all the cell phones and other handheld devices that most adults carry everywhere with them now. They are with their children physically, but they are constantly with the phone–checking messages, texting, playing, checking apps, listening to messages. Poor kids! I went on a field trip with my daughter’s class last week, a truly unique trip to the state capitol building, and one parent was there all day…physically. She spent the entire time entertaining her phone. I was annoyed. If I’m annoyed at having to share someone with their phone, how much more defeating for a child.

    • I totally agree. Any kind of disconnection (which the child hasn’t chosen) is a stressful experience for them – some are inevitable and important, but social media distractions are neither of these! Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      • IfByYes says:

        Have you seen that totally disturbing new Droid phone commercial, where a father sees the new Droid in the window of a store and convinces himself that his baby daughter would WANT him to buy it, so he could play music, watch videos with her, and have apps for her to play with? He decides that buying the Droid would be an excellent parenting decision and marches in. I mentally barfed on the spot.

  16. This is very helpful, thank you for posting this!

  17. IfByYes says:

    Toni Morrison once asked “When a child enters the room […] do your eyes light up?”

  18. Hi Karyn
    I found your blog after searching ‘attention seeking children’ after a challenging episode with my eldest son this evening who was loudly larking about whilst being repeatedly asked to keep quiet as the youngest was in bed. We have three boys, 11, 8 and 4. This post makes perfect sense to me and as I have recently committed to be more ‘present’ with my children I will try out your advice.

    • Pleased it made sense, Spike. As we will have three boys aged…11,8 and 4 in the not so distant future I’ll be looking for some more comments to make sure I am on the right track!! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.:)

  19. Hi Karyn,

    I appreciated the previous comments and responses on this thread.

    My sister sent me a link to your post titled “What if I’m Right?” and I’ve spent the last couple of days perusing your blog. Now… to answer your challenge of leaving a comment:

    This post in particular regarding “attention-getting behavior” threw me a bit for a loop, but it wasn’t the concept, just one line toward the end regarding eagerness to see/greet parents at the end of the day…

    I have a little boy, nearly five, who isn’t completely tied into the world around him, and who challenges us to confirm that we have his attention when we want to tell him anything important or give a direction. (I began doing this so as not to misinterpret ‘not catching it’ for intentional misbehavior.) I do not believe this is attention-seeking in the least; neither do his (very loving) preschool teachers. We are very affectionate with each other, coslept with him until he was four or so (and still do when he needs us), he is sweet to his friends, isn’t a kid who falls apart easily, gets on easily with most people…We have been asked to pursue therapy for his nonverbal communication skills (infrequent eye contact, esp., but can maintain it fine when he wants) and I’m concerned about his ability to stay focused in the upcoming kindergarten classroom. We are beginning to get into ‘the system’ for therapies

    I’m at a loss, to be truthful. I am not receiving any direction other than “fix your kid” and frankly, I don’t know how. I’ve taught preschool myself and have done a ton of reading and still… I have a child who is off in the ether sometimes. When I pick him up from preschool, even on the best of days, there isn’t excitement to leave school nor is there distress…he’s just off in his own head. Which is why your line about this affected me so much.

    So, any advice for a situation like this? Any personality type this fits into, other than “go get your kid some services”? Much like your “What if I’m Right?” post, our friends tell us we are doing fine, our son doesn’t seem to have any unaddressed emotional or personal needs that we are aware of, he gets a lot of affection, positive attention at times of ‘neutral behavior’, we are hitting all the points on your bullet-pointed list… Is there a piece missing, or am I just imagining this or imposing this on my life from elsewhere? (I realize the last question is rhetorical…you don’t live in our house…)

    I apologize for the length of this, but I only accept challenges wholeheartedly or not at all.;)

    • Thank you for your long response, Hazel, I always love to hear from readers and I hope I can be helpful. Firstly, I think your little boy sounds lovely and I think you’re probably doing all the things that he needs to thrive. Perhaps time for a little tweaking? Please take the rest of this with a grain of salt, as I don’t know you and am just working with what you have told me…
      While I think it’s a good thing for him to still be largely in the ether, I can also appreciate your concerns with regards to kindergarten. (I think this is the start to academic-learning for him – is that right? Our kindergartens are play-based, so I’ve never been sure about that.) It is probably a good time to teach this lovely boy that some of the things he’s not comfortable with, still need to be done – like eye-contact. (Just quietly, no big deal.)
      Infrequent eye-contact can just be a sign of a child who is very sensitive to his environment (what I call an Owl temperament) – eye-contact can be very intrusive for these people and they can experience intense waves of emotion when other people are focussed on them. It’s the eye-contact that he makes with you, which is the important thing. If he can maintain warm and steady eye-contact with you – from time to time – it’s just a matter of him learning that eye-contact with others is expected. A simple, Thankyou, when he manages to achieve even a short amount of eye-contact is possibly a good approach that his preschool teachers and other significant (and willing) adults can help out with. Our boys teachers shake the children’s hands when they enter and leave school and ensure that each child makes eye-contact when they say hello – that is, they don’t let go of the child’s hand until they have done so. (is this something your preschool teachers could do?)
      At the end of preschool – I would look to his body-language to see if he is pleased to see you. Owls are a lot more subtle at showing their emotions and our Owl child was pleased to see me, but only I would have known that most days. Also, children who are in the ether lots sometimes need a little help with grounding. I would suggest you could try (remember I have no idea who you are!) sitting down with him on your lap in a Boring Cuddle (Post here somewhere.)until he finds consciousness and he tells you it’s time to go.
      Hope these are useful, Hazel. I’m so sorry I freaked you out! Please come back and ask more or let me know how you get on. All the best/

      • Karyn,
        Thank you so much for your advice. We are already using all of the techniques you suggested (the teachers, too), with the exception of just having some Boring Cuddle time right at pick-up, which could be done most days. Your comment did worry me a bit, just because I’ve been trying to figure out what I might have done when Kiddo was little to possibly ‘disconnect’ him (esp. with all the information coming out about how ADD/ADHD may be manifestations of less-than-ideal parenting.). I think there’s a certain amount of parenting guilt at play. Your reply did make me feel better. And I love owls.

        And yes, with our current educational standards (ugh) kindergarten looks like there are some daily opportunities for playschool, but otherwise it is focused on pushing academics and increasing standards for youngsters. It’s truly amazing how bureaucrats can come up with such standards that fly in the face of what we know about early childhood education and stages of learning.

        I’ll keep nosing about on your blog, Karyn. I’m really enjoying it.

        • Great! I love Owls too – and I have been thinking about how my Owl shows he’s excited to see me at the end of the day. Now that he is at school, and is more conscious, he is certainly more demonstrative with his greetings. I will amend the post to reflect this conversation.(Which is one of the reasons I always like to hear from people – what I am saying might not be what people are reading.) I know what you mean about the academics (And focussing on testing) being pushed early – NZ children generally start fulltime and full-on academics the day they turn five – one of the reasons our boys are in an alternative system. All the best and please stay in touch. 🙂

  20. Linda OBrien' says:

    When I raised my children(the oldest born in 79) I read a book called the Continueum Concept, which I realize now I don’t know how is was spelled. I have never seen the book again! It taught me to never let a baby cry alone, that there was no such thing as a spoiled baby, and that if their needs were met they would grow up secure. I think we are talking about the same thing! This book was based on how a So American Indian tribe raised their babies, being tied to the mother until they were mobile, breastfed on demand, sleeping with the parents, so similar to what you are saying here! It is good to see that this kind of parenting is being taught today!

    • I read the Continuum Concept too, Linda and found much of it tied with modern scientific research as to what makes people function optimally. The problem many modern parents have (not saying you did) is that the lack of obvious boundary setting in the Yequana group doesn’t work in a world where adults are ‘less than perfect’ and children are exposed to electronics/loads of toys/ huge range of food options/electricity etc. The nurturing side of things and allowing children to explore resonated strongly in me too – hence all the reparenting with did with our number one son. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

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