Something that I hear consistently from parents of teenagers is a concern that their teens are engaging in certain behaviours “for attention.” Sometimes they reference the way their teens are dressing or acting, the company they are keeping, the level of emotion on display, or even behaviours they have had the misfortune of witnessing, such as cutting, destructive eating habits or threats of suicide.
The level of fear and frustration is understandable when you witness your teen engaging in behaviours such as these, specifically those that are destructive. However, I have noticed that the way in which many parents choose to address behaviours they perceive to be “attention-seeking,” is to not “give in to them,” which is to ignore them. The belief is that by giving in to it, they are “rewarding,” the behaviour. Further, if they dry up the well of attention the logic is that the teen will discontinue the behaviour. The reality is that most of the time, this is not a very effective strategy. Often what happens is that the behaviour goes into high gear, or the teen turns to others – peers, online connections, social media – to meet the need for attention. So, what can parents do to parent an “attention seeking,” teen? The answer is relatively simple:
GIVE YOUR TEENAGER ATTENTION
Since as a culture we seem to abhor the idea of attention-seeking, we often don’t realize how healthy a cry for attention really is and how it is actually a basic human need. We can liken the need for attention as humans to our need for air, water, and food. It is an emotional need that is as valid as any and all of our physical needs. When people can’t satiate their need for attention, and if they don’t have the ability or maturity to recognize this need and seek it in healthy ways, they will instead turn to unhealthy means of attention-seeking to meet the need. The alternative to meeting the need is just shutting down emotionally and “not caring,” anymore. Often this is when suicide is a higher risk and other destructive means of coping become more out of control because there is nothing left emotionally to pull oneself back from these options.
Our teens will seek attention naturally, and we need to give it to them. The parent-child relationship is one that will form the foundation for every relationship they have for the rest of their lives. There is no investment of time that is more important than this. This is what much of the literature out there refers to as attachment and its importance cannot be overstated.
When parents first tell me that their teen is attention-seeking in unhealthy ways, one of my first thoughts is of gratitude that the teen hasn’t given up on life, on attempting to meet their needs at least in some way. My second thought is, how can I help this parent reframe the need for attention as a healthy, life-seeking need, and then how do I help them learn how to meet this need in healthy and successful ways. Because the primary issue is not that they are seeking attention, but that they are doing so in unhealthy, potentially dangerous ways. So how do we give them attention in healthy ways as parents? Here are some ideas:
- Find out what they are interested in, and engage them in that. If they are into music, listen with them, ask them about it. Video games? Play with them. The outdoors? Take them out for a hike. Lavish them with the love and attention you have for them in a language they will understand and respond to the most.
- Listen to them, and when they speak, hear them. Don’t write off their big feelings and emotions – the teenage years are a hard time of confusing feelings and big developmental changes – make space and time for these feelings, and be understanding.
- Don’t wait for them to come to you – go to THEM. Many parents will say things to their teens like, “If you ever have any questions about anything, feel free to ask!” This has a lovely intention, but here’s the thing: 9 times out of 10, they won’t take the initiative. Go to them and ask questions, make contact, show them you are interested in their thoughts, ideas, future plans, hopes, dreams. Ask them how they’re coping, and if they need some support. Be present.
- DON’T give up.