Babies do it, children do it and even adults seek attention and validation from their primary caregivers/loved ones. Some parents find their children’s continual need for attention exhausting and depleting. Understanding the underlying physiological and psychological dynamics that propel children to engage in ongoing attention-seeking behavior may help parents deal with these demands with greater patience and tenderness.
Professor Alan Shore of UCLA states, “Babies are born with a powerful instinct to elicit as much care and attention as possible from their primary caregivers. Babies develop a lasting bond to their primary attachment figure, usually the mother but also the father, who become critical in the child’s social-emotional development.” Shore adds, “At about 8 weeks of age, there is a dramatic progression of social and emotional capabilities achieved through mother and baby’s mutual episodes of mutual gaze and spontaneous facial, vocal and gestural communications. Such highly arousing affect-laden, face-to- face interactions allow the baby to be exposed to high levels of social and cognitive information. Attachment communications, therefore, are built into the nervous system, inducing substantial changes in the developing brain.”
Professor Shore summarizes, “During the last 10 years, many studies have documented the enduring impact of maternal visual, vocal, and tactile emotional stimuli on the infant’s brain development and on the resulting emotional, social, cognitive and regulatory capacities in later life.”
The presence of a loving adult to whom the child is attached also helps the youngster feel safe and valued. Knowing that his/her behavior is pleasing, entertaining and delighting the adult is the basis of self-awareness and the initiation of a healthy, life-long self-esteem.
The need for affirmation of one’s worth and lovability does not end in infancy. It requires reinforcement throughout one’s life from parents, teachers, coaches, adults, spouses and friends to sustain a secure sense of worthiness.
As young children begin their formal education, some find separating from their parents a traumatic transition. The safety, security and familiarity of the child’s nurturing parent is interrupted by the exposure to another adult, the teacher, to whom the child is not yet attached. Children of divorced parents may find the transition from one home to another destabilizing as the child may become clingy, moody, insecure or capricious.
Parents need not regard a child’s attention-seeking behavior as selfish, clinging or immature, but as evidence that the child requests reassurance and attention to feel safe, loved and nurtured. As busy as parents may be their attention must be re-focused on the child at times of his/her distress. Often a short, heartfelt attention period may stabilize the child enough to find his/her comfort in self-focused activities.
Dealing with an attention-seeking child:
- Accept your child’s needs for attention as part of his/her healthy maturation.
- Avoid labeling your child’s need for attention as excessive or annoying.
- Provide loving attention to your child knowing that it is imperative for his/her security, safety and esteem during childhood and beyond.