he’s doing it for the attention

January 13, 2013


Many years ago I worked in the disability field.

One day I was asked to go to a group home where I had not worked before. It was a busy morning shift , getting the five residents up and ready for their day placements.

One of the young men in the home had cerebral palsy. He got around in a wheelchair, but also was able to get around on the floor by shuffling along. He had no speech and no sign language.

During the shift he came into the kitchen. I asked the regular worker if the young man might need something. The worker said to me “he’s alright”. After a while the young man started to slap his hand on the floor. Once again, I asked the worker if the young man might need something, and was again told “he’s alright”. Then the young man started to rock and huff. He then banged his head on the hard slate floor. I said to the worker “I really think he needs something”. The worker said to me “he’s doing it for the attention”.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t bang my head on a hard floor for attention.

I kneeled down to the young man, and asked him “is there something that you need?” and I went through a list of things, food, toilet, drink, jumper. He was really worked up so I paused and again asked him what I can do to help him. He tapped me on the knee when I said “drink”. I got him a cup of water, and then another cup, and he shuffled away.

The worker then proceeded to tell me about the young man’s “behaviour problems”. This young man was very vulnerable with limited means of communication and limited mobility. He could not get his own food or water, and he found it difficult to communicate his needs.

I wasn’t a parent then, but these days when I hear a parent say “he’s doing it for the attention” alarm bells ring for me. Our kids are vulnerable too. They depend on us to varying degrees for a very long time. They are smaller than us, and don’t always have the language to express their needs especially when their emotions are high. Since that incident in the group home I have worked with many children whose unmet needs were perceived by adults as “challenging behaviour”.

All behaviour happens for a reason. All behaviour arises from a need (emotional, physical, intellectual) not being met. If you excavate the need further and peel away the layers, right at the core of the need is fear. A fear met with misunderstanding, rejection or force does not extinguish it, only understanding, care and love can do that. A child who does not have her needs met grows up thinking she is not worthy or valued.

Yes, some kids are needy.

The Circle of Security programme uses the imagery of an ‘emotional cup’. Fill your child’s emotional cup up with hugs, descriptive praise, connection, and attention before they feel the need to ask for it. The safer they feel, the more their cup is filled, the more confident and competent they become.

Some children have emotional cups the size of German beer steins and some have those little espresso cups. I remind parents to enjoy that difference too. My 6 year-old, who is a stein, is also the most loving and affectionate child, who will catch the kisses that you blow at him and put them in his pocket for later. From utterly frustrating to totally adorable, sometimes within minutes. He has taught me a lot about parenting. He’s a team player and needs to do things in relationship with others. I have learnt from him to change “from ME” (parents’ agenda) “to WE” (parent and child together).

When I want to get him off to bed, for example, it’s simply not enough to give him a big squeezy hug and send him away with “off to bed” like my other boys. He needs help with the buttons on his pj’s, he needs a story, he needs a snuggle, he needs his blankets straightened up, he needs lots of “I love you”. He’s the youngest of three boys, and life can be pretty rough at that end. The older boys are academic, he struggles with reading and feels inferior. He needs lots of reassurance and filling up of his emotional cup – a lot of validating of who he is rather than what he does. Yep, everything takes more time with him. One day, he may spend time with others filling up their emotional cups.

When I introduce this concept to parents, they start looking under the child’s behaviour for what may be the child’s needs. They come back to me sometimes, and ask “how do I find out what my child’s needs are?”. That’s sometimes not easy, and probably not all that necessary. Just knowing that there is a need is enough. Being there for your child and ready and open to scoop them up into your arms is enough.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. Leo Buscaglia

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About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

View all posts by hakea


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5 Comments on “he’s doing it for the attention”

  1. Hazel M. Wheeler Says:

    Ah, this is lovely… Attention is a very legitimate, innate need. Think about it. From infancy, if our child did not receive our attention, they would have died. Quite a profoundly-felt need.

    I have a ‘stein’ child too, and even when I am annoyed at being interrupted, I do try to put this thought in the front of my mind: Boy, this, kid must really love me. I must be pretty awesome to him if he wants my time, my gaze, so much.

    These are opportunities to check in and reconnect. We also do what JoAne Nordling describes as “positive attention during neutral times”, so when he’s doing his own thing, I’ll often take that moment to give him a quick squeeze, tousle his hair, rub his back as I pass by– just to say “I see you. I know you’re here. Even though you aren’t needing me, you are important to me.” And thus, we continue to fill up the cup….


    • hakea Says:

      Hi Hazel

      I haven’t heard of JoAne Nordling, but it’s an established fact supported by forty-plus years of research – when you pay more attention to a child’s positive behaviours she will do more of them.

      All of this information isn’t new or new age. Freud was talking about it 120 years ago. Winicott and Bowlby were talking about it fifty years ago. Ah, the masters!

      All hail the ‘stein’ kids. My youngest has taught me how to parent. He has his own unique instruction manual.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.


  2. Oxana Says:

    Yes, I always felt puzzled when I heard that phrase and thought…uhm and what IS wrong with giving attention…to anybody really – be that a child, a spouse…a dog for that matter, the stone heartedness saddens me. I feel sad for that young man and I so hope that there was somebody in the end who would give him the love and attention he needs and deserves.


    • hakea Says:

      Hi Oxana

      Thanks for dropping in and commenting.

      Stone hearted is a nifty phrase, you are so right. It’s about letting other people in instead of pushing them away, understanding that there is ebb and flow.

      I work with children and families and my husband works in aged care. Just as children are not being heard, it’s the same for our elderly. Too much sadness.


  3. eof737 Says:

    Such a sad tale… I was wondering that perhaps the young man is autistic and doing the best he can to communicate.


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