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A child's bad behavior isn't 'attention-seeking.' She's seeking a relationship.

How does a young child express to adults their fear of abandonment or their longing for more of us, if not by seeking our attention?
Illustration of mischievous child with a baseball mitt waving through a piece of cracked glass.
Christy Lundy / for NBC News

As an educator of early childhood teachers, and a consultant for parents and early childhood programs, I am constantly asked about various children: “What do I do with her? She needs so much attention.” Wherever I go, visiting classrooms or observing student teachers, over and over again I hear adults saying: “He is just doing it for attention. Ignore him.”

But, if we know anything about child development, it is that very young children actually actively need our attention. As I wrote in my book: “Brain development research shows us that in order to feel attached and worthwhile, children need our love, touch and full-on attention to survive. They could die without it — indeed, some do.”

Further, we know that young children who need attention don’t necessarily act in ways that adults expect from older children and adults. “And when they do not receive [attention],” I wrote, “they compensate in all kinds of ways: repressing their needs and wants, shouting and becoming aggressive or violent, going underground and harboring resentment alone, or seeking it from anyone who will give it to them.”

For example, I remember observing a 5-year-old who had been constantly moved between foster homes, and then arriving in a school classroom finding it impossible to self-regulate (i.e., adapt to the social norms of classroom behavior). In the end, not only was he expelled from the school — out of the teacher's frustration that he would or could not conform to their strict rules — he was moved to yet another foster home. It was hard to imagine how that child couldn't help feeling that he was to blame for each abandonment. It made me wonder when in his life a compassionate adult would hold still for long enough to give him enough attention to break the cycle of abandonment.

How does a young child express to adults their fear of abandonment or their longing for more of us, if not by seeking our attention?

At a conference about discipline this year, people in the room shared stories about children’s negative behaviors, which they labelled “attention-seeking.” It made me wonder why children wanting attention is such a negative idea: Did we learn as children that it was bad, or even shameful, to want attention in the first place? And then, during the discussion at my session, I said: “What if instead of saying (or thinking), ‘She is just doing it for attention… ignore her,’ we said (or thought) instead, 'She is just doing it for relationship.'”

I discovered that, when we replaced the idea of children seeking attention with children wanting a relationship, we began to talk differently about how, as adults, to react. For example, in relationship, we don’t ignore a person’s cry out for us; we become more present, listening and observing patiently.

I think that one source of our aversion to children needing our attention is the relatively recent idea of self-regulation. The intent is admirable because, in order to succeed academically and emotionally, young children need to learn how to adapt to societal norms. However, adults have somehow become punitive in their desire for children to learn self-regulation and thus, instead, children learn to please adults and stifle their emotions.

In other words, we adults too often behave as if we do not want children to disrupt our routine, implicitly telling them that we have much more important issues to deal with right now. For teachers, having attention-seeking children disrupting our classrooms is about perceptions of our performance as educators; for parents, there are a million reasons to feel guilty about how we are judged when our children do not abide by rules.

The result, though, is that adults teach children self-regulation by letting them know that they must not need us, telling them to go it alone. The reality is, however, that children can’t learn to self-regulate unless they receive enough attention through their relationships with adults.

I believe we judge what is the so-called right amount of attention for each child mostly according to our own emotional needs, external pressures, childhood memories and the ways in which we learned to survive when we were children. But, as adults, we have the power and opportunity to confront our painful memories, and to try to act in different ways than what we experienced growing up.

So how do we balance it so that everyone gets their emotional needs met, especially when children are unable to make a stand for themselves except in ways that adults often reject through humiliation or aggressive reaction?

The answer to this question starts with reframing the idea of “attention-seeking” behaviors. When we instead describe children as wanting a relationship, not needing attention, we find ourselves implicitly developing compassion and understanding, and compassion is a critical component for human relationships. It is up to us, each time we interact with children in emotional situations, to choose a form of relationship connection that helps a child learn how worthwhile and lovable she is, rather than being asked to accept that their needs are inconvenient.

And, while children need our support and for us to relate to them, at the same time we can choose to accept that we are recovering children who needed our own attention and relationships, too, rather than ignoring how that impacts our ability to accept children’s need for attention.

Children need us to see them as whole human beings, not just the sum of their behaviors. They need us to listen to them, to validate their feelings and to take them seriously for who they are and the people into whom they will grow. They need our attention — and seeking it isn’t an inherently negative thing.