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The Myth of Attention-Seeking Behavior

As a behavioral consultant, one of the most common reasons for receiving a referral is that the behaviors which are causing concern are done only for attention. The key word here is “only.” The person is not using the behavior ONLY for attention; rather, they are wanting to get the attention of others in order to get something else from their environment.

In her book on Cooperative Discipline, Linda Albert writes about what she calls “A+ relationships”, using the first letter in the following words to explain what people really want through the process of getting attention, which are Affirmation, Acknowledgement, Acceptance, Appreciation, and Attention. I sometimes share this story when I am teaching:

When I was in the third grade, my adoptive father, who was an American serviceman stationed in Germany, was transferred back to the US. This man married my mother when I was 4, which means German was my first language, and I learned English when I was 5. So in the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade I went to a school in America, a regular public school in Highland Park, Illinois. My mother wanted to make sure that I got off on the right foot so she dressed me in my very best clothes – Lederhosen.

Yup, I went to the first day of 3rd grade looking like one of the children from The Sound of Music, and even worse I spoke English with a German accent. Yes, I got beat up! And when you are that different from other kids in the third grade, or perhaps any grade, I got a reputation and was picked on constantly. I learned quickly that if I got the attention of the teachers I would not be picked on.

My third grade report card said, at the end of the different class grades, “Robert is a good student with lots of potential, but he wastes it by always seeking the attention of teachers in negative ways.” Now, that was true. I could blow a spitwad through a straw from the back of the room and hit the teacher. I could make all kinds of cool sounds with my body. But I did not want attention, I wanted what attention brought me, which was safety.

Attention is the doorway through which people seek what they need. For people whose lives were stable and characterized by words like “loved” and “safe” and “predictable” their needs for the identified motivators are met by an intrinsic sense of worth and value which come from having their needs for attaching relationships, social relationships, and achievement being met in multiple environments. These Positive Childhood Experiences of individuals result in stability and long term positive mental health. For many of us, however, who have been exposed to four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s)our childhood and/or adolescence and early adulthood were not as loving and safe and predictable.

A Google search on how to address attention getting behavior results in literally hundreds of books, articles, websites and workshops on how to stop these behaviors. Many reinforce the perception that “all they want” is attention. Many rightly focus on the frustration we may feel in working with someone who is “attention seeking” because it can be tiring and frustrating working with someone who constantly seeks attention.

Looking at the list of “A” words – Affirmation, Acknowledgement, Acceptance, Appreciation and Affection, the common factor amongst these needs is relational in nature. David Pitonyak that “Loneliness is the only real disability.” Loneliness is often reinforced by a human service system that is underfunded, overworked, and which in many forms seeks to control rather than serve, lead rather than follow the lead of the people we serve. The systemic factors that inadvertently support loneliness are explained in the idea of transitioning from a model of services to a model of supports and individualizing the many processes that together form the human service system . An additional factor in the lack of affirmation, acknowledgement, acceptance and appreciation is the turnover rate of direct support professionals in some areas and organizations is over 60%, making relationships almost impossible.

Unlike Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, safety does not have a separately identified position within the model. Instead, safety is seen as an all-encompassing need, and is a structural need rather than a process need as are the other identified needs. The perception of safety starts with how human beings process incoming stimuli, using a complex array of inputs that flow upwards from the peripheral nervous system (PNS) into the brain, or central nervous system (CNS). Neurons which direct the flow of sensory inputs upwards are termed afferent, while neurons which direct sensory outputs which become behavior are termed efferent.

Before people can benefit from the things Attention brings, they have to feel a sense of safety at a relational as well as a physical level. Once they feel safe, then they can begin benefiting from having their Core and Growth Needs met. These Core and Growth Needs combine to for Foundational Needs. When these needs, along with the need for safety, are met to a significant degree, the visual model shows how stable the foundation for the person is. Upon this foundation the individuals can begin to really grow and mature.


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