“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. These words by Simone Weil remind us that whether one is a child first learning to listen, a teen attempting to break through the boundaries, or an adult finding and managing life’s meaning, we are all deep down inside in need of attention. Human beings have basic fundamental needs: food, water, sleep and shelter; safety, security, routine and order. All for survival’s sake. Abraham Maslow argues that we also fundamentally need love and belonging, esteem and respect for self and others, and a sense of accomplishment and competency in order to find meaning and value in our lives.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow, Abraham (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Without love, esteem, connection with others and a sense of belonging to a “tribe” (family, school community, etc.) we are lost; we will not physically or emotionally survive. These needs build upon one another in a hierarchical manner in that a need cannot be met until the need before it has been. Maslow’s theory is based upon observation of adults; however in the fields of child development, counselling and education, it has been used to understand and prioritize programming and interactions with children. This article looks to apply Maslow’s theory to children who are “just looking for attention.”
Maslow states that the most fundamental of needs are the basic physiological needs of food, water and shelter followed by safety, security and order. The very next level of need is love and belonging, and this author believes that these requirements for connection are co-equal to food and safety making them far more powerful and motivating in survival than given credit for.
It has long been recognized that human beings are biologically predetermined to connect with others, and depend on social interaction. We have an innate desire to love and be loved as part of a group working together to meet our needs. As observed in adults, Maslow places this need third in line behind physiological and safety needs; most certainly for children and youth, it comes first. They require others to help them meet their safety and survival needs, and so without connection, love, belonging and a group identity, be it family, peers or community, it is difficult if not impossible for a child to attain the first two functions of survival. This makes the need for connection absolutely essential for them, and at a subconscious and instinctual level, they know this.
When basic survival needs are not met, humans are left with two choices: first, go out and find that which can meet the need or second, perish. It is a do or die scenario, and the human brain is wired for the former. What does “go out and find it,” look like? It can look like attention seeking behavior. Behavior that says whatever it takes, seek out, access and keep safe that which is needed. In infants this is crying for food or comfort and these behaviors and “requests” progresses developmentally into adulthood until we are competent and able to tend to our own needs. Keep this in mind as we ponder the phrase “that child is just looking for attention.”
When a child does not have their needs met, be they physiological or emotional, their brain goes into “survival mode.” One cannot circumvent the power of emotional needs as the brain prioritizes psychological needs over problem solving, abstract reasoning and all forms of trust or faith. While all humans experience this survival motivation and its subsequent seeking behaviors, children and youth especially depend on others to meet these needs, and so their “find someone who can help you” instinct is strong. Survival mode is most obvious in times of starvation or danger, though also very present when one is, ostracized, criticized, undervalued, betrayed or alone. At these times, a state of “fight or flight” ensues: a biological repertoire of adrenaline, cortisol, muscle contraction, blood-flow priority and neurological messaging that enables one to fight or flee what is a perceived or actual dangerous situation. Fight looks like aggression, behavior, emotion and all outward manifestations of dominance and power. Flight looks like withdrawal, avoidance, running away, refusal and recognition of weakness and vulnerability. The majority of children and youth’s problematic or attention seeking behavior patterns can be defined as flight or flight and described in these terms.
Knowing this, adults need to interpret these behaviors and “requests” as products of a child’s brain in survival mode. There are needs not being met. They are out seeking the solution to this deficit albeit it in a less developed or mature way. This is not surprising given that they are less developed and immature. Thus, if a child is looking for attention, then give them some.
If one subscribes to the “give them some” philosophy, they are often met with objectives driven by theories of behaviorism and tough love:
“That child is just looking for attention. If you give it to them, then the behavior will continue. You are reinforcing it.”
Given the understanding we have established regarding a child’s hierarchy of needs, the correct response to this objection is twofold. First, it is true that for a time the behaviour will continue; however if the adult chooses to ignore or punish the seeking, the behavior will not only continue, but will escalate. It is being reinforced that if a child “asks” for help (keeping in mind that behavior is the language of children and youth), and the significant adult does not attend, they are reinforcing that the need cannot be met. This will heighten the survival instinct and stress response (fight or flight) in that child, until the “do” in the “do or die” scenario is exhausted and the child gives up. This may seem successful; however the quiet often comes at too high a price.
The second, more hopeful response to the “reinforcing negative behavior” statement is informed by the following. When a person is starving, they will seek nutrition at all costs. They are driven to find that which they need and will make choices and behave in a variety of unskilled, irrational or desperate ways to meet the need of survival. They may hoard whatever scraps of food they are given, and may become selfish and narrow-minded focusing on only attaining provisions. The solution to this hunger is not to withhold food but rather to feed them.
For a time, even after being given food, this individual is still in “survival mode.” Their brain mistrusts that this will always be the case and continues to protect life at all costs. They will continue to hoard and seek out satiation, perhaps even over-indulging until a new belief that there is enough food and more will come is reinforced and evidenced repeatedly.
If a child is hungry, then feed them. The basic fundamental needs of security, self-esteem and particularly love and belonging are no different. A child seeking attention is starving. Yes, at first they will continue to request that attention, and until their brain believes that more will come if they need it, they will protect themselves by continuing to seek more. Give it to them. If a child is “asking” you, then they are attempting to meet a need. After a time, once they can trust the need is being and will be met, the asking will stop.
Attention seeking behaviors are a part of a person’s innate “do or die” survival instinct, particularly in children and youth. They are literally crying for help. Even a “cry of wolf” has a motivation. For youth, the strongest and most fundamental of these is belonging and connection. The way to meet a child’s need, and save their physical and psychological life is give them that attention and sense of connection and belonging. It will be by far the most important thing ever done for them as they build their esteem and work toward actualization. “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Children are the rarest and purest form of humanity. It just seems right that the two should find each other.