If someone said, “She’s just doing that to get attention,” what is your reaction to this phrase? I’m not exactly sure how or when, but I believe I was conditioned to ignore the person “just trying to get attention” and even judge them a bit for exhibiting this behavior. I feel like society does this. I have an immediate reaction to roll my eyes, ignore this person and maybe even resent them for “wasting our time.” Wait, what?
Why are we subtly or not-so-subtly encouraged to ignore and resent someone for “trying to get attention”? What if we took this as a cue for someone asking for help. We are HARD-WIRED TO CONNECT. That means we NEED to be loved. Babies come into this world extremely vulnerable and needing that connection to survive. It is a survival instinct to connect. Cavemen had a greater sense of survival if they were in tribes. Rejecting someone in that tribe was as good as saying, “You might as well die.”
If a baby grows into a child who does things “to get attention,” they are coming from a survival instinct to connect. When they are “misbehaving’, that is a clue that they need connection. Why would we dismiss the behavior….child….by saying, “They are just trying to get attention”? Say that phrase if you like….and then inquire further….with empathy. Maybe, if the relationship is important to you, connect with them. Better yet, help them develop skills to connect with others. Help them identify that feeling that is leading to the misbehavior. Sit with them a moment with that feeling.
Now take this new code to older children, teens, and adults. It’s the SAME THING!! If someone is doing something (self-harm, eating disorder behaviors, and the like), let’s shy away from the eye rolling and judgment! EVEN IF they are doing this “just for the attention,” why is that something worthy of dismissing? Something is missing in their life—connection (a sense of love and belonging). As an eating disorder therapist and trauma therapist, I often see clients struggling with their own behaviors as “just trying to get attention.” They second-guess the validity of their symptoms. They sometimes feel like their disorder is “made up,” and they may even have been told they were ________ (not eating, purging, cutting, etc.) “just to get attention.” And to this, I say, “Okay….and? You needed attention.” Where in your life did you not get attention (which is code for love, belonging, connection) when you needed it?