Is your child in the midst of sudden or ongoing behaviors that they did not used to do? Maybe your child has been caught shoplifting several times and banned from stores. Perhaps they are getting into fights at school. Maybe they are doing drugs. Or, perhaps like in many of the cases that I've worked with in my career, have performed a suicide attempt and required more intensive treatment. Whatever the sudden or ongoing destructive behavior may be, you may deem these behaviors as "attention seeking." These behaviors (and more that aren't listed) are seemingly "written off" as attention seeking behaviors and nothing more. We might say "Oh he's just looking for attention when he does that." This stops any conversation or inquiry. However, we must ask ourselves a crucial question.
Why is the child resorting to these attention seeking behaviors in the first place?
It is very likely that these children know that the actions they are doing are bad, wrong, dangerous, or potentially lethal to themselves. Yet they continue to do them, and an adult telling them to STOP is not going to change much if anything. So we have to ask why are they performing these attention seeking behaviors?
Answering this question sometimes takes weeks or months of therapy to figure out. Yet there are a few, dare I say, common possibilities why a child performs these behaviors. This is by no means a full or comprehensive list of reasons but simply possibilities.
- One reason may be that there has been a recent divorce or change in the household. The child acts out possibly because they are angry at this change of events that they feel they had little or no control or say in matter.
- Another reason is they are feeling immense pressure and stress to perform well in school and make the grade. Adults put a large emphasis on doing well in school. However, sometimes there's too much pressure. A teen can only handle so much stress before they have to do something to combat that feeling. Sometimes that involves acting out and other times it means shutting down.
- A third reason may be that the child has experienced complex and/or severe trauma in the past. One characteristic of trauma is re-enacting the trauma. This means the child may put themselves (and sometimes their parents or school teachers/authority figures) in situations that would cause them to be punished, hurt, scolded, or treated with blame. This is a very complex situation and requires much therapy and treatment. But it is theorized that re-enacting trauma is a way to gain mastery or control over the traumatic event. There are other reasons for re-enacting trauma that I will not get into, as well as other reason for a child to engage in attention seeking behavior.
So you see, we cannot boil disrupting or concerning behaviors of teens simply to "attention seeking behaviors." We must ask ourselves why and try to be understanding and compassionate and resist the urge to be authoritarian or even too passive. Note that there is a similarity between the three examples I listed. The similarity is that in each of these examples, the child does not know how to communicate how they are feeling with words. Perhaps they feel ashamed, blamed, embarrassed, or any number of feelings that make them want to avoid talking about their actions with parents, teachers, or counselors. So they choose actions. Remember this next time you or another refers to "attention seeking behaviors." It may help you to be more reflective and curious as opposed to reactive.
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