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Attention seeking or connection seeking?
You hear it so often about young children’s behaviour- “they’re just attention seeking- just ignore them”. It’s an extremely common thought many have that’s likely been around for centuries. But what if we changed the lens through which we see our baby or child’s behaviour? Could it really help us and them if we changed the lens and instead saw their behaviour as instead connection seeking?
I recently read an article on a popular nappy brand’s website on “attention seeking” and it frustrated me- especially when it said the experts recommend to ignore these behaviours. Experts who are trained in attachment and infant mental health certainly don’t have these recommendations.
To help explain why our children are indeed connection seeking and what we can do to support them, we first have to understand the attachment system.
I’m constantly surprised by how many new parents don’t know what attachment is. It’s not talked about enough, considering how vital it is to the parent baby relationship, and intergenerational patterns of relationships. Attachment is the connection and bond between the parent and baby- a bond unlike any other. This connection lays part of the foundation for brain development and forms the template for future relationships and ways of relating to others. The attachment relationship begins from the first day of life and by 9-12 months of life there are clear patterns of the quality of the attachment relationship. There are 4 types of attachment patterns (we’ll explore these in another blog). The purpose of this attachment system is so that the baby can stay close to their caregiver for survival. The attachment system includes both exploration, where the function is for learning/playing; and it also includes protection, where the function is for safety. When feeling safe and secure, children will go out in the world and explore their curiosities. When the baby/child senses danger, exploration mode shuts off, and the child turns to their parent for safety, comfort and security.
This is super important to understand and observe in children, as the “proximity seeking” behaviours look different for every child. Some bubs and kids will cry and hold their arms out to you for a cuddle, others will ask for help or use their words to tell you what’s upset them. For other babies and kids, we may experience them becoming “clingy” or “whingey” and some children become angry.
So what’s danger to a baby or child?
It could be saying goodbye to their caregiver; going to sleep by themselves; or a stranger that they are unsure how to interact with them. It could also be as simple as an unexpected noise or a new food they are trying for the first time. Sometimes a parent’s face that shows fear or anxiety can also trigger a child to seek out their parent. When a child experiences something as a danger, they will stop exploring/playing and being independent and return back to their caregiver for safety.
Imagine you’re a child in a doctor’s reception. Your mum is sitting close by, smiling at you and the other people around. She holds up a toy to you and looks at you and it with curiosity. You’re likely to go and play with it right? Exploration mode here we come! Your mum’s face was showing that she was comfortable and calm, which meant that you too likely would be feeling ok. But what if instead, your mum’s face was looking stern, she looked at her watch many times, she silently bit her fingernails and she didn’t look at the other people in the waiting room. You’d likely sense some danger right? You might switch off any curiosity you had for toys or others, and make a bee line to her for comfort and security. What if though, mum couldn’t provide comfort and support to you at this time? Being a young child you won’t have the reflective skills to think “mum’s a bit anxious right now, I’ll wait till later to get my needs met”. Instead you might tug on her clothes, cry, or become clingy. Are you trying to get your mum’s attention, or are you trying to get your mum’s connection so you can feel reassured and supported?
By simply changing the lens through which we see our children’s behaviour, we can change the way we respond to them. And when we do this, our children learn more secure ways to get their needs met.
The research now suggests that if children haven’t yet mastered the skill of emotional regulation, they are likely to find insecure ways to bring their parents closer such as becoming clingy, becoming hyperactive, silly, rebellious or defiant and so on. Because of this, we often mistake children’s behaviour as ‘attention seeking’ or ‘being naughty or silly’. Often these are the times when our children are struggling emotionally and not knowing how to cope or how to get help from their parent.
Indeed children can be skilful in getting our attention in all sorts of ways (i.e. kicking the back of our chair, screaming, saying they need our help when we know they can do the task themselves, withdrawing etc). However there is a need that underlies EVERY behaviour. To be able to support our children to gain our attention in more secure ways we need to look past the behaviour and discover the underlying need for connection and emotional organisation and address that first. For children to be able to self-regulate and calm themselves down, they first have to experience this calming down with someone.
This new way of thinking can be difficult. It helps to reflect on what’s happened and what you and your child might have been thinking and feeling. Be curious about this. Try not to be absolutely certain of what was happening for them. When we’re absolutely certain about something, we tend to shut off being curious and open to new perspectives.
Our guided baby milestone cards aim to support the attachment bond through developing parent reflective skills to facilitate a deeper level of emotional connection with your bub.
For other ideas to promote the connection between you and your baby visit the Raising Children Website:
The great thing about the human brain is that it's incredibly flexible to learn new things- thanks to neuroplasticity. So enhancing the attachment bond when your child is any age is possible!