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9 Signs Your Child Might Be Starved for Your Attention

Maybe your 4-year-old started wetting the bed. Perhaps your 8-year-old is clingy, whiny and won’t stop interrupting. Or your teenager took your car without permission. At first glance, it might seem like these behaviors aren’t related. After all, what does a regressing preschooler have to do with a rebellious teenager?

It turns out, these behaviors could all be signs that your child is starved for attention. 

Children need attention from their parents to thrive. “Whether a child admits it or not, parents are the center of a child’s world and children are developmentally designed to crave attention and care from their parents—even teenagers,” said Brenner Freeman, MD, a psychiatrist with Banner Health. 

“They need this attention to feel connected, to have an emotional bond and anchor in the world and to feel like they matter. It’s not always obvious to parents, but children will consciously and subconsciously try different ways of getting their parent’s attention,” he said.

Usually, children don’t clearly state that they need more attention. However, if your child needs more of your attention, they may:

  1. Change their behavior. They might be clingy, act out or behave in ways they know you don’t approve of. “If children are not getting positive attention, they will settle for negative attention. This is rarely a conscious decision,” Dr. Freeman said.
  2. Seek validation. They may seek approval from peers, teachers, coaches or other authority figures.
  3. Show signs of emotional distress. They could be sad or anxious or have low self-esteem.
  4. Regress. They might return to behaviors they’ve outgrown, such as sucking their thumb or wetting the bed. 
  5. Perform poorly in school. Their grades might drop, they might not focus on schoolwork or homework, or they might act out in the classroom.
  6. Seek attention. They might interrupt, exaggerate or behave in risky ways.
  7. Withdraw or isolate themselves. They may spend a lot of time alone, avoid social interactions or seem disconnected. 
  8. Have physical symptoms. They could have headaches, stomachaches or trouble sleeping. 
  9. Say they are depressed, anxious or suicidal. “Childhood depression and anxiety can be natural consequences of an unhealthy bond with their parents,” Dr. Freeman said. There can be many reasons for any given comment or behavior, but if a child says they are depressed or suicidal, you should take it seriously. 

If your child is talking about or considering attempting suicide and needs help, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) and connect with suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors. 

Why parents can struggle to give kids the attention they need

“Children were evolutionarily designed to spend most of childhood in close proximity to their parents and close-knit family groups,” Dr. Freeman said. “It is very hard in today’s world for parents to give adequate attention to their children.” 

He shared a few reasons:

  • The world today is very distracting, with adults spending more than three hours a day on average on their phones.
  • Adult life is busy and demanding. Work and other life responsibilities can get in the way of time with children, especially in homes with one parent. 
  • American adults are working in the home more than ever before. So, they may be near their children but unable to give them attention.
  • Society often rewards work and hobby achievements over family and parenting achievements. So, parents can inadvertently spend excessive time on their careers, hobbies and other activities.
  • Children spend a lot of time in activities like school, sports, music lessons and other activities. Though these can provide good life experiences for children, the time away from parents can detract from the bond between parents and children.

Dr. Freeman recommends taking time to think about what is most important to you. He said, “If you looked back at the end of your life, would you wish you had spent more time with your child, were kinder to them or had built a better relationship with them?” 

How parents can give kids the attention they need 

“Sometimes life is challenging and demanding,” Dr. Freeman said. “But even brief moments that let your child know you care can be helpful.” For example, you could try calling your child on your commute to or from work to catch up with them.

You may want to take five minutes at bedtime to ask your child about their day and listen without judgment. “This might be awkward for parents who never had that kind of experience themselves, but practice makes perfect,” Dr. Freeman said.

You might need to deprioritize your activities for the sake of your child. That could mean taking a break from your phone, taking on less responsibility at work or giving up time with your friends. 

“Some parents think they can replace the quantity of time they spend with their child with extra quality time. If you can, choose quantity. That’s what’s necessary when it comes to the attention your child needs,” Dr. Freeman said.

What not to do 

Don’t accuse your child of seeking attention, even if that’s what they’re doing. “I’ve never seen it work out positively for a parent to accuse their child of being attention-seeking. Usually, the child digs their heels in further,” Dr. Freeman said. 

“Even if they are trying to get attention in an unhealthy way, this kind of behavior is a ‘check engine light’ that they desperately need positive attention from parents,” he said. Give them attention, validation and understanding and seek professional help if you need to.

The bottom line

Life can distract parents from their most important values. Oftentimes, it also doesn’t reward parents in the short term for spending time with their children. “Take time to recalibrate what is most important to you and how you live your life,” Dr. Freeman said. When you give kids the attention they need, it helps them thrive. Even if they don’t show their appreciation, in the long run, they will be grateful.

If you think you and your child would benefit from professional help to strengthen your relationship, reach out to Banner Health to connect with a behavioral health specialist.

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