Sometimes in the mental health field, especially with teens, we dismiss certain behaviors as “attention seeking”–as if attention and connection aren’t deeply rooted human needs. We all need attention. We are meant to be social, to be seen by others, and to connect with others.
To give a stark example, the trauma of chronic neglect can be more wounding than the trauma of chronic abuse. Abuse requires engagement, interaction–the abuser “cares” enough to interact abusively with their victim. Neglect means they don’t even care enough to actively hurt the victim.
I think it’s important to keep this need for attention in mind when teens seek attention in frustrating or negative ways. Doing something that’s guaranteed to get a quick, negative reaction from Mom or Dad can make a lot of sense. It’s like they’re hungry and reaching for junk food instead of something nourishing. It’s an easy path to get the need met. Consider how quickly most parents or other authority figures will respond to negative behaviors.
The alternative is tricky: teens need the emotional vocabulary and skills to ask for attention in a healthy way, and adults need to be prepared to invest time and energy in healthy connection. A lot has to go right in order for this to happen organically. If the adults didn’t have positive relationships with parents or other caring adults when they were young, that puts up a roadblock. If the family is under stress relating to jobs, coordinating multiple schedules, aging grandparents, etc., that puts up more roadblocks. If the teens are struggling with confusing, intense emotions and lashing out at their parents, that puts up another roadblock. And so on. I say this to highlight how easy it is to fall back on the junk food habit of negative behaviors and negative attention.
It takes real effort to shift away from negative attention patterns to positive ones. Often, we get so stuck in our familiar loops that we need an outside perspective in order to move forward. This might be a therapist for the teen, parent(s), or whole family. It might be an informal outside perspective, such as a friend who can help the parents to see things in a different light. The key is intention: when junk food is the default, we have to be intentional about choosing something better–even if it’s also more work and less immediately satisfying.