How often do you hear parents complain, "He just needs attention." It's said like it's a negative comment about a bad kid who wants too much. But what kind of attention does he really need and how do you find out? Does your child need acknowledgment, notice, consideration, concentration, advice, guidance?
Let's focus on what your child really needs. If his heart has just been broken, he needs consolation. If he's doing poorly in school maybe he needs a tutor. If he just broke your favorite vase, maybe he needs to know you're not mad and accidents happen. These three scenarios require different attention. Not one of these children shouldn't receive the attention he or she needs.
When is Attention Too Much Attention?
Attention is only too much attention when it's the wrong kind or giving in to the child's detriment.
Your thirteen year old has trouble sleeping alone. He always ends up in your bed. Clearly he's too old to be in his parents' bed. But the attention he needs isn't punishment or a scolding. It's a lesson in how to soothe himself at night on his own. He needs to be talked with in a soothing way, brought back to his bed and told he must stay there because he can. He can tolerate being alone. You may have to do this night after night until he learns to sleep well throughout the night. This is the right kind of attention.
Your 8 year old has outbursts in restaurants when the food doesn't come quickly. He needs to learn how to tolerate some frustration. You may have to take him out of the restaurant if he's too loud and disturbing the other diners. He needs attention, but not a punishment which won't teach him to tolerate frustration and have patience. He needs to learn to wait, delay, contain his emotions inside himself. This is a different kind of attention called guidance and support that we want to result in self-regulation of his emotions.
Your 4 year old eats only with his hands. He's old enough to eat with a fork and spoon. When you tell him he throws his food on the floor. He needs your attention to learn how to eat properly by careful, gentle, advice and praise for doing it the right way. Yelling at him isn't the attention that will succeed, only teaching and guidance and setting the example followed by praise for eating well is the attention that succeeds.
Attention is too much attention when it's turned into viewing your child as bad and yelling and punishing without success because that's not the attention that teaches how to tolerate limits, understand what's happening in your children's life and mind, and giving them ---the bottom line--- the love they need.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst and author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence: Finding Meaning in Your Child's Behavior, found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Familius, and wherever books are sold.