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Attention-Seeking Behavior: Why Your Teen Wants Attention 

While attention-seeking behavior is not bad in and of itself, if it’s negatively affecting your teen or the people around them, it’s time to investigate what’s behind their need for attention. They may need extra support from you or to work with a mental health professional.  

To better understand attention-seeking behavior from a family and trauma perspective, we spoke with James Nippert, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the primary adolescent boys’ therapist at Deschutes Wilderness Therapy in Bend, Oregon.  

What Is Attention-Seeking Behavior?

So, what is attention-seeking behavior? It’s the way a person acts when they’re trying to get their needs met, according to Nippert. Behavior is often labeled as attention seeking when it doesn’t end up truly helping the person or leads to unhealthy results or consequences.  

What makes someone an attention seeker? When it comes to teens, at first, it may seem like they want to frustrate the people around them, but when further investigated, it becomes clear they may be in some type of emotional distress and aren’t sure how to solve the issue or comfort themselves. As a result, they try to bring others to their level of distress because, according to Nippert, it’s soothing to have other people distressed at the same time. Many times, they seek attention in ineffective or inappropriate ways to soothe their own discomfort, such as: 

  • Fishing for compliments. 
  • Seeking sympathy from others. 
  • Acting as though they’re unable to do something so someone can help them.

Teenage Attention-Seeking Symptoms

Signs of attention-seeking behavior can be quiet and subtle, but they can also be loud and intentional. 

Examples of attention-seeking behavior in teens are listed below. 

  • Posting too much on social media.  
  • Bragging.  
  • Catastrophizing (e.g., “If I fail this test, I’ll never pass school and will be a total failure in life.”).  
  • Behaving promiscuously.  
  • Having to be the center of attention.   
  • Seeking validation and reassurance.   
  • Exaggerating.   
  • Lying for attention.   
  • Looking for sympathy.   
  • Sadfishing (e.g., posting a photo of themselves crying on social media for attention or sympathy). 
  • Behaving jealously. 
  • Making impulsive decisions.   
  • Distorting their self-image (e.g., thinking less of themselves or that they’re less than others). 
  • Seeking instant gratification.   
  • Acting out for attention.   

The Psychological Causes of Attention-Seeking Behavior

Regarding the psychology of attention seekers, they’re unable to self-soothe and tolerate distress, according to Nippert. They also have a lack of resilience and a deep sense of aloneness that may cause them to seek attention in ways that show they’re not OK and can’t handle the situation they’re in. The person wants to know they can move through an emotion, come out the other side, and still be OK, but since they may not know how to do so, they’ll rely on others to help them.   

Sometimes, an attention seeker may even have a mental health disorder or personality disorder. 

Noteworthy causes

Noteworthy causes of attention-seeking behaviors include personality disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  

Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

Wanting attention can be a symptom of BPD. This disorder can affect a person’s mood and how they see themselves. Oftentimes, a person who has this mental illness can appear dramatic or disruptive to others, which can come across as wanting attention. In addition, BPD affects a person’s relationships and can increase their impulsivity.   

Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD)

For those with narcissistic personality disorder, attention craving can come from their lack of empathy or need for admiration. There are two categories of narcissism, including grandiose narcissism, which is characterized by high self-esteem and attention-seeking behavior. 

Histrionic personality disorder (HPD)

HPD is characterized as having unstable emotions and excessive attention-seeking behavior. Those with this disorder are attention seekers who find it hard to have self-worth and seek the approval of others. As a result, they’re attention craving and will act dramatically or behave inappropriately so other people notice them. 

ADHD

There’s a relationship between ADHD and attention seeking, as attention-seeking behavior is a symptom of the disorder. Teens with ADHD tend to act out more and be more impulsive and hyperactive. Attention seeking is an expression of what’s going on inside of them. It can be their way of telling others they need help settling down or that they can’t settle themselves down.   

Other possible causes

Other possible causes for attention-seeking behavior include: 

When Is Attention-Seeking Behavior a Cry for Help?

How do you know if the way your teen is behaving is a cry for help or attention-seeking behavior that’s considered normal? If the behavior is becoming negative, then it’s safe to assume that a further investigation into what’s going on is needed, as your teen could need help. In addition to watching how your teen acts, keep an eye out for negative emotions such as jealousy and low self-esteem, which can indicate your child needs some extra support.  

How To Help Stop Attention-Seeking Behavior in Teens

If your teen is trying to get people to notice them in ways you find concerning, such as being promiscuous, you can help them stop this behavior. 

  1. Build your teen’s confidence with self-esteem activities. Building your teen’s confidence with self-esteem activities is a great approach to helping them work through attention-seeking behavior in a positive way. Having a safe, secure, and loving relationship with your teen is an important way to help develop their self-esteem. You can also help them set healthy and positive goals, get them a gratitude journal to write out their thoughts and emotions, or help them find a hobby they enjoy. Nippert did note that while self-esteem activities can help with your teen’s confidence, it’s important to look deeper into what’s distressing them and help try to resolve it. 
  1. Talk to and listen to your teen. Taking the time to talk to and listen to your teen will help you understand why they’re feeling the emotions they have. The best way to listen is to give them your full, undivided attention. In addition, Nippert suggested that you also dive deeper into your teen’s emotions with them. 
  1. Teach your teen to be mindful. To teach your teen to be mindful, Nippert suggested you look within yourself to see if you’re modeling that practice by going into and feeling your own emotions. Breathing exercises are a great way to do that. Nippert also advised that you show your teen that feeling their emotions is safe and to go into their emotions with them.  
  1. Don’t positively reinforce attention-seeking behavior. If your teen displays negative attention-seeking behavior, and your response is focused on getting them to stop acting out, you’re positively reinforcing that behavior. When that happens, teenagers can think it’s OK to act in certain ways to get their needs met. Instead, Nippert advised you focus on having a safe, close, and empathetic relationship with your child so you can understand why they may feel the need to act a certain way or feel an emotion.   
  1. Moderate and set boundaries on your teen’s social media use. Social media can be a convenient, easily accessed place for your teen to seek out negative attention. Setting boundaries on its use, such as limiting screen time or having days without using it at all, can be a great way to encourage your teen to evaluate their social media habits and following. 
  1. Find a therapist who can treat your teen’s attention-seeking behavior. Nippert advised that you try family therapy to treat your teen’s attention-seeking behavior. This approach can be helpful because craving attention is relational in nature: Your child is acting a certain way to connect with you. The whole family should be involved in your teen’s healing process. 

Attention-Seeking Behavior Wrapup

If you notice attention-seeking behavior in your teen that’s having a negative impact on them and the people around them, the first step to helping them stop this behavior is understanding why they want attention. You may need to find a therapist to help you dig deep into the reasons so your child has the right tools to overcome the issues they’re facing.  

Connecting with your teen on a relational and emotional level is also important when it comes to addressing attention-seeking behavior. 

“The number one thing that we can do is show our teens that it’s OK to be in our emotions by handling our own emotions,” Nippert said. “Parents best teach kids how to be healthy by working to be healthy for their kids.” 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today! 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.