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Attention: Is it a 'need'?


I have been having this debate for a while now with friends and colleagues.
Is 'attention' - as in 'she needs attention', a need? I always ask 'if she got the attention she is seeking, what need would be met?' Some of my colleagues say 'nope, we all need attention'.
So, I am curious about what others think. Is attention a basic human need?
Thom Garfat

Attention is a basic need that every one needs, whether its a physical or mental need they both need attention in every way,like freuds I'd,ego and super ego its about meeting each need/stage which then equals paying attention to detail to achieve goal and aims of ones personal self! Once they are achieved the attention begins in various ways.
Kerryanne Galbraith
Do we not even as professionals say that attention-seeking behavior is a cry for help. At the same time we advise parents especially to ignore attention-seeking behavior, as answering to it would be reinforcing the need for attention.
I would say the need/needs met by gaining attention are an acknowledgement and validation by the Other. It is the receiving the other's gaze and for that moment basking in it.  Men/women (adults) engage in attention seeking behavior as part of the mating ritual. So once more it is about the Other rather than the person who must elicit the attention.
I believe love and belonging are the "needs."  Attention for me is the action confirming these needs are being met. When we say we love you or we want you here, if this is not followed up with attention our words for most are not confirmed or believed so the attempts for proof of love and belonging continue.

Susan Cater
My response is that "getting attention" is related to self-esteem and so would be connected to the Maslow's hierarchy around self-esteem. So in a way would be a need?
Kathy Scott
If we approach attention like a need then we can compare it to other needs such as food, shelter and clothing. I don't need to eat every second of the day, I don't like to be inside all day every day, and at times (when I am in my home alone) I am hot enough to not require clothes. However, during different times of the day I'm hungry, cold, and lonely and if I do not fulfill those needs they do not dissipate on their own and eventually (without intervention) my health will be affected.
Great question Thom.

 I think that 'attention" can be viewed as both an attempt to have a need met, whether that be the need for support, structure limits, control, to be heard... and on the list goes. However it can also reflect the need to connect with others, which is a profound human need we all share.  I don't think that there is one succinct way to define attention.
Given this awareness, why then do some of us (CYC's) continue to struggle with responding to this "need", for attention from a strength based approach versus the assumption that the child is "manipulating?" 
Donicka Budd
I think to a point yes. It is said if a child does not get human contact they will not get the skills needed. So Yes attention in my books is a human need. If you have no contact with a child for the whole life of the child, the child will not have what is needed to have contact with others. There are studies done on this too, so anyways yes.

Keith Millership
Yes, receiving attention is a basic human need. Giving someone attention is the act of attending (to be present with; to look after). Doesn't this basic human need show itself across the lifespan most clearly at both the beginning and end of life? Who would withhold attention from a hungry infant? Who would withhold attention from someone on their deathbed? 
I sometimes hear "she's just doing that for attention" or in an attempt to sound professional, "that is attention-seeking behavior". Wouldn't these be better reframed as "she's just trying to connect with someone, or as "relationship-seeking behavior"?
James Freeman
My answer without deeper reflection is no.
I have always thought that there is a difference between need and wish. A need can often be something that someone else than the person in focus has decided that the person has, or should have. Sometimes if they want it or not, for example, child care worker might say: "for this child to live in her/his home there is a standard need of cleanliness" or a government direction can be "for this home to be qualified for a foster home the minimum size of the bathroom should be xxx m2"
Needs can often be of a content and structure that is not compatible with the person's wish. For example to ask a child/youth what he/she needs is something very different than to ask what or how she/he wish to have.
In re. attention I do not understand this phenomenon to be a universal need for children and youth. It differs - some might need attention others not. However, I understand that it is more important to be aware of recognizing. We all need to be recognized as human beings as response that we live.
That's all right now, as I sit at the PC at the 22 World Scout Jamboree in Sweden were 38000 scouts from all over the world are gathered.
Best greetings,
Hans Eriksson
Great question, one that certainly makes me want to ask some other questions such as - what does it mean "to attend to." So if she gets the attention she needs than one has attended to her needs but what did the 'attending to' look like - I think the answer to this ancillary question would help one determine whether the attending to was meeting a basic need or not.

Personally I never understood the phrase 'she is only seeking attention' - as opposed to what? and why is that a bad thing, maybe more to the point when is that a bad thing?
Dana Fusco
I have always struggled with this term when reading reports and logs written by c&ycw. Maybe we use the words "need for attention" because it's so easy(a lazy term) and we think it describes the child's behaviour and needs - is it not quite non-descriptive and meaningless in terms of clinical assessment?

Do we not need to look at more specifics when we describe what we mean with "needs attention"? Behaviour has meaning and specific needs are met through specific behaviours - so maybe if we look at what this "attention seeking behaviour" is we might get to what need the child is trying to meet. Is attention-seeking not a means to an end and not the end itself - in other words whatever attention I am "needing" meets another need. So I don't think attention in and of itself is a "need" that can be met - is it not for us to understand what need this "attention-seeking" is actually trying to meet by listening and observing carefully?
Kind regards
Sandra Oosthuizen
Hi Thom,
I think it is useful to understand attention seeking behaviour as attachment seeking behaviour, and we certainly all need that!
James Anglin
Hello Mr. Garfat,

First, it was a pleasure meeting you at the CYC conference in Truro.
As far as attention being a need, I believe it is. With reference to Maslow's Hierarchy, attention would fit under both security and social.
If a child grows up without any attention, they may not have any recognition of their feelings nor be able to express them in a healthy way. This can lead to risky behaviour and actions, only then will the child get the attention. But I don't feel it will be the attention they want. For a child who has never gotten attention, So their birthdays were never celebrated, school plays were never attended, vacations were never photographed the child may have no idea that they deserve recognition. A child's achievements are part of their pride. Pride in oneself is how we establish our personalities. Our personalities are based on our own preferences yes, but also our experiences as we ascended the hierarchy. So attention is a need we need it to create who we are.
Thank you for your time,
Sara-Jo Doiron
Hi Thom,
Seems like such an easy question to answer until you really start thinking about it.  Is attention a human need, and if a person got attention, what need would be satisfied?  I am wondering, if someone did not receive any attention, what need(s) would not be met?  Maybe "attention" is just the wrong word.  And I guess it depends on what kind of attention.  We all need attention - meaning we all need recognition that we exist, are worthwhile, have value to someone else, that we have an identity - a sense of being unique and at the same time a sense of being part of something like a family.  So the need to belong, perhaps?  But if we are talking about "needing attention" as in what we typically refer to as attention-seeking behaviour, then I still think there are needs involved- but again perhaps not a need for attention per se.  I don't think we always "need" the kind of attention that our behaviour implies we are seeking, but sometimes our behaviour is a distorted attempt to meet a basic need, like belonging, mastery, etc. 
So at this stage I think that yes, attention is a need, perhaps needing to be clarified more in terms of exactly what it means.  Perhaps the context within which one observes the behaviour that attempts to provoke attention will be more important than anything else.
It would be an interesting experiment (if it were practical) to see what would happen if we could deprive someone from attention.  The theory goes that if a need remains unmet for too long, we will escalate behaviours aimed at meetng the need, even if the behaviours are misdirected, destructive or self-destructive.  My guess and my gut-feeling is that anyone, no matter how "well adjusted", would probably resort to quite extreme behaviour if deprived of attention for long enough.
Kind regards,
Werner van der Westhuizen,
Port Elizabeth, South Africa

My sense would be that attention is not the need, it's the necessary response. I would suggest that the need is for 'attachment' or a strong sense of 'relationship' or ' being seen, understood and heard'. A need to know that "I matter ..".
My argument would be that the behaviour is 'attachment seeking' and that 'giving/paying deep attention' is indeed the appropriate response.  To me giving attention includes trying to understand and enable the other person to experience being significant and important to me in the moment, and over time.
It seems to me that for years we have tended to frame 'attachment seeking' type of behaviour in a rather negative and superficial sense as 'attention seeking' or 'acting out'.
Ironically, we have often been told that the child has a problem when they seek attention (especially if they behave in a way which appears inappropriate and troubled), that it's not a good thing, that the last thing we should do is 'give in.' Once we think of it that way we are hard-pressed to accept that the behaviour is connected to a genuine need.
In my experience many folk have been taught or advised to ignore that kind of behaviour, perhaps even isolate young people from others for a while...the complete opposite of paying genuine attention. So, perhaps we struggle with the difference between giving in to 'wants'  and demands, and 'giving attention' to a need?
My sense is that we do have opportunities now with new research, and rediscovering some very old research, to understand some of the deeper yet strangely simple issues for young folk around this. It's also always been a fascinating conversation and topic for me. I wonder whether if we understood the basic need  as 'attachment' or 'knowing that I matter", we might fundamentally be motivated in the moment and over time to really 'give attention'?
Lesley du Toit
Hi Thom,
I think that 'attention' is about connection.  This most certainly is a need.  Questions are generally raised in how this connection is achieved.
Michelle Bloom
Hi Thom,
I too have pondered this aspect of the care we provide to others.

One idea that I utilise to make sense of behaviour that demands attention is one of an existential cry (scream) for affirmation and confirmation of existence. For a child, who through formative experience is unintegrated, the route to integration (wholeness) starts with affirmation of existence and consistent confirmation of being valued (loved) for being.
There was a recent report on nursery and pre-school children in England who were arriving at age 3-4 not knowing their name. Parents had for a variety of complex reasons struggled to give their child identity and develop a sense of autonomous agency in the world. It is hard to get our heads around what this state of being must be like. We need to explore and connect with their state of non-being in order to offer hope that they can go on to connect and integrate with our alien world.

 Jeremy Millar

Hi Thom, 
I think attention is the vehicle through which needs are met. As attention can also be negative, as with being punished or embarrassed, I don't see it in the same light as the universal needs of the circle of courage for instance. The reason behind drawing attention to yourself or something would be the need according to me. If I want someone to listen to my point (and give their attention to me), I may want to make a statement for justice and my need is fairness. If I want someone to have lunch with me, I want to feel connected or de-stress, etc. etc.
Interesting question :)

Rika Swanzen
From a perspective that sees challenging behaviour as indicative of unmet need, the existence of "attention seeking" challenging behaviour would logically lead to the conclusion that there is a fundamental human need for attention.  To withhold attention as an approach to managing challenging behaviour (seclusion or some forms of "planned ignoring") would have to be seen as unethical from this perspective as it deliberately leaves expressed needs unmet.
I may have lifted the lid of a can of worms there!
Ni Holmes
First, in replying to Thom's question about whether attention is a basic human need I want to say thanks for another thought provoking process and discussion. My initial reaction was a firm "yes" but as I thought more about it I was not sure if a yes or no answer is wise, or even possible. Then, I concluded that attention itself was not a basic human need, unless it was qualified with such adjectives as "positive", "nurturing", "thoughtful", "respectful", "relationship building" and the like.
My swing to this position came when I started to think of how I have heard the term attention used in our field in regard to children. Far too often the term is used in an annoyed voice by the CYC Worker when the child is upset or angry and perhaps even demanding and the worker says "Oh, he/she is just looking for attention". The connotation is that the adult shouldn't "give in" and take this behavior or demand seriously. If one considers "attention" as a basic need then the child will likely get "attention", but unless it is a thoroughly professional worker who will give a response that is (to use my words above) thoughtful, nurturing, respectful and based in some relationship building plan with a positive tone it may have been what they were "looking for" but certainly not what they "needed" if it was annoyed, counter-aggressive, dismissive, or punitive.
I have also heard the term used often by teachers and other CYC workers who will say to a child who is not complying or not tuning (with a tone),"Please pay attention now" (to me!). In this they are asking (really demanding in most cases) the child gives THEM attention. It seems a little silly to think of it this way when one steps back and considers the role of the two people involved in this discussion. Is it not the child who now is in need of "attention" of a professionally thoughtful, nurturing, respectful, and relationship building intervention from the adult? So, once again mere "attention" is not the child's need, but rather it seems to be a need to have a response that is centered where the child is at the moment to get them back on track in the classroom or with the activity. 
As I was thinking of this I remembered an old saying I saw once (and sadly have forgotten who said it) that professed "The key to excellent child care work is being sure troubled kids get as much attention as kids in trouble".

Hmmmm....not sure if I want to try quantify the amount, or figure out exactly what those two categories mean, but suffice it to say I am not prepared to say "attention is a basic human need", but I am prepared to say that if attention is defined and rooted in basic child and youth care principles of quality care, and centered on where the other is, then it is at least an unquestionable need.
Frank Delano
Hawthorne, New York

Wow!  Thank you everyone for your thoughtful responses on 'attention as a need' - I was wondering how others saw it and you all sure helped me think about it.  If anyone has more to say, I would love to hear it.
I raised the 'attention as a need' because, as so many of you noted, it is often used in a dismissive manner - 'she's only trying to get attention' - and I had (have) a couple of thoughts about that - first if she is 'only trying to get attention' we might wonder why she needs our attention - and as Karen VanderVen said one time 'what's wrong with wanting attention?'  On the other hand, if one sees it as a 'need' then why would we dismiss the cry to have this need met?
Personally, I think it is a need-meeting strategy and, as someone mentioned, it is our work to figure out what need the person is trying to meet.
I think there are other issues like this which we might reflect on as we seek to do better work with young people and families, and I hope that as I raise a few of them, you will offer as much thought and support as you have done for this one.  While often they seem like simple things - like this one does - they are, I believe, core to our work.  It is so easy I find to 'assume we know'. or 'take it for granted' or 'be dismissive', or whatever - and that, I believe, leads us to dangerous, even oppressive, territory.  So, as I attempt to reflect, I appreciate your support.
And if any of you have other, seemingly simple, issues you wonder about - please do post them here so we can all help each other.
Thanks for helping me to think.
In discussion about whether "attention" is a "need", my thoughts go back to our understanding of attachment.  So many things about a child or youth's development is integral to their attachment that develops between their parent or their caregiver.  The ability of a child to attach to their primary caregiver affects so many different key areas of a child's psychological and sociological development.  Without an appropriate level of attention, then I would argue that it follows that healthy attachment would never be formed.  If that's the case, I would argue that "Yes, attention is a need" but to what amount is too much attention? And to what amount is too little attention? If the goal is to development emotional self regulation, a healthy sense of self and foster positive age-appropriate relationships with others than these important questions will be asked by the professionals involved in these children's lives many, many times.  And I think those questions are important: if we did not struggle and question whether we are providing the best possible care to the children in our charge, and constantly look into better ways to do so, how could we then be sure that we were in fact offering the same?
Chad Perrin
St. John's NL
Hello Everyone, 
The conversation about whether "attention" is a need, is a very interesting and complex one.
Personally, I believe that if one thinks of "attention" purely as a nominal concept (noun), it certainly is a need. Every human being needs attention in order to grow and develop. The phenomena of "failure to thrive" in infants demonstrates the absolute crucial necessity of the human touch. Paradoxically, the wrong kind of attention; abuse, has devastating effects on children. Considering whether attention is a need could quite easily become a protracted discussion about the semantics of words!
Some believe that children engage in "attention seeking" behaviours because of the basic human need for attention. This is also a complex discussion and I personally prescribe to the philosophies of author and PhD scholar Ross Greene who writes that children lack skills or that they have developmental gaps that drive their behaviours and reactions. Dr Geene presents an alternative way of thinking about "attention seeking behaviours" and suggests that we use Collaborative Problem Solving to identify lagging skills instead of labeling children as "attention seeking." I enjoy CPS very much and find it to be a very effective tool to help children to move forward and make appropriate choices. CPS also provides the care taker an opportunity to pay real, sustained and focused attention to the child and any specific lagging skills or problems that might exist. So often, care takers are pressurised for time and it is much quicker to simply write that a child "needs attention" or "acts out" to get attention instead of asking ourselves to examine behaviour more closely to try to understand it.
Delphine Amer
Solitary confinement removes attention but still provides the basics for physiological survival. We have put limits on the length of time allowed 'in the hole' as the mental stress of being alone can destroy a mind.  My suggestion is that for the most part, 'negative attention' though not optimal, can still allow a person to survive, whereas complete removal all together has been proven to destroy the personality.  Usually we work with children who's entire first years have been based on receiving negative attention and thus the 'inappropriate attention seeking behavior' as it's how they learned to get attention inthe first place. It's our jobs (usually) to teach skills to replace the socially inappropriate behavior with something more appropriate.  However, that being said, be aware of over generalizing behaviors as attention seeking... Not all 'unwanted' behavior is motivated on 'attention seeking' alone.  Some behaviors are based on sensory likes and tangible needs/wants.
Lots of 'quotations' in this one... Lol. I guess mostly due to the idea of labeling behaviors as good/bad when dealing with the kids I work with when I would hate for someone to follow me around 24-7 and label everything I do in a book with clinical terms and phrases. Sometimes I find workers quick to label the why of behavior on their own without even considering asking the child first what's going on.
I think the need for "attention" is just another way of saying that we are all seeking to be seen and heard by another human being.  
Gerry Fewster
Ny of these two books, Communication Skills in Social Service Practice Manual 388-144-DW or Interpersonal Communications Relating to others by Beebe, Beebe, Redmond & Geerinck 5th Canadian Edition. Pearson
Ce Ce Walker.
If no one answered this question would you die from it?
I hope not!, It seems to me that attention itself is not the need, but it is a vehicle or conduit by which needs, and desires, are sought and often fulfilled.
It seems to me to be more about communicating a need/desire than it is the need itself. This begs the question what is it that you need or desire from us? My guess from what I know of you is to connect, to be heard, and to hear from, to make meaning.
Hope this helps.
Michael Wattie
Dear Thom
Is attention a need or not? I would say from my experience yes it is a need and that needs to be met in an early stage of every person's life. You cannot "just" love, take someone seriously, give, help, share or care without giving attention. If one says that he/she is able to give those without any attention, then that is not genuine. We need attention to improve self worth and self esteem and gives personal value. Attention also improves communication skills and through communication skills there is a good relationship which is the base of child and youth care.
Seeng Mmamabolo

Hi Thom 
I think attention is an essential human need. Isn't attention a means of reflecting back to us that we exist and stimulates and prompts us to engage with others? If we deprive people of attention on a regular basis I think we risk 'damaging' their sense of their own uniqueness.
Best regards
Sheelagh Collier

Hey Thom,
Just thought I would throw my 2 cents in.  What a great question and conversation! 
I think of it this way.  First off, I think attention is the broad stroke of what we need and consequently facilitate the learning of young people to get their needs met in their own developmental way.  All those other things you listed (such as Maslow's hierarchy of needs) are the sub categories of how that attention is provided and needs are being more specifically provided for. 
Quantum Physics principles are linking what is physically real to what it is that we are able to attend to, and it responds to that attention, woooww. I heard this somewhere and am passing it on.  
Energy flows where attention goes!
Later, bud
Hector  Sapien                                      
Dear Thom 
You did say that if more people want to comment they can do. So I would like to offer my opinion on this very interesting conversation. One technique that is used by Child and Youth care workers is "planned ignoring". I therefore wonder, what is planned ignoring vs refusing to give attention when it is "needed'? I am  wondering about this as '"the need for attention" must be determined early on. Sometimes a child complains about a headache and this could be understood as attention seeking, if medical attention is not sought. Secondly seeking attention should also be seen in terms of child development and the methods used to obtain attention. Would it be in the best interests to ignore the cry of a baby vs ignoring the constant nagging of a teenager for instance? So attention-seeking is directly linked to a need. A child from a large family might be constantly fighting for attention as this happens at home ... the strongest survive. So such behaviour for that child is acceptable in that it draws attention to him/her.
Alfred Harris               
Note: "Planned ignoring" refers to the decision of a parent or carer "not to respond" to some otherwise offensive behavior of a youngster if a more pressing need must be attended to. Example: A child is crying because he has been hurt in some way by another and while running to the privacy of his room he stubs his toe painfully on a doorpost and swears. The careworker would then "plan to ignore" the bad language because comforting the child is far more important in the moment. A young girl has been through a bad week because of the loss of a family member. We "plan to ignore" the fact that she hasn't made her bed this morning.  - Eds.

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