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Why language matters: in need of attention, not ‘attention seeking’

Last updated: 24 Feb 2023 Topics: Blog
Why language matters: improving safeguarding and child protection practice with words | Image: a baby crying

From the NSPCC's Library and Information Service specialists

At some point in our lives, we’ve all heard someone say, “ignore them, they’re just attention seeking”.

But the need for attention, to feel seen and heard, is a natural human instinct. It’s particularly important during childhood, when we are at our most dependant on others to recognise, understand and meet our needs.

All children, on occasion, seek reassurance through their behaviour that the adults in their lives are there for them. But for some children, their behaviour is a way of communicating that something isn’t right. It’s an attempt to get the adults in their life to notice what’s happening to them.

Calling a child’s behaviour ‘attention seeking’ risks minimising their needs. And if you ignore or dismiss the behaviour, these needs may continue to go unmet.

Pre-verbal communication

It’s important to recognise that behaviour is a form of communication. For pre-verbal or non-verbal children, it can be the only way they can express themselves.

Babies might cry, pull faces, or make specific movements to try and get their message across. They must alert their caregivers to their needs in order to survive. If parents or carers are responsive to their needs, children will develop a secure attachment and, over time, become less dependent on their caregiver.

Sometimes circumstances, such as abuse or bereavement, can make it harder for a child to develop a sense of security that their needs will be met. This can lead to children developing patterns of behaviour often labelled as ‘attention-seeking’, but which would be more accurately described as ‘attachment-needing’.

This behaviour can continue to develop as a child gets older, unless the child’s need for a secure attachment is met.1

> Read more about attachment and child development

 When it’s hard to find the right words

Some things can be very hard for children and young people to talk about. They might be worried about saying the wrong thing, or the consequences of telling people what’s happening to them or how they feel.

Instead, they may display behaviour that indicates something is wrong. For example, they might:

  • run away or hide
  • become physically or verbally aggressive
  • engage in impulsive, reactive or potentially harmful activities
  • not eat or sleep
  • self-harm.

Research with children who experienced abuse found they sometimes used, “signs and signals which the young people hoped would alert someone to the abuse, for example ‘acting out’ or ‘seeking attention’”. This behaviour is often the result of long and exhausting efforts to get people in their lives to recognise their unmet needs and give them the help they need.2

> Read more about recognising and responding to abuse

What are the problems with labelling behaviour as ‘attention seeking’?

‘Attention-seeking’ is a term often used to describe behaviour people don’t understand or don’t know how to respond to. It places the focus on the behaviour, rather than the reasons behind it. This can lead professionals to miss important signs that a child needs support, protection or both.

The term also implies that children are purposefully ‘acting up’ to get a reaction. It encourages the belief that ignoring the behaviour will make it stop.

For example, analysis of case reviews involving young people who died from suicide found that young people's talk about suicide and suicide attempts were interpreted as ‘teenage histrionics’ rather than cries for help.

Meeting underlying needs

By reframing ‘attention seeking’ as ‘in need of attention’, professionals are prompted to consider the child’s needs.

By paying attention to children and trying to understand what their behaviour is telling us, professionals can help children get the support and protection they need.


Elliott, A. (2013) Elliott, A. Why can’t my child behave? Empathic parenting strategies that work for adoptive and foster families. Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Allnock, D. and Miller, P (2013) No one noticed, no one heard: a study of disclosures of childhood abuse. London: NSPCC.

Key points to take away

  • Children who display ‘attention seeking’ behaviour are really in need of attention, attachment or connection.
  • It’s important that children know you really see and hear them.
  • Behaviour is a natural form of communication. Always think about the reasons behind behaviour. Consider whether the child has underlying support or safeguarding needs, or both.