Is attention seeking behaviour in teens normal? The simple answer is “Yes”, but the deeper answer is “it’s complicated”.
As your teenager develops into a young adult and heads towards independence, they are still likely to seek out positive attention from parents. This is developmentally normal.
Attention Seeking in Teens: Why Do They Do It?
Most of us want to be loved and accepted for who we are. As they mature, teenagers are finding out who they are and where they fit in to the world.
It can be a time full of feelings of insecurity. They tend to seek validation from others and reassurance that what they are doing and the choices they are making, are OK.
“Attention Needing” vs Attention Seeking in Teens
Describing your teenager’s need for attention is perhaps better described as ‘attention needing’ rather than ‘attention seeking’.
Attention seeking evokes a negative image wrapped up in difficult behaviour. This can lead to us dismissing a child’s needs.
Here, I take a look at what level of attention needing behaviour is normal. I highlight some red flags to look out for and healthy ways to support your child’s needs.
What is Normal Attention Seeking Behaviour in Teens?
Here are some examples of attention seeking (“attention needing”) behaviours that you might see in your teen.
Teenager Attention-Seeking Symptoms:
- Asking lots of questions.
- Interrupting conversations.
- Incessant talking.
- Asking for help a lot.
- Crying or being dramatic.
- Playing the victim – vying for sympathy and empathy.
- Causing trouble when you are busy doing something.
- Embellishing or exaggerating stories.
- Constantly trying to help.
- Faking being ill.
- Having temper tantrums when ignored or not paid attention to.
- Causing, creating and maintaining challenge and confrontation.
In fact, if your child’s usual behaviour changes suddenly or noticeably over the long-term it may indicate that they need more attention from you. But we will talk more about that later in the article.
Your Attention Seeking Teenager: Understanding the Causes
The best way to start understanding and dealing with attention seeking behaviour in teens is to ask yourself “why is my child acting that way?”.
“What’s going on for them that is making them seek my attention more frequently?”
There could be a number of reasons for teenagers to be attention seekers.
Negative Attention Seeking and Low Self-Esteem
If a child has a low appreciation or opinion of themselves they may try to seek feedback from adults more than other children.
Low self-esteem is sometimes an indicator that a child’s essential emotional needs are not being met.
This is more than likely not your fault – or theirs.
Stress and Anxiety: The Link With Attention Seeking in Teens
We do not feel safe.
Therefore, it is natural for teens who feel this way to “seek attention” (reassurance) much more than other young people.
Family Circumstances and Attention Seeking Teenagers
If you as a parent work away for periods of time, are separated or divorced or perhaps work in a high risk job, your teen may seek out more nurture.
Your child may feel a sense of scarcity and may seek to make up for not seeing you by demanding more attention when they do.
Try not to feel shame or guilt. These emotions are so natural, but will not ultimately help you.
Instead, follow the guidelines below, within the time constraints that you have. You are human and you can only do your best.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Negative Attention Seeking in Teenagers
Where a young person encounters an unpredictable or traumatic experience or distressing event (or many events) they will need extra help to manage their emotions.
This may look like attention seeking. It can feel quite negative and even selfish. However, this young person is just expressing a need for safety, security or validation.
Examples of adverse experiences include parental or sibling loss or separation, and school bullying.
Mental Health Conditions and their Effect on Teenager Attention-Seeking Symptoms
If your child has poor mental health currently, they may not feel emotionally contained.
This can lead young people to feel the need for more attention or reassurance. They do not feel they can manage their emotions, or they do not feel validated in terms of their own self worth, so they need someone externally to do this for them.
Sensory Processing Differences and Attention Seeking in Teens
Similarly to many of the categories above, if your child has sensory sensitivities it can cause overwhelm and a sense of not being in control.
They may need more adult support and reassurance than you would “normally” expect from a teenager. This may come across as attention seeking. But remember to reframe it as “attention needing”.
Challenges with Friendships or Peers: The Link With Teenage Attention-Seeking Symptoms
If your teenager isn’t getting the support or validation they need from their peer relationships, they may turn to adults more.
They may revel in this attention and demand it more and more, as it fulfils a need within them.
This may seem unusual when compared with their peers.
Difficulties at School and Teenage Attention Seeking
When teenagers don’t feel safe at school for any number of reasons, then feeling safe at home takes on even more importance.
Their school-based feelings of insecurity may spill over into home life.
They may become clingy or attention-seeking as they seek safety and security from you. It may sound bizarre, but sometimes teenagers need just as much comfort as when they were a toddler, especially at times of uncertainty or stress.
Extreme Attention Seeking Behaviour in Teenagers
It isn’t normal for a teenager to be using high-risk or unacceptable behaviours to gain attention. If this is happening for you, let’s delve a bit deeper.
Why might your child be engaging in these behaviours and what can you do about it?
Examples of extreme attention seeking behaviours in teens:
- Demanding to be the centre of attention all the time.
- Promiscuous behaviour.
- Being controlling or coercive in a romantic relationship.
- Behaving completely outside of family values.
- Starving or purging to lose weight.
- Being deliberately obnoxious or verbally abusive.
- Frequent self-harming or suicidal ideation.
- Abusing alcohol or substance abuse.
- Reckless driving.
- Running away.
- Behaving impulsively.
- Social media abuse including cyberbullying.
It’s vital to understand the subtleties of your teenager’s attention seeking behaviour here.
Firstly, we must remember that it is attention needing behaviour. Something about what they are going through or the way they are feeling is leading your teen to need to resort to extreme measures to feel noticed, supported or validated.
Secondly, I am not suggesting that attention seeking (needing) is the only reason for these behaviours listed above. As an example, the reasons for self-harming can be extremely complex and individual. They may not be related to attention seeking at all.
Let your teenager know that you’ve noticed a change in their behaviour and that you are concerned. Ask them what you can do to help and support them.
Attachment Style and Attention Seeking Behaviour in Teens
Risky behaviours in young people can sometimes be a response to a feeling of insecurity.
Through “bad behaviour” and engaging in actions that give them the attention they crave (even negative attention), teenagers will inevitably gain their parents’ attention.
Attachment theory is about relationship patterns. A child who feels safe in their parental relationships is likely to form secure relationships with others.
One vital element of a secure attachment is that a parent must ensure a child feels that ‘although I’m not perfect or even ideal, I am loved.”
A child needs to learn to face their flaws and overcome hurdles, knowing that they are okay and loved no matter what. Having a secure attachment style is central to being able to do this, assured that we can trust others, especially those closest to us.
Does your child have a secure or insecure attachment style? You can read about this in depth in our article about the importance of attachment in children.
Teenager Attention Seeking Symptoms: When to Seek Professional Help
If you see any red flag behaviours above like aggression, repeated self-harm or substance abuse, the first step is to visit your family doctor.
The doctor will be able to recommend an appropriate support pathway and treatment plan for child and your family.
This might include:
- Counselling or other mental health services such as family therapy. This may include a referral to CAMHS in the UK (child and adolescent mental health services).
- Parenting help or one-to-one support for your child from a social worker or youth worker.
- Mentoring or support groups through school or a specific organisation.
- Specialist workers within the police.
How to Deal with Attention Seeking in Teens
Sometimes, it’s really hard to distinguish why your teenager might be acting out for attention, or exhibiting negative or self-destructive behaviour. It can be hard to understand why and to put yourself in their position. Try to keep communicating with them in a gentle, low pressure way, so that you can begin to understand them better.
Take a look at reasons and causes of difficult teenage behaviour here in our blog article: How To Deal With A Difficult Teenager.
Young children and teenagers alike crave connection and recognition. They just show it in very different ways.
Typically, the kind of attention they need will ensure they feel safe, secure, grounded and heard.
Below are some positive ways you can foster connection and understanding with your teenager encouraging positive behaviours and addressing the attention they need from you.
I also highly recommend taking a look at our article on the best books about parenting teens.
Attend and Make Time
By this I mean, be present. Give your teenager a healthy amount of your undivided attention.
You don’t have to meet their every demand, but….
- Allow them air-time
- Take the time to listen to them
- Set aside any distractions of your own (e.g. your mobile, watching TV)
- Make sure they feel really heard
- Talk about what to do next, what do they need from you?
Some teenagers act like they no longer need you, but in reality, the opposite is true. Being present for them is more important than ever.
A great way to connect with your teenager and address any need for attention is to offer 1-1 time with you. However, be prepared for this to be on their terms!
They may simply need a bit more emotional support, especially during stressful periods like exams and transitions.
There are lots of different ways you can get connected with your teen. For example:
- Listen to music together in the car.
- Go for a walk together .
- Show enthusiasm and excitement about things they are doing and achieving.
- Offer to help them with things that are difficult, but be ready to step back when your teen has ‘got it’.
- Ask them for their help with something you want to do.
- Cook and eat together.
- Be patient, open and honest with them. Connection takes time.
Extra Nurture When Teens Seek Attention
It may seem counter-intuitive that an attention-seeking teenager needs more nurture.
More nurture doesn’t necessarily mean more attention.
But it does mean making your time together count. You can trust me when I say that more nurture will not “spoil” your child or make them more demanding. Nurture them and show plenty of love.
Some kids don’t like to be hugged and kissed, so find out how they like to receive your love.
What does your child need?
How do they respond to displays of affection?
Remember to reassure your child that they are loved regardless of their behaviour.
The next time your teen exhibits “good behaviour”, praise them.
If they do something well or follow through on a request, offer positive reinforcement.
For example, tell them they did a “great job”, or say, “thank you for clearing up after dinner, that gave me time to catch up with an important job”.
Ensure your child’s home is their safe haven, where they can be themselves and relax. They must feel safe and secure at home.
When risky or attention-seeking behaviours in teens are present, they are signaling a need for safety and comfort.
Concentrate on providing routine and predictability as this will help your child feel grounded.
Routines help to create positive daily habits.
Predictability reduces stress and anxiety.
Teens and Attention Seeking: Louise’s Story
Fourteen year old Louise’s mum Jenny is getting remarried soon to Tom.
Louise likes Tom and is glad her mum’s smiling again.
Tom has been around for the last year and they have been out on some family days. He has even picked her up from school a few times.
Jenny has been juggling work, co-parenting 3 kids and trying to organise the wedding.
However, she has recently noticed some problem behaviours in Louise. She frequently interrupts her and Tom’s conversations, doesn’t take no for an answer and gives negative responses to Jenny’s requests.
Increased Neediness and Attention Seeking
Louise is usually pretty self-sufficient, independently getting on with homework and feeding the pets.
But lately, Louise has been asking for her mum’s help and leaning on her more and more for reassurance.
She seems to have lost her confidence.
Louise has started to want to be the centre of attention whenever the three are together. She becomes dramatic and over the top. This frequently ends in arguments.
Initially, Jenny assumes that Louise is just going through the usual puberty challenges. Or that maybe she’s nervous about Tom becoming a family member and the changes that might bring about.
Jenny tries to help Louise feel better by using positive language, describing all the good things to come.
Connecting and Understanding
However, Jenny realises things are not okay when Louise has a meltdown one evening, with no apparent trigger. Louise shouts that she is invisible to Jenny and that she feels invisible.
Jenny stops what she is doing and puts down her phone to comfort Louise. She tells Louise that she is there for her and can talk about anything.
Jenny says ’what can I do to help you?’ and ‘what do you need from me?’
After a few minutes of deep breathing and holding hands, Louise feels calm enough to talk to her mum.
Louise says she is being bullied by 2 other young girls at school and she’s feeling scared to go in in case they target her. She’s worried that her friends will be influenced by what the girls are saying about her and won’t want to be friends anymore.
At home, she sometimes feels pushed out by Tom even though she likes him. This means she doesn’t feel she fits in either at home or at school.
Jenny had not realised this was happening, although she had recognised that Louise was not herself, displaying behaviours that were not ‘like her’. She realised that initially making assumptions about Louise’s behaviours had led her to miss what was really going on.
By taking time out, listening to Louise and putting everything aside for as long as it took, Jenny was able to help Louise feel safe and secure enough to share her worries.
Jenny now understood the reason behind Louise’s change in behaviour. She had been struggling with something big.
Louise was trying to pull her mum into her world for help. She just didn’t know how to go about getting it effectively.
Jenny and Louise agreed that one evening per week from now on, they would have special time just for them. They would go to the cinema or bake together.
Each evening Jenny also made time for chatting just before bed, so Louise could talk through her concerns about the girls at school and together they could make a plan.
Within a few weeks Louise was feeling “heard” again, and her unusual attention-seeking behaviours reduced.
Teenagers and Attention-Seeking Symptoms: Summary
The next time you are worried about your teenager’s attention-seeking behaviour, identify and focus on the motivating factors before addressing the behaviour.
This will give you a better understanding of why they are seeking attention and what needs to happen in order for your child’s needs to be met.
Reframe the behaviour as attention-needing rather than attention-seeking. This will help you support your child’s needs with compassion and stay calm.
Frequently Asked Questions
My teenager makes up stories for attention. How concerned should I be?
It’s common for teenagers to seek attention as they navigate their social world. Some level of exaggerating and making up stories is normal. However, frequent and complex or extreme fabrications could indicate deeper underlying issues. If this behaviour persists or disrupts their life, you should consult a mental health professional.
When my teenager is acting out for attention how should I respond?
Responding calmly and with compassion is key when your teenager acts out for attention. Take the opportunity to have an open dialogue about their feelings and concerns. Gently raise their awareness that this behaviour stands out. If the behavior continues or escalates, professional guidance may be needed.
Attention Seeking in Teens: Related Articles
Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.
Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy – Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.