A cry for attention is an activity designed to attract notice from friends, family, or strangers. Children, especially preverbal children, may use cries for attention as a form of communication before they learn more effective communication strategies. It can be associated with an emotional disorder or a period of stress, or may be a behavioral issue. In cases where attention-seeking behavior becomes excessive or negative in nature, it may be necessary to consider therapy to treat it and get to the underlying issue causing the behavior.
This term is sometimes used dismissively, but a cry for attention can be a sign of a health problem. Infants, for example, cannot orally communicate sensations and emotions, and may cry over a wet diaper, hunger, or a simple desire to be held. As children develop, they seek attention and feedback from the people around them. Parents and caregivers may inadvertently reward negative attention-seeking behaviors, encouraging children to keep engaging in them.
Positive attention can affirm desirable behaviors, like behaving politely, being quiet, waiting, or sharing. This comes in the form of interaction with children who are behaving well; a teacher might tell members of a class that they are sitting very quietly during activity time and this is appreciated, for instance. Conversely, when a child misbehaves and receives attention for it, this is known as negative attention, and can reinforce the behavior because the child got the desired attention. The best response to negative behaviors can be ignoring them.
In teens and adults, a cry for attention may take a variety of forms. People may seek affirmation and support by boasting, exaggerating situations, or claiming emotional devastation; for example, someone might threaten to commit suicide or file for divorce in a heated argument. These behaviors are designed to elicit attention rather than being serious threats, and are sometimes associated with psychiatric disturbances.
Self-harming behavior and suicide attempts are sometimes classified as a cry for attention under the argument that people engage in them in the hopes that someone will try to stop them. This is not necessarily the case; patients may be shy and embarrassed, for example, about scars or other signs of self-harm, and could hide them from others. Likewise, they may not discuss plans for suicide or failed suicide attempts. People who conceal signs of emotional distress are not engaging in attention-seeking behavior.
Balancing the desire to avoid rewarding a cry for attention with the risk that a legitimate issue might be ignored can be difficult. People threatening suicide, for example, might be reaching out for help because they don’t actually want to commit suicide or they want assistance with a situation that feels overwhelming. Ignoring them on the grounds that their behavior shouldn’t be rewarded can be ill advised. One option is to advise that people showing signs of distress consider seeing a counselor to discuss the situation with a neutral party who can provide help.