The Power of Paying Attention

From their very beginnings, our children demand, and warrant, a massive amount of attention. During the infant years, we’re paying attention to hourly shifts and changes so we can appropriately respond to their needs – does he need a new diaper? Is it feeding time again? Into toddlerhood, we’re monitoring the terrain dangerous to walking and small objects they could potentially swallow. This is the most basic way that we love our children through behavior: we keep them safe.

As children grow and develop, it might feel as if our attention isn’t required because they can finally make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich or operate the shower without fear of drowning. What parents don’t often realize, however, is that our attention is still very necessary: it simply shifts direction.

Underlying all childhood behavior is an emotional component and a need the child is seeking to meet. Unlike the newborn years where the needs are primarily physical in nature (changing a wet diaper meets comfort and health needs that also work to meet the emotional need for safety, love, and secure attachment), parents of older children must learn to adjust their attention toward the needs higher on Maslow’s hierarchy.  Elements such as a sense of belonging in the family and social acceptance also drive behavior later in childhood. As children develop into pre-teens and teenagers they begin their search to meet a need of identity formation and accomplishment as they explore and connect more with their own sense of individuality.

If this feels like a lot, well, it can be!  What’s a parent to do? At risk of oversimplifying, the answer is: simply pay attention. Notice patterns. One of the biggest risks of today’s fast-paced world is parenting that is “present but absent.” Our parent-minds venture toward the more obvious needs demanding our attention and begin to give less attention to the quieter, more subtle things our children still need.  As a parent, it may feel good to know our child can put himself to bed on his own, and we may miss his need for that special snuggling time from young childhood where the day ended with warmth and affection. While children don’t necessarily consciously notice this, they do have an inner way of adjusting their own volume to attempt to demand our attention when we don’t give it readily.  This can range in presentation from tantrums and yelling to self injury, depression, and other quiet, numbing behaviors.

At its root, in many forms, what our children want and need from us is connection. The same connection that keeps them safe and fed in the early years also builds their personal confidence and teaches them how to establish meaningful connections with others and within the world as they grow older. Giving them your loving attention beyond words, by establishing eye contact, being willing to sit at their level, and putting away distractions – even important ones – helps them to learn the skills necessary to build meaningful connections with you and with others.

In this way, over time, we learn how to respond to particular events and situations with awareness rather than being prone to simply react based on surface behavior. Take a moment to remind yourself of your child’s developmental capabilities in relationship to your expectations. Celebrate that your child is attempting to meet a need, and help him find a way to get that need met that is healthy, appropriate, and within the values of your family.