Scattered Minds (U.S.: Scattered)
Chapter Nineteen

Just Looking for Attention

The child who seeks constant attention is, of necessity, an unhappy child. He feels that unless he gets attention he is worthless, has no place. He seeks constant reassurance that he is important. Since he doubts this, no amount of reassurance will ever impress him.

—Rudolf Dreikurs M.D.

ADD children, all too often even after they have been diagnosed, suffer the preconceived notions and judgements of the adult world. Common to all of these is the assumption that the child’s actions, and in particular how the parent responds to them, are the responsibility of the child and that he could change them at will. In this chapter we look at five of the most damaging misconceptions applied to the ADD child.

Myth 1: The child is just looking for attention

There is no commoner knock on the ADD child than that he or she is “just looking for attention,” a phrase one hears from many an exasperated parent and teacher. “Yes,” I say. “That’s absolutely right. The child is looking for attention. Only there is no ‘just’ about it.”

Attention of the right kind is the child’s central need, the lack of it his or her central anxiety. Recognizing that transforms the meaning of the very name, attention deficit disorder. As politicians intent on further cutbacks in public services such as health care and education are forever reminding us, a deficit is incurred when one pays out more than one receives. The child with ADD has had to pay out more attention than he or she has received, which is precisely how he or she has incurred an attention deficit.

It may be perfectly true, as many parents point out, that their ADD child monopolizes their attention to such a degree that other children in the family come to feel neglected. The trouble is, by the time ADD behaviours are present the child is evoking much more negative than positive attention, a ratio which gets worse as he or she becomes older. It may seem paradoxical, but many children will go for negative attention rather than for no attention at all. They do not do this consciously, but they do it. A vicious cycle is initiated, one of many vicious cycles in the interactions of ADD children with the adult world. The child acts out, partly to gain attention. The adult responds with a punishing look, act, or statement which the child’s brain interprets as rejection. Her anxiety about being cut off from the adult is magnified, as is her desperation for attention. Only the adult can break this cycle. The key to doing so is learning to give the child not the attention he is asking for, but the attention he needs.

“Do not mistake a child for his symptom,” wrote the psychotherapist Erik Erikson. The attitude adults are best to adopt when it comes to dealing with the distressing behaviours of the ADD child is one of compassionate curiosity. The compassion is for the child who, beneath of the surface of what so often is seen only as obnoxious behaviour, is anxious and is hurting emotionally. The curiosity, if genuine and open-minded, leads us to consider exactly what message the child may be trying to communicate to us by a particular behaviour, even more unbeknownst to herself than to us.

Compassionate curiosity can help us break the coded language of attention-seeking. When the child is in one of her insatiable attention-hungry modes, the parent may become resentful and frustrated. She may feel trapped. She has already spent hours playing with the child, helping him clean his room, reading to him, being the audience for the child’s performances. She feels she has nothing left to give at that moment, yet still the child demands more. The parent points out to the child just how much attention has already been devoted to him. The child argues, the parent tries even harder to convince him. “You never want to play with me,” says the child, hurt and angry. How can we understand this? “I have an anxiety that you don’t want me around you,” the child is really saying, “and, when I am anxious I do not know how to be on my own.” One cannot successfully counter this unconscious stance by arguing with the child, by showing him how mistaken he is. The more we try to convince him the more he will be confirmed in yet another of his core beliefs, which is that nobody understands him and that, perhaps, no one wants to.

The look-at-me-ism of the ADD youngster is tiresome, insatiable, and self-defeating. It represents a voracious appetite that cannot be appeased even if it achieves its immediate objective. Whatever the child receives in the emotional relationship with the parent only after demanding it has, by definition, no capacity to satisfy. Just as with unconditional acceptance, the child should not have to work for attention either by destructive acts or by look-at-me-istic behaviours, or by “good boy, good girl” compliance. The hunger is eased by the parent seizing every possible opportunity to devote positive attention to the child precisely when the child has not demanded it. “We have to satiate the child with attention, stuff her full of it until it’s coming out her ears,” says developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld. Once the attention hunger is alleviated the “just-looking-for attention” behaviours will lessen. As the child develops greater security in the relationship and greater confidence in herself, the motive driving these behaviours gradually weakens.

The parent has to be able to say a kind but firm “no” whenever she or he is unable to meet the child’s insistent demands for attention. “I am just not up to doing that now,” one may tell the child. Or, “that does not work for me right now.” The statement is about the parent and does not express a judgement either about the child or about the particular activity in question. The operative word here is kindness. The problem is often not the parent’s legitimate refusal per se. It is the punishing irritability with which the message is delivered and with which the child’s frequently unpleasant expressions of disappointment are received.

The demand for attention, like all of the child’s demands, is a compensation for an unconscious emotional hunger. The parent may rightly deny some demand of the child for attention, or any other demand, such as for the candy bar at the supermarket, but there is no reason why the child should be expected to understand that decision, or to like it. The emotionally wounded child is struck by every refusal as by a rejection, even though no such rejection is intended by the parent. If now the parent allows his reaction to the child’s reaction to become cold and punishing, the child’s anxiety will have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many situations it is fit and proper for the parent not to give in to the child’s demands. The main thing is give one’s refusal without blaming or humiliating the child for the attention-seeking or for the demanding behaviour. If we anticipate the child’s reactions, understand their source, and do not shame the child for them, the child will eventually learn to tolerate refusal. When we endure children’s anger or frustration with compassion, they will often move on to the sadness of not having what they wish for, of having to give up what they think they need just then. At such moments one can move in and witness that sadness with an empathy that will make the child feel understood and supported, despite the refusal.

Finally, as we consider the child’s needs for attention, the parents’ lifestyle has to be carefully examined. Over and over again I am struck by just how insane can be the lives of many parents whose children have ADD. For the most part the craziness does not flow from the difficulties of raising these children, but the difficulties of parenting are multiplied many times over by the craziness.

In an earlier chapter I mentioned my own workaholism and breakneck pace of living around the time my children were small. I observe the similar patterns almost universally in the families I see for ADD assessment. One and often both of the parents may work long hours. Morning is rush, rush, rush, and the evening is no different. The parent comes home depleted and must now put full energy into meeting the physical and emotional needs of a child who, for a whole day, may have been deprived of parental contact. And, if these were not enough, parents have often taken up other committments–school committees, church bazaars, courses of various sorts, and so on. Such extracurricular activities magnify the parent’s level of preoccupation and stress, decreasing her/his patience with the child. Even during the time one devotes to the child the parent’s mind may be spinning with the events of the day and the chores yet to be done. Research shows that many parents spend virtually no more than five minutes, if that, of meaningful contact with their child. If that snippet of time is to grow, parents need to create some space around themselves, and in order to do so they may have to reconsider their lifestyle

Socioeconomic trends greatly exacerbate the attention-starvation of children. According to the Economic Policy Institute (U.S.), the average work year is now 158 hours longer than in it was three decades ago. “An extra month has been tacked on to what in 1969 was considered a full-time job!” writes the psychologist Edward L. Deci. “It’s extraordinary really.” In such a society it is only to be expected that many children would be looking for attention–looking for it, but not finding it.

Parents may need to change their lifestyles, sacrificing whatever activities that can be eliminated if these diminish their availability to their ADD child. This could mean saying no and disappointing friends or colleagues, and it may mean the giving up of projects and involvements close to one’s heart. There is a lot to be made up however, for their child has already incurred a deficit of attention. Too, a poorly self-regulated child can hardly learn to be calm in a hyperactive atmosphere. Narrowing one’s range of activities is wrenching for many of us, but in terms of our children’s development the rewards far outweigh the cost. It may be a non-negotiable condition for the healing of the child with attention deficit disorder.

Myth 2: The child is deliberately trying to annoy the adult

“He is out to get a rise out of me, I swear to God,” a father asserted of his ten-year old son. “I just know that’s what he is out to do.” Many parents find such motives to be a convincing explanation for their child’s distressing behaviours. On the face of it this is a seemingly reasonable conclusion to arrive at: given the intelligence of many ADD children and the number of times they have been told not to do this or that, it may seem like they are misbehaving knowingly and on purpose. Fortunately it’s wrong: these children are neither so cunning nor so malevolent. It is a mistake many of us commit in our relationships with others, whether children or spouses, acquaintances or strangers, to imagine that we know the intentions behind the actions of others. Some psychologists refer to this misbelief as “intentional thinking.”

Family therapist David Freeman once concluded a public lecture on intimacy and relationships by saying that if there was any one thing he hoped his audience would remember from his talk, it was the awareness that one does not know his or her spouse, his or her children. We may believe we have a perfect idea of why they act as they do, when in reality our beliefs reflect no more than our own anxieties. Whenever we ascribe a motive to the other person, as in “you are doing this because…”, we discard curiosity and immobilize compassion. The person who knows has nothing to learn, has given up on learning. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few,” said the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. It is good to be aware that we are beginners as we approach the ADD child.

In our interactions with children intentional thinking gets in the way of seeing the child for who he or she really is. Worse, the judgements we deliver upon our children become the self-judgements they will carry in their psyche into adult life. “I was a bad kid,” or “I was always trying to cause some trouble,” are frequently how adults with ADD recall themselves as children. The child sooner or later comes to see himself, as much as he may protest against it, through the negative opinion of the parent.

A dysfunctional search for attention underlies some of the behaviours of the ADD child, as we have just seen. Poor self-regulation, poor impulse control are also responsible for many behaviours. Unconscious shame or rage or anxiety are other motive forces. All of these are expressions of vulnerability and pain, not of bad intent. And even if, on a given occasion there is consciously harmful intent, we still need to maintain the spirit of compassionate curiosity. “Why would a child want to do harm?”, asked without prejudgement, is a question that can provide fertile ground for inquiry. “What happened to this child to make her so? What is happening now in her life to make her act it out?” There is much we can find out if we know that we don’t know.

Myth 3: The child purposefully manipulates the parent

In the category of intentional thinking is the belief that the child is manipulative or controlling. It’s worth a closer look because it is another commonly held misperception which visits a harsh judgement upon ADD children. In the first place, it is wrong. No child is by nature manipulative, no child is by nature controlling. Second, a child who does develop a propensity to manipulate or to control others is doing so out of weakness, not strength. Manipulation and the drive to control are fear responses based on unconscious anxieties. The truly strong person need not be so afraid that she has to direct and control every aspect of her environment. Given that children are always the weaker party in the relationship with the adult, it is natural for them to want to control at times. “I don’t know why we hold it against our child,” says psychologist Gordon Neufeld. “The most ridiculous thing we can say is that ‘My child is trying to manipulate me.’ It’s like saying the rain is wet. Of course children want to get their own way, and often they can do that only if they get the adult to go along with them.”

Some children rely on manipulation and control more than others. If we can remain curious, we can explore why a child would need to manipulate. To manipulate is to subtly and covertly influence others, by dishonest means if necessary, to achieve goals that would be unachievable if we were being honest. Powerful people may do this, but only when they are in a morally weak position, as when a government hopes to induce a population to support an unjustifiable war. With children the manipulation occurs only because the child has learned that openly expressing his or her needs will not necessarily bring an understanding and nurturing response. It occurs also because the emotionally wounded child may no longer be able to articulate his or her real needs. Lacking a completely secure sense of attachment, he or she tries to compensate by getting things that the adult world, quite rightly perhaps, does not want to give–as, for example, another expensive toy or a candy bar at an inappropriate time. No healing would come if the adult yielded to inappropriate demands or manipulative tactics, but no healing is possible either if the adult insists on seeing the child behaviour as the primary problem. Excessive manipulation, controlling, bossiness are simply the dysfunctional and self-defeating acquired characteristics of a sensitive and anxious child. Just as these qualities developed in interaction with the environment, so they can atrophy when the environment becomes understanding, nurturing, and supportive.

Myth 4: The ADD child’s behaviour causes the adult’s tension or anger

Anger, anxiety, despair: all normal human emotional states. They belong to each one of us, in proportions that reflect our individual life histories and temperaments. They are distressing states to experience. The temptation is to blame someone else whenever we feel them.

The parents of a child with ADD will often find themselves angry and upset. The parent tells the child to hurry: the child drags his feet, and may even say something insolent. The parent flies into a rage, and he imagines that his rage has been caused by the child’s behaviour. The child is chastised not for what he has done, but for the unpleasant feelings experienced by the parent. In reality, the child cannot cause the parent’s rage. He may have inadvertently triggered it, but he is responsible neither for the capacity for rage in the parent nor for the existence of the trigger he has set off. The parent acquired them before the child was born. The uncooperative behaviour may belong to the child, but the rage belongs to the parent. It is only one among many potential ways the parent could have responded to the child’s procrastination. In fact, when he later thinks about it he recognizes that his reaction was quite out of proportion to the stimulus. On another day, had he slept better perhaps, he would have responded quite differently–with non-hostile impatience, with mild annoyance, possibly even with humour.

Parents need to be aware of the wide range of their emotional responses, from the functional to what may be called the dysfunctional. They are then much less likely to insist that the child takes responsibility for how they feel, regardless of what the child may or may not have done. An enormous emotional burden is lifted off the child’s shoulders once the parent learns to acknowledge within himself the sources of his reactions to the child.

That other people do not cause our reactions is a difficult concept, so automatically have we come to associate our feelings with what someone else is doing. The confusion is only natural. When we were children other people did, in fact, cause us to feel this way or that, depending on how they treated us. To the extent that this still remains true for one as an adult, it reflects the failure of self-regulation to develop. A simple example is how one may react if someone accidentally steps on one’s foot, say, on a crowded bus. One may address that individual politely or in a fit of rage or, if one feels intimidated, one may not even say anything. Although the stimulus in each case is the same, the reaction depends not on the stimulus but on one’s particular state of mind. Even the same person will react differently to the same stimulus from one moment to the next, so the stimulus cannot be said to cause any one particular reaction. We cannot blame the trigger for the shotgun blast. A person can squeeze the trigger all he wants, but if there is no bullet there the gun will not fire.

The parent who learns to observe him/herself carefully will soon recognize that greatly complicating many situations is not what the child is doing as such, but the degree of anxiety which the child’s actions set off in the parent. When the child “misbehaves” the parent could react with curiosity and attempt to understand exactly what message is being acted out, which would make for a measured and much more effective parental response. When, instead, we as parents are flooded by anxiety we will move immediately to control the behaviour, which is to say, to control the child.

The ADD child will feel emotionally secure when he can be certain that parental love and acceptance are constant, regardless of how he behaves. Parents reacting from anxiety they are unaware of cannot provide that certainty. I have noticed in myself, for example, that when I am seized by anger or the impulse to withdraw–my particular expressions of deep anxiety–I cannot convey any sense of warm loving to my children. I am not even in touch with loving feelings at such times. My voice is cold, the tone forbidding and accusatory. It is quite another story when I see my own anxiety, knowing that it is really about me and not about the child. Then I am able to tolerate the feelings that arise in response to the child’s “misbehaviour”. It is not that I allow the child to believe that the behaviour in question is acceptable, only my response to the behaviour does not become an attack on the child.

Myth 5: Children with ADD are lazy

Beneath the surface of the so-called laziness ADD children are often berated for is also emotional pain. When we consider the world lazy, we realize that it does not explain anything. It is only a negative judgement one makes about another person who is unwilling to do what one wants them to do. The so-called lazy individual will be a whirlwind of energy and activity when faced with a task that arouses their interest and excitement. So the laziness and the procrastination are not immutable traits of a person, but expressions of his or her relationship with the world, beginning with the family of origin.

An exasperated couple related with what outrage and indignation their twelve-year old son would reject their demand that he contribute to the house work, for example by emptying the dishwasher. “I am always having to do everything,” he complained. The reality, of course, was that when it came to household duties the parents found it easier to wring water from a stone than any cooperation from their son. All they could do was to engage him in unwinnable verbal battles, or to give up. This child, too, was speaking in code language that could be deciphered by using the key of compassionate curiosity. “From early on I have had to work too hard enough on my relationship with you,” he was saying. “I am tired of doing that. I don’t want to do any more of the work that you should have been doing all along.” The solution came not from the parents trying to coerce their son into doing his share, or to bribe him, but from their work on reconnecting with him emotionally. As they did so, he spontaneously became more ready to help out. Eventually he hardly needed any reminders at all. What allowed the parents to achieve this is was their new-found ability to understand the code. Once they deciphered their son’s messages they became far more supportive of his needs and less threatened by his seeming indifference to responsibility.

Another aspect of what is seen as laziness is the child’s automatic resistance. Probably the most frustrating and dispiriting aspect of dealing with ADD children is the virtually routine negative and defiant refusal with which they greet almost any demand, expectation, or suggestion the parent puts forward. This resistance serves an important purpose and tells an important story. It, too, has meaning.