Updated: Apr 14, 2022
Thinking of your child's behaviour as connection-seeking rather than attention-seeking.
The role of parent/caregiver comes together with the heavy responsibility of raising a child that will succeed, be liked by their peers and be resilient when confronted with the harder parts of life. This leads to us having to decide on our parenting approach and working together with our village to carry it out. I personally found deciding upon a disciplinary approach incredibly hard and it is something that is ever-evolving. We have tried everything from sitting in timeout to giving choices, to taking away toys. Nothing seemed to really have an impact until I came across the idea of serve and return and coupled this with the science behind how a child's brain works.
Serve and return works like a game of tennis between child and parent/caregiver. The child ‘serves’ by reaching out for connection through eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, babbling, or crying. A responsive caregiver will ‘return the serve’ by engaging in conversation, playing a game, offering food or comfort.
We naturally fall into the ‘serve and return’ process from the day our child is born, attending to every cry and niggle with food, cuddles, and nappy changes. These interactions shape the architecture of their brains, laying down and strengthening neural pathways that support the development of communication and social skills. By connecting and responding to a baby’s needs, caregivers provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences. This forms a secure foundation and sets the path to raising self-confident and resilient children.
As our children grow and our lives become busier and more stressful, we seem to forget about the importance of ‘serve and return’. Reflection on my own parenting experience has led me to believe this is because as soon as they are old enough to communicate with us in full sentences, change their clothes and take themselves off to the toilet, we unconsciously decide they can meet all their other needs, including emotional self-regulation. We fail to acknowledge that as they grow older their means of ‘serve’ changes from cute babbles and toothless smiles to tantrums, clinginess, whining and defiance. After a frustrating day, we decide they must be doing this to annoy us, to push our buttons and label it as attention-seeking.
What if I told you that this kind of purposeful manipulation is not even possible given the biological make-up of your child’s brain. What if I asked you to replace the words attention-seeking with connection-seeking? For me, this was life-changing in terms of how I parent, well once I got over my ‘mom guilt’ of course.
Let’s take a look at how your child’s brain works. Here’s a quick terminology breakdown to make things simpler:
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) – This is the part of the brain that is often referred to as ‘The Control Centre’ of the brain since it controls logic, behaviour and decision-making.
The Hippocampus – This is where we store all our memories, think of it as the scrapbook or photo album of our brain.
The amygdala – This part of the brain serves to regulate emotions, such as fear, anger, anxiety, and aggression and elicit the appropriate fight, flight, or freeze response.
I am going to ask you to think back to the last time you watched Ice Age with your little one, yes, back to the era of the caveman. Back then we encountered threats such as food and water shortages, attacks from riveling clans and of course ferocious flesh-eating carnivores. When we encountered such a threat our brain would stop all oxygen flow to the unnecessary parts of our brain (the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex) and send it all through to the amygdala and the parts of the body we needed to fight or flee from danger. The parts of the brain responsible for logic and memory are put to sleep and we operate solely in a primal manner.
Since then, the world has progressed so much so that our threats are no longer imposed by flesh-eating animals but are rather more psychological. An example of such is the pressures and stress of modern life, work, and relationships. The amygdala is not very sophisticated and cannot tell the difference between a real threat (being chased by a woolly mammoth) and a perceived threat (the stress of being reprimanded at school or work) and still elicits the same fight, flight or freeze response.
As adults our fight, flight or freeze response translates to anxiety attacks, rage, depression etc. Luckily, we have a fully formed and functioning prefrontal cortex, which is accessed using various stress coping mechanisms such as breathing, allowing us to process stress and regulate it effectively.
The prefrontal cortex only fully develops at the age of 25. This means that our children do not have access to a fully functional control centre to help them regulate their emotions. This is why, in moments of extreme stress, they turn on what we deem ‘attention-seeking behaviours’ to create a connection with you and, often without saying it, ask for help to regulate the overwhelming emotions they are feeling.
So, what does this mean for parents and caregivers? It means we must re-evaluate how we respond to our children’s request for connection when they are struggling with difficult feelings and emotions, how we address a tantrum, a hitting fit, whining or crying. For far too long our go-to has been punishment or being excluded in the form of being sent to time out. This is mostly because we didn’t know any better and because of how we were raised. We are all here doing the best we possibly can with the knowledge we have, in a moment when we are struggling with regulating our own emotions.
At the end of the day our children have the same needs and wants as we do. We want to feel heard and feel respected. Imagine this scenario, you have just come home from a terrible day at work, you are upset, angry and in a bad emotional space. You go to your partner wanting to talk it over, get a hug and emotional support. Instead of giving this he/she responds with ‘you are just trying to irritate me with this foul mood of yours, go to your room and sit by yourself until you can be more pleasant.’ How would this make you feel? I for one would be utterly heartbroken and feel completely alone and unsupported in my horrible emotional state. We would never want this for ourselves so why do we want this for our children? When their mood is unpleasant, we choose to rather send them to their room or make them sit on their own in a corner while they struggle with difficult emotions, when all they really need is our help and guidance.
The next time your child serves you with connection-seeking behaviours take a moment to stop, breathe and remember they are using the only means they know to create a connection with you to get assistance in regulating themselves. You can do this by:
Teaching them breathing techniques to calm the amygdala down and return blood flow to the parts of the brain that will help them listen to and digest rational reasoning.
Getting down to their level (no laptops, phones or other distracting devices in hand) and repeating their emotion back to them so they feel seen and understood. This could look something like ‘I see you are very upset about not being able to stay and play, it is very frustrating, isn’t it? However, we need to go home now so we can be prepared for another fun day at school tomorrow.’
Offering the options to accept the situation as it is, leave the situation altogether or figure out a way to change the situation together that works for everyone.
Remember, this kind of parenting doesn’t happen overnight, and we may mess up and return to our unhealthier tactics when our own stresses are high. So, be gentle with yourself, take it one connection-seeking behaviour at a time and carry on doing the best you can, because that’s what we’re all trying to do...