Attention must be paid

Monday, 22 November, 2010

What Every Parent Needs to Know

I keep promising you parenting posts and not delivering. I have this great one in draft form that I never seem to get to. But in the interim, let me tell you about this book I've been reading called What Every Parent Needs to Know by Margot Sutherland (Dorling Kindersley, London, 2006. Formerly titled The Science of Parenting. All page numbers are from this edition.) It was recommended to me by the lactation consultant who ran the breastfeeding class I attended at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. She said it was useful because it talked about what happens in children's brains. Although I ordered it pretty much immediately from The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping!), it took me a while to get to it. (Nick Hornby, in The Polysyllabic Spree, says that not reading all the books you bought last month is no reason not to buy more this month … topic for another time, I suppose …)

Being a Dorling Kindersley book, it had stacks of pictures, call out boxes and diagrams. That makes it really easy to read. The chapters aren't heaps long and are broken up with lots of headings. This is a good thing because the subject matter is quite dense, but Sutherland breaks it down really well. I'm still not 100 per cent sure that what she says is right, but she backs up everything with an impressive list of scientific studies, so I'm quite unqualified to comment on that score.

Basically, Sutherland's thesis is that the human brain is made up of three parts: the higher thinking brain (which distinguishes humans from animals), the mammalian brain and the reptilian brain. The latter is responsible for instinctual and primal behaviour like fight or flight. I forget what the mammalian brain does. Anyway, in subsequent chapters on things like sleep, discipline, behaviour and socialisation, she discusses how different styles of parenting affect a child's developing brain, and what you can do as a parent to encourage healthy brain development and therefore healthy emotional development.

Parts of the book can induce guilt in the newbie parent (for example, she talks about how letting a baby cry for too long means that the baby's brain gets flooded with chemicals like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which can kill brain cells), and parts of the book should be taken under advisement (for example, Sutherland advocates co-sleeping, which is a big SIDS no no). But overall, it's a really interesting read. I don't intend to write a full review of the book; instead, in this post, I want to pick up one thing that Sutherland talks about—something I've been thinking about for a while: recognition hunger vs. attention-seeking.

Ever since my activities online have increased, moving beyond blogging to social networking and microblogging (Facebook and Twitter), I've occasionally been lobbed with the charge that I am indulging in attention-seeking behaviour. Those that level the charge tend to come from a particular evangelical background. That they have this in common baffles me because they are bright people with good social skills and a decent grasp of human nature. (The reason for my bafflement will hopefully become clear later in this post.)

When I have been accused of attention-seeking behaviour (in the negative sense—that is, they think that I am deliberately behaving in ways to gain the attention of others, which, in their view, is selfish and narcissistic), it's caused me to stop and think about what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. It's also confused me because I don't see what I do online as particularly attention-seeking. I cannot say that whenever I blog/tweet/update my Facebook status that I always do so not desiring people's attention; rather, I think I am usually aware I'm doing it when I'm doing it, and that most of the time I don't. I've also felt a little sad without knowing why. It's only recently that I've worked out why I've felt that sadness.

The problem is my accusers fail to distinguish what Sutherland calls “recognition hunger”. Sutherland touches on the work of a psychologist named Eric Berne who identified three human “psychological hungers” we all have: stimulation, recognition and structure. Interestingly, she says, if one or more of these hungers remain unsatisfied over time, people become emotionally ill. In the long-term, they suffer from mental and physical poor health (p. 117). Here's Sutherland's definition:

Recognition hunger is the genetically programmed human need for attention, which means having an impact on someone in a way that makes them respond. We all have a fundamental psychological need to feel that we can have an impact on the world, because, “If I have an impact, I know that I exist.” (p. 118)

According to Sutherland, attention-seeking in and of itself is not a “bad” thing. In fact,

We are all attention-seeking, but children especially need lots of attention for the healthy development of their brains, and they are generally far more overt about their recognition needs than many adults. (p. 118)

This is why it puzzles me somewhat that people who accuse me of being “attention-seeking” do so as if it's a bad thing. The implication is that I should not want anyone's attention ever. But behaving like that denies my humanity—created in the image of God for relationship because God is in himself relationship (Trinity: three persons in one). Sutherland writes, “Whether we like it or not, we are all genetically programmed to need people” (p. 190).

But regarding the negative aspects of attention-seeking (which is what most people think of when they think of attention-seeking), what's interesting is that this negative attention-seeking behaviour often stems from unfulfilled recognition hunger:

If a child feels that good behaviour does not impact on his parent, he resorts to bad behaviour instead.

Bad behaviour that stems from recognition hunger comes from an inner scream of “Please don't ignore me”. If your child thinks the only way to get your attention is to be naughty or to scream or cry, then this is what he will do. Of course, for all children lovely attention is better than angry attention, but if angry attention is all that is available then this is what children will seek. (p. 118)

Now, Sutherland does suggest that ignoring bad attention-seeking behaviour is a good parenting strategy, but she also says that parents ought to recognise that their child's behaviour might be because they are not satisfying their child's recognition hunger positively, and so they need to work out how to do so creatively. Consider this call-out box on page 204:

Q. Isn't it wrong to reward attention-seeking behaviour?

There are some types of attention-seeking behaviour which need ignoring (such as kicking the chair leg, or talking about poo provocatively), and others which are totally unacceptable (like hurting someone) and need Time Out … The danger is applying discipline techniques indiscriminately. Some parents even label a baby's crying as attention-seeking. But crying and the types of behaviour described her are born out of a need for contact with you as his primary emotional regulator. Such behaviour is contact-seeking, not attention-seeking. It's as if the child is saying, “I need contact with you. I've lost that good feeling, and if I find you again I'll feel that all is well in my world.”

The danger of ignoring a child and his/her psychological hungers can lead to a terrible kind of neglect—a neglect that has consequences for later in life:

If we don't meet a child in his distress, he may learn that people don't get help with painful feelings.

He may believe that you just deal with painful feelings all by yourself. But in later life this “self-holding” all too often means “holding” with the help of alcohol, nicotine, or some neurotic or physical symptom. Research shows that children are making key decisions as to what to do with their painful feelings as young as the age of one. Emotional development is, in part, the ability to dare to feel the pain of what has happened to you, acknowledge it, and reflect on it, instead of cutting off from it. A child cannot do this without your help. (p. 205)

What does all this have to do with me? I worked out that the reason I get sad sometimes is that I suffer from unfulfilled recognition hunger. Occasionally the amount of positive attention I receive is not enough to sustain me. I can self-generate attention to a certain extent (in the sense of what Cary Tennis says about giving yourself what you lack), but some days that only gets me so far and I fall flat again.

In my opinion, one of the good things about social networking is that you do receive some positive and healthy attention from it that you may not otherwise get simply because you don't see these people all the time. However, as Dave pointed out once in a blog post I can't find at the moment, being online involves speaking up because no one can see whether or not you're there; it's what you say/type/tweet that draws attention to you, because if you don't speak, you're not there.

It makes me feel angry that these people—people I do like and respect—accuse me of attention-seeking without acknowledging my recognition hunger. It makes me angrier that their response to my so-called negative attention-seeking behaviour is to just ignore me (because that's what they think you do with “bad” behaviour). But I know I can't change them. (I can blog and try to persuade them to change their opinion about me but I don't think it's going to help …)

My problem now is knowing what to do—if anything—about the recognition hunger I feel that makes me depressed from time to time. In the final chapter of What Every Parent Needs to Know, Sutherland talks about how parents can look after themselves. She writes,

It's important to work out who are the people in your life who emotionally dysregulate you; in other words, who activate high levels of stress chemicals and send your body into a state of hyperarousal. People who commonly emotionally dysregulate other people are those who “talk at you” in lengthy monologues, or who are very anxious or agitated, or who offer little reciprocity in their interactions with you. They rarely, if ever, ask you how you are, or show any curiosity about your life, or they use you as their emotional regulator (or worse, as a therapist), but never show you any empathy for the problems in your life. (p. 262)

Conversely, she talks about finding people who do the opposite—who emotionally regulate you by doing things like reciprocating, asking how you are, listening to you, being curious about your life and interests, empathising with you, and so on. I'm lucky to have a few of those people in my life. But of course, motherhood changes things, so I don't see those people as often as I'd like. It means being a bit more intentional about seeing them when I can—though, of course, when you're already down, that can feel exhausting.

But anyway, I push on. And writing this post is part of that.

(One final note: unfulfilled recognition hunger is, I think, one of the reasons why single Christians in the church feel so lonely. On a number of occasions, I've heard single Christian women express their frustration at what happens in church—how single Christian men are wary of talking too much to them in case they are misconstrued as being interested; how married Christian men are wary of talking too much to them because they want to guard their relationship with their wives, and so because it's easier, just don't talk to them at all; how married Christian women—especially women with kids—are too tired or distracted to talk to them; which means single Christian women just end up talking to each other [if there are other single Christian women around], or to no one, and end up feeling really lonely. I think Tim Adeney's point in his Briefing article is right: the church has a lot to answer for in their failure to meet Christian singles in their emotional and relational need, and, given the direction in which Sydney is heading, demographically speaking, they need to get their act together and remedy this.)


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Great post.

I think this: “Such behaviour is contact-seeking, not attention-seeking. It’s as if the child is saying, “I need contact with you. I’ve lost that good feeling, and if I find you again I’ll feel that all is well in my world.”” is mainly where a lot of my down feelings have their root. More interesting stuff to mull over.

I also agree v much with the bit about singles in relation to all this.  Looking at the whole singleness thing from a recognition hunger point of view would be a fascinating thing to open up.

Also I think you’re great and I love you very much. Just thought I’d say. smile

I’ve read a lot a about parenting, but nothing that ever suggested applying those ideas of need to grown-ups: thanks for articulating this.

I remember saying something like that about silence being absence on social media, but I’m not sure when I blogged it either!

You touched on structure as a psychological hunger right? Does that mean having a routine? I think it’s very true. I need routine!

Posted by Elsie on 22 November, 2010 1:23 PM

If, Karen, you’re a member of Generation C, maybe your accusers are simply not up with the times…

Great ideas Karen! Makes a lot of sense. I find that I tend to apply parenting books to my own experience as a child - but this takes it to a whole new level smile

I do agree that these books need to be taken with a grain of salt (when applying to kids). They are often biased to an extreme.

eg: I would let my child cry if it means that they will eventually fall into a healthy sleep pattern.

Awww, thanks Bec! I love you too!

@Dave: Really? I always end up thinking about adults when I read the parenting stuff—how we’ve turned out the way we are; what forces are still at work, etc. For example, with the last quote about people who dysregulate/regulate you emotionally and what it does to the brain (in terms of cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline, opoiods, dopamine and oxytocin), I think it explains this post I wrote years ago.

Also, maybe you tweeted the thing about social media. Pity Twitter isn’t more searchable!

@Elsie: I could be wrong so don’t quote me on this, but I think that when Berne talked about structure, he was talking about boundaries. I’m sure routine is helpful for most people, but not everyone can operate with routine. Ben and I have never been able to stick to one for a significant period of time!

@Arthur: Yeah, you’re right; most of my accusers are Gen X ;P

Thanks for writing this Karen. Both informative and helpful (in the best sense of that vague word; I tried to find a suitable synonym but failed),

Posted by Seumas on 22 November, 2010 7:15 PM

Thanks for this post, Karen.  Very interesting re. the social media thing.  I live on a farm three hours from Perth, and since moving away, my frequent use of Facebook has been to notify some people that I’m still alive!  Some have seen it as attention-seeking, but these are people who do not understand what it’s like to be in isolation.  I’ve discovered many people are hopeless in keeping in touch, after all.

Dear gorgeous one, I promised I’d think about this and respond. And now I can’t sleep (clock currently 1.55am). So why not now?

First thing - I think attention seeking has to do with the nature of God. God is relational - he wants us to be in relationship with each other. As I put it in bible study last week, we are all basket threads in a basket - intertwoven and interlaced with each other.

The world, particularly the modern world I think, is isolating. We think that the internet connects us, but really I think the internet removes us from people. Look around a bus or a train - people are not talking to each other anymore. They are absorbed. One of the saddest sights I see is Iphones/other portable devices out with parents, while their children are desperate for their attention. The parent is distracted.

So, given that the internet actually in some senses serves to isolate us, I think that social media is a good remedy for that. It is not the best remedy - the best remedy is true connection with each other - in person - but it’s better than nothing.

Anyone who thinks otherwise I think should get their head read. I have some of my best conversations now via facebook instant messenger or gmail (as you know). I rarely want to talk to people on the phone - it feels too hard. But clicking when you see someone on line feels ok.

However, and this is a big however, of course we have elements of narcissism to us. There is a very strong tendency to believe in ourselves, our own thoughts, our own power and our tendency to ...

actually, I’m going to blog about this. I’m scared I’m going to lose my thoughts. check out http://www.to-live-is-christ.blogspot.com if you want to read the rest.

Posted by Georgina on 24 November, 2010 9:01 AM

Thanks for your post, I had a lot to say so I blogged about it: http://www.rachelcunliffe.com/2010/11/recognition-hunger-and-facebook-responsibility/

My response to George.


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