Attention, please!


Both in my work as a pediatric occupational therapist and in my personal life, the issue of attention surfaces daily.

I attend to all aspects of the children I work with as we engage in therapeutic activities. I attend to their physical status, such as muscle atrophy, spasticity,  joint alignment, sensorimotor responses, coordination and endurance. I attend to their emotional status through each activity–is the baby grimacing, averting her gaze or engaging and approaching with interest? Is the toddler afraid, uncomfortable, shy, angry, tired. . . or happily attempting the challenge I’m bringing? The environment gets my attention as well: Is the room too noisy, cold, hot, visually distracting? Does the environment support or hinder the child’s performance? I notice the posture and position of the child, the furnishings, lighting, sound level, scents, and features of the materials we’re working with. All of this, and more, either support or hinder a child’s success. My attention to these details can help the child attend to the activity that, in turn, helps them meet developmental goals.
The child lives in a family. The family also needs attention. When working with children who have special health care needs, I’ve yet to meet a family member who didn’t need some special attention. Families need help as they adjust to, cope with and grow through parenting their special child. If I come into a home to provide therapy for a child and fail to attend to the family’s status that day, I have missed an opportunity to not only help the family member, but also to better help their child. A family member who is overwhelmed, tired, lonely, afraid, or depressed is better able to connect with, enjoy and help their child when their personal concerns are addressed. A family member excited about their child’s new achievement enjoys having someone to share the good news with. If a parent feels uneasy with anything I’m doing with their child, their concerns merit my attention. If I ignore or slight their concerns, I’ve failed to respect the child’s greatest support system in life, the parent. If I give parents the attention they need, we can work as a team. The child benefits from this teamwork as much as we do.
At home, there is more to attend to. Each family member needs attention. The house, the yard, the dog, the laundry, the dishes, the food supply, the mail, the . . . what have I forgotten? . . . all need attention. I need attention too! I need to attend to balancing work, rest and play, tomake time to exercise, socialize, reflect and create (all things that rejuvenate me). Sometimes I get so caught up in noticing and attending to all the needs around me that I neglect my own needs. When self-neglect persists, it renders me incapable of helping others.
So, I’ve been thinking about this need for attention. The word attend finds its origin in the Latin attendere, which means to notice, to bend to. Sensory systems are designed to notice. Peripheral vision reacts to a flutter of movement: What was that? Notice. Tiny hairs respond to light touch with fight or flight reaction: Was that a bug on me? Notice. Auditory systems translate  sound wave vibrations: Was that my child’s cry? Notice. Bend to: Living things bend toward that which sustains life. Tender shoots grow through rocks and bend toward light. Grandparents bend to greet grandchildren, arms open wide. Lovers bend on one knee, to plead ‘be mine.’ Worshippers bend in adoration and appreciation for spirit revival. To attend, to notice, to bend to, is a natural and life-sustaining act. I would venture to guess that most of us feel emotionally nourished when someone notices and pays attention to us. Needing attention is not a fault, it is human.
Why, then, do we view the need for attention in a negative light? A child misbehaves in school. “Oh, she’s just doing that for attention,” the teacher slights. “Ignore her.” A husband feels lonely in the midst of marriage. He realizes his wife is busy, she has a career, the children, her fitness and hobbies, and her ailing mother to tend to. He shames himself for the way he feels and pushes the feeling away, ‘You’re being a baby, just suck it up!’ We act as if needing attention is a weakness, one that will go away if we ignore it.
Is the need for food and water a weakness? Is it a weakness to need shelter and safety? Of course not, these are basic needs. Do these needs go away if we ignore them? No, but rather, we use time and effort meeting our needs. It is much the same with the need for attention, but do we legitimize the need so we can devote energy to meet it? Do we find effective strategies to meet our need for attention in healthy ways? Do we notice and attend to our loved ones to help meet their need for attention in healthy ways?
The Apostle Paul expounded on the attributes of love, recorded in his first letter to the Corinthians. A passage read during marriage ceremonies, printed on wall plaques and recited from pulpits, this acclamation of love speaks to our deepest needs and challenges us toward more benevolence as we relate to others:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always hopes, always trusts, always perseveres. Love never fails.

I Corinthians 13:4-8

With all due respect to this marvelous description of love, I would add my observation: love attends. Love notices. Love bends toward. Love notices when a child acts out for attention, then makes a plan to meet the need without rewarding the poor attempt to gain it. Love finds a time to help the child realize her need and helps the child develop appropriate strategies to meet her need. Love realizes that to love with a life-long love, couples need to find ways to communicate their needs and help meet one another’s need for attention. Love realizes that before we can truly love our neighbor we have to learn to love ourselves, and that includes noticing and bending toward our own needs. Love notices. Love bends toward. Love attends.
What ways have you found to express and collaborate with others to meet your need for attention? What kind of attention best meets your needs? Do you experience a sense of being tended to spiritually with greater or lesser ease than in human relationships? Do you find it easier to meet your own need for attention or is it easier to look to others to do that for you?
Thanks for sharing!
© Joan T Warren

4 responses »

  1. Attending has many different definitions. Rogerian attending refer to how an individual communicates to somebody that they are listening to them and interested in what they are saying. Attending skills include; eye contact, nods, not moving around, being distracted, encouraging verbalizations; mirroring body postures and language; leaning forward, etc. Researchers estimate that about 80 percent of communication takes place non-verbally.

    A person should express genuine interest in the circumstances of others to and create an opportunity for them to share more with you. An empathetic response demonstrates that you had carefully attended to what he or she was saying and truly listened to the message.

    Attending also involves behaviors which reflect our paying full attention, in an accepting and supportive way, to others. An unconditional positive regard is an expression of caring and nurturance as well as acceptance. It includes conveying warmth through acceptance by responding to the other’s messages (verbal and nonverbal) with nonjudgmental or non-critical verbal & nonverbal reactions.


    • Al, since I’ve known you, you’ve always exhibited this kind of soft-spoken attention to whomever is speaking! I appreciate that about you! It’s true about non-verbal language telling on us, whether we’re truly attending or not. How many times I have let my eyes wander to the clock as someone talks to me (no!) or drifted off thinking more about what I wanted to say in response, before really listening! In professional training (both in my previous career in addictions recovery facilitation, and in my current career in OT), I experienced opportunities to be observed and evaluated on these non-verbal conflicting messages. How enlightening! Yet still I could be caught committing several of these errors daily I’m sure. How do you do it??? 😉


  2. I really enjoyed this post 🙂 It’s so true that we, as a culture make “needing attention” into a negative thing when in fact it’s perfectly natural. It’s so shaming and insulting when people belittle someone for seeking attention. You mentioned a child misbehaving as an example, but another one that comes to mind is in the case of self-harm. Self-harm is a huge problem right now and so many people just “write them off” and roll their eyes at it and say, “Oh, he/she just wants attention”. When we gloss over problems with the blanket statement about attention seeking, we fail to recognize bigger problems and end up doing more damage.


    • Deni, so true! I wonder if self-harm is always a need for attention, however secretive that need is? Sometimes we don’t even realize the subconscious needs that drive our behaviors. Maybe becoming more accepting of the need for attention in ourselves and others will help us (us, as in the human race) be more aware of our deeper, subconscious needs so we can do something practical about them! There’s always the question, how to address the need for attention without inadvertently reinforcing the negative behavior! Any tips you’ve found for this?


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