What to Know About Attention-Seeking Behavior

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Attention-seeking behavior is everywhere, and almost all of us have witnessed it at one time or another. You might be familiar with the friend who seems to way too much time on social media, constantly bragging with a seemingly endless need for personal validation. Or, you may have seen the child who has a meltdown while waiting in line at the grocery store, falling on the floor and kicking their legs.

The behaviors of people who seem to be seeking undue amounts of attention are apt to make us uncomfortable, irritated, and embarrassed. They are exactly the kinds of behaviors that seem poised to push our buttons. The question is: When is attention-seeking behavior something we can simply try to ignore, and when it is a problem that might need to be addressed in a more serious way?

Read on for what attention-seeking behavior is, what causes it, when it might be indicative of a serious mental health disorder, and how to cope when you or someone in your life is exhibiting this behavior.

What Is Attention-Seeking Behavior?

It is a human instinct to want to be noticed, taken seriously, and loved. So in a certain way, attention-seeking behaviors come from a place that most of us can understand. The problem is that when attention-seeking behaviors are motivated by a feeling of low self-esteem, jealousy, loneliness, or because of a psychiatric condition. In these instances, the behavior can come across as extreme or hysterical.

Moreover, attention-seeking behavior that happens frequently, is manipulative, passive-aggressive, or severe, can push people away, strain relationships, or ruin them altogether. At times, severe attention-seeking behavior—especially when caused by a mental health issue or a personality disorder—can make it difficult for someone to stay employed or be a functioning member of society.

What Does Attention-Seeking Behavior Look Like?

There are many ways that attention-seeking behaviors can present themselves. Sometimes a behavior is overt, such as when someone makes a confrontational comment. Sometimes the behaviors are more subtle, such as someone who seems to be constantly fishing for compliments.

Examples of Attention-Seeking Behavior

  • Posting excessively on social media, seeming to vie for as many “likes” and comments as possible
  • Making comments—both online and in-person—that seem calculated to make people feel uncomfortable or cross social boundaries
  • Bragging constantly about material wealth, physical appearances, and personal successes
  • Seeming to act as though everything that happens to you is a catastrophe, even when it is not
  • Engaging in provocative, promiscuous, or exhibitionistic behavior
  • Seeming to always want to be the center of attention
  • Making frequent self-deprecating comments in an effort to be validated
  • Having what might be described as a “dramatic” personality

What are the Underlying Causes of Attention-Seeking Behavior?

There are a couple of reasons why someone might be having attention-seeking behaviors. The most common reason why someone might exhibit these behaviors is that they are experiencing low-self esteem.

Low self-esteem often can look like someone who is down on themselves and who is struggling with depression. But sometimes low-self esteem or having a negative view of oneself can lead to aggressive, anti-social, attention-seeking, and even delinquent behaviors.

Other emotional states that might lead to attention-seeking behaviors include loneliness and jealousy. For example, people who are experiencing increasing loneliness as well as social anxiety might turn to social media for validation, and then end up exhibiting attention-seeking behavior in their online interactions with others.

Is Attention-Seeking Behavior Ever Normal?

Again, to some extent we are all wired to want attention and validation, and so it’s important to understand that some attention-seeking behavior can be thought of as an understandable need for validation, or a cry for help.

For example, most attention-seeking behaviors in children, especially young children, shouldn’t be thought of as unhealthy or manipulative. Some of these behaviors are developmentally appropriate, as children are often testing boundaries to understand what appropriate behavior looks like.

Other times, children who act out are really saying that they need help from their parents, or may need psychological help. Some attention-seeking behavior in children may be related to an impulse control or conduct control disorder, such as oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder.

Are There Mental Health Conditions Associated With This Behavior?

A person who has persistent, extreme, or disturbing attention-seeking behaviors might be experiencing a mental health disorder, or may be someone who has a personality disorder. Some possibilities include:

Histrionic Personality Disorder

Histrionic personality disorder is a personality disorder that’s part of a cluster of personality disorders called “dramatic personality disorders.” One of the primary features of histrionic personality disorder is attention-seeking behavior. In addition, someone who has this disorder may display some of the following characteristics:

  • A “dramatic” or theatrical personality
  • Always craves the spotlight and needs to be the center of attention
  • Makes impulsive decisions
  • Is fixated on physical appearance
  • Lacks empathy and doesn’t usually show care for others
  • Is moody and emotional
  • Gets uncomfortable when attention is shifted away from them
  • Has a short attention span and is easily bored
  • Needs constant stimulation and validation
  • May be unable to maintain meaningful relationships

Borderline Personality Disorder

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is another one of the “dramatic personality disorders” that is characterized by a need for attention and validation. Someone with BPD may be moody and experience low self-esteem. It can be difficult for them to control their behavior and maintain healthy relationships.

Other signs of BPD include:

  • A chronic fear of abandonment; feeling as though everyone is “out to get you.”
  • Unstable relationships—constantly changing perceptions of who you can trust, and who you can’t
  • Very low self-image and self-esteem
  • Impulsive and destructive behavior, including spending sprees, reckless sexual behavior, and unsafe driving
  • Self-harm and suicidal ideation
  • Intense bursts of anger and lashing out

Other Mental Health Disorders

There are several other behavioral and mental health disorders that have attention-seeking behavior as a characteristic. These include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Narcissistic personality disorder
  • ADHD
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Intermittent explosive disorder

How to Cope

If someone in your life is showing an uptick in attention-seeking behavior, feeling upset or turned off is a normal reaction. However, usually people who are exhibiting these behaviors are coming from a place of suffering or are experiencing a mental health disturbance.

So, if possible, the best way to talk to someone who is exhibiting these behaviors is to come from a place of compassion. Remember, often someone who seems to need constant attention is actually experiencing low self-worth.

Try to tell the person matter-of-factly what you are observing, and ask what you can do to help. Ask them what they might be struggling with, and tell them that they are loved and supported. Often, simply having someone in their life who cares is enough for the person to feel better and to decrease some of their attention-seeking behaviors.

If the person is experiencing depression, or may be struggling with something like bipolar disorder, having a friend to talk to might not be enough. In this case, helping your loved one understand that psychological help may be necessary, and helping them find it, is of utmost value.

Unfortunately, treating personality disorders is more complicated because these are considered lifelong disorders, and many people who have personality disorders are resistant to treatment. However, treatment—in the form of psychotherapy, medication, and lifestyle changes—can be very effective at managing a personality disorder.

If you are the person who is exhibiting attention-seeking behavior and you are wondering what to do, just realizing that something is amiss is a wonderful first step. Many people with this behavior are reluctant to admit they are acting inappropriately, and may not seek help.

Therapy or counseling is a great place to start if you are seeking help for this behavior. Importantly, if you are experiencing a bout of very low self-esteem or if you are experiencing self-harm or thoughts of suicide, this is an emergency situation, and you should seek immediate care.

If you or someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Most of us look at attention-seeking behavior in a negative light, but that’s because we are focused on the behavior rather than what is motivating the behavior. When looking at attention-seeking behavior through the right lens, we may realize that it’s often a call for help, or a manifestation of a mental health issue.

Either way, it can be helpful not to take the behavior too personally, and to try to take a more compassionate, helpful tone when interacting with someone who is exhibiting this behavior. That being said, if someone is unwilling to change their behavior, seek help for it, or if this behavior is harming you in some way, it’s not something you need to put up with. Your mental health is important too!

If you or a person in your life is showing signs of self-harm or suicidal ideation—even if it seems to be part of a need for extra attention—you should always take this seriously. Help is available and emergency care is warranted.

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10 Sources
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