So many times, when a teenager does something emotional, some behavior that calls attention to themselves, such as starving themselves, carving up their skin, making themselves vomit or trying to kill themselves, people call it “a cry for help.” They say that the person is “just looking for attention.”
They say this as if the behavior – the starvation, the cutting, the anxiety, the depression, the suicide attempt – is somehow not serious.
When people say something is “a cry for help,” they say it as if it is not really serious. It’s just a cry, after all. And somehow, a cry is not cause for concern after the first year of life. And when someone is “just looking for attention,” the suggestion is that they do not deserve the attention they seek. That the very act of seeking attention is somehow inappropriate.
There is a pervasive idea in our society that our children’s cries when they are babies are signals that we should heed, but that as they age, their cries are something we can brush off as feeble, unnecessary and even annoying attempts for attention. When an infant cries, we respond with care, love, and attention. We give food, cuddles, and warmth. When a teenager cries out by abusing his or her body, we tend to respond with ignorance and avoidance.
Teenagers who attempt to damage their bodies are indeed crying out to us. They are crying out for love and attention. They are signaling a distress level that is deeply intense, and they are not aware of any other tools for gaining the love, attention, and affection they need.
Please, if your child is crying out for help and looking for attention, give it to him or her. Pay attention to the cries. Attend to your child with the love he or she needs.
Just because a child is over the age of two or three does not mean that we are no longer needed in their lives as someone who should lovingly respond to cries for help and provide attention.
This is a wonderful video in which Wentworth Miller discusses what it was like for him as a teenager: