Need for attention

Humans are social beings, so it’s not surprising that we need the attention of others. Bowlby described the attachment that is already present in young children in his attachment theory. This would also have consequences in later life and in romantic relationships. But the need for attention can also get out of hand when someone can no longer live without another person, such as with dependent personality disorder. Here an overview is given of the need for attention, how it arose in the form of attachment, what consequences it can have (up to a dependent personality disorder) and advice is given on how to deal with it.


Bowlby’s attachment theory

Attachment according to attachment theory was first described by John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, around 1940-1950. According to him, attachment is something genetic and therefore present from birth. Babies show their need for the presence of another person (particularly the father or mother) by expressing their helplessness, for example by crying.

A young child develops a specific (and sometimes defining) relationship with the primary caregiver (in most cases this is the mother) at an early age. This relationship, or attachment, can have a major influence on the child’s development. Adhesion is fairly consistent, although this does not mean it is fixed. Someone who is securely attached can become insecurely attached due to circumstances, but also the other way around.

Attachment means having an emotional bond with another person, the attachment person. This is often based on a feeling of safety, security and protection. It can also be explained evolutionarily, since we need others to survive. This is certainly the case for young children, who are still very vulnerable and find it difficult to fend for themselves on their own. The attachment bond ensures that the mother has the need to continue to care for a child.

The Strange Situation Test and Ainsworth’s Four Types of Attachment

Later, Mary Ainsworth developed a test to determine different types of attachment. This was called the strange situation test, in which a child was temporarily left by one of the parents in a room with a stranger. It was then examined how the child reacted to this separation, how it reacted to the stranger and what the reaction was when the father or mother returned. A distinction was made between four attachment types:

  1. Avoidantly attached children: This applied to 20% of the children. These children ignore or avoid the parent upon return and behave relatively independently.
  2. Securely attached children: This applied to 60-70% of the children. These children are both curious and attached. They do not have much trouble being left alone, but they do seek out the parent when they return.
  3. Defensively attached children: This applied to 10% of the children. In contrast to avoidantly attached children, these children show a lot of attachment behavior, with little exploration. They react strongly when they are left alone and upon return they immediately cling to the parent.
  4. Disorganized attached children: This applied to 15% of the children. There is a lot of contradiction and the child sometimes does not know what to expect from the parent. Confusion occurs upon return, where the parent is sometimes approached, but the parent is then ,attacked, by hitting, for example.


Attachment in adults by Hazan and Shaver

Attachment extends beyond childhood and grows into adulthood. Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver made a distinction between four forms of attachment in adults:

  1. Dismissive-avoidant attachment: These people distance themselves from others and prefer not to have close relationships. To avoid rejection, they adopt a defensive attitude.
  2. Securely attached: These people tend to be positive about themselves and others and have fewer problems in their romantic relationships.
  3. Anxious-preoccupied attached: These people are often very dependent on others and believe mainly in others, less in themselves.
  4. Anxious-Avoidant: These people have mixed feelings when it comes to relationships. They are suspicious of others, but they do need attention. They often consider themselves unworthy of other people’s attention. This form of attachment is common for people who have previously been sexually abused or have experienced many losses.


Attention and desperation

Frequently asked questions within a relationship concern the question ,where are you?, or “where were you?”, or at the end of the relationship “give me another chance.” This indicates our need for attention and desperation not to be left behind. The fear of being left alone causes a feeling of powerlessness, because there is nothing you can do about it if the other person decides that it is over, or that you should no longer see each other ,for a while,. And that doesn’t make it much easier, because you want to hold the other person.

Someone who receives little or no attention, or at least the need for attention is not met (because some people simply have less need), is often more depressed and feels more desperate.


The need for others is something human (and animal) and present from birth, just as attachment is present from birth. There is even a part of our brain that deals with the primal need to be with others: the amygdala. The amygdala is mainly about emotions, and specifically about fears.

This need is made up of two components:

  1. It is a real need, necessary to move forward;
  2. It is a need that can only be fulfilled by others.


Fear of abandonment

Separation anxiety, or separation anxiety, is a condition common in children and adolescents. The anxiety is particularly characteristic of children between the ages of seven and nine and is a form of developmental disorder.

The fear of being left behind is in principle not a strange fear. Tension is often visible in children aged eighteen months to three years when one of the parents leaves the room. The same reaction can occur on a child’s first day of school. However, this fear usually disappears quickly as soon as attention is diverted, and after three years a child has learned to deal with being alone. However, this does not apply to every child.

If the fear does not disappear (with age or time), you may have separation anxiety. The fear can then express itself in the following ways :

  • Excessive tension when others leave the child, or when the child has to leave the house;
  • Excessive worry about losing significant others;
  • Excessive worry that unexpected events will lead to separation;
  • Refusal or reluctance to go to school;
  • Excessive fear of being alone;
  • Refusal or reluctance to go to sleep without a significant other nearby (for example, when staying with a boyfriend);
  • Nightmares about separation;
  • Physiological complaints, such as headache, nausea and stomach pain.

These complaints must last at least four weeks to be classified as a separation disorder (according to the DSM-IV) and occur before the age of 18. There must also be suffering (social or functional) and not be part of another disorder (for example schizophrenia).

And separation anxiety that is not properly dealt with can ultimately result in borderline personality disorder.

Dependent personality disorder

Dependent personality disorder (APD) is characterized by dependence on others. The amount of dependence required for this depends on other factors, such as the strength of mutual relationships within a culture. Within one culture it is more accepted to be strongly connected to each other and to do many things together than in another culture.

The dependence often manifests itself in the form of:

  • Difficulty making everyday decisions without advice from others;
  • Need for responsibility borne by others;
  • Difficulty expressing one’s own opinion (especially in the event of disagreements);
  • Difficulty in initiating affairs, lack of self-confidence;
  • Urgently in need of a relationship;
  • Lots of effort to get support and appreciation;
  • Discomfort when being alone;
  • Unrealistic fear of having to take care of oneself.

To receive a classification (according to the DSM-IV), at least five of the criteria must be present.

Advice against fear of being alone

If you have a (too) strong need for attention, there are several ways to deal with this or to make yourself stronger.

  1. Relax: Try to breathe calmly and deal with the stress that arises from the strong need for attention. For example, meditation can work, just like running or breathing techniques.
  2. Make yourself aware: If you are afraid of becoming alone, ask yourself how realistic it is that this will indeed happen. Check whether you are always the one who seeks contact, or whether it is sometimes the other person.
  3. Seek out contacts : Seek out others to fill the need. This must be done in an effective manner that does not create too strong a dependency.
  4. Practicing emotional mindfulness: Become aware of the feelings you experience and that you feel the strong need for others. Learn to deal with these feelings by understanding and accepting them.
  5. Give yourself space: In relation to mindfulness, it is important that you get in line with your emotions. Don’t hide behind your emotions, but allow them and take it seriously.