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#AskAlyson: Is My Child Sad or Just Seeking Attention?

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Dear Alyson,


My 8-year-old son has recently been saying things like “I wish I wasn’t sad all the time”, “it feels like I have a disease in my brain that makes me sad all the time” (gulp!!). He has a default disposition to look at what is not working vs. what is working.

He doesn’t however show any other signs of depression… he plays well with friends, exercises, does well at school, has energy, etc. So I’m not sure how to deal with the sad feelings.

I listen, thank him for sharing how he’s feeling, and we started a gratitude journal together. Sometimes I ask how might we look at this situation differently… what’s good about your day today, what was good about that play date etc., to try and model how to have a more positive outlook.

I’m feeling like it’s a balancing act – I absolutely want to take his words seriously, but at the same time I’m struggle with if the behaviour of saying “I’m sad” is attention seeking as when he says it, he gets lots and lots of mommy’s attention. My gut says it’s more the latter but also, I also don’t want to discount a mental health issue.




Dear Anonymous,


I think it’s wise to trust a gut feeling in these matters. If you get the sense he is using his sad mood to get your attention, he probably is. Let’s do some digging.


When we try to discover if a behavior’s goal is attention seeking, we ask “how does it make you feel? Annoyed, irritated or worried?” You have said this worries you. Next, we ask “what do you do when he acts this way?” If you remind, nag, or get verbally discussant, we then have two data points that can confirm its attention seeking. The last question to ask, is “does your conversation with him, calm him momentarily? Or make matters worse?”. If your reassurances and gratitude talks satisfy him, then we have a third confirmation that the behaviour is for attention.


Now, it could also be that he was born with a set temperament that is more melancholic or has a more glass-half-empty view. But, as Alfred Adler says, it’s not about the genetic cards you got dealt, it’s how you play your hand. If he genuinely is a bit more of a gloomy guy, he doesn’t have to keep you busy about it, or draw extra emphasis to it, in order to keep himself in the limelight.


Instead, find times when he is optimistic, happy, and engaging with you in prosocial ways, and be sure to let him know how much you enjoy his company when he is interacting with you in this manner. Think of it this way; whatever behavior you focus on, you’ll get more of. So, be empathetic, and of help him over his blues, but minimize the attention given. If you see others signs that indicate childhood depression, such as disruptions in sleep or his eating, or anxious behaviours like biting nails or tummy aches, then speak to your GP about the matter.


I hope this helps!

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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