Do you ever wonder what makes your children act out? I’m not talking here about the basic sin nature that is unfortunately alive and well in all of us to some extent or another. I am talking about basic needs which underlie so much of what causes children to act in ways which are not easy to bear and wear a mother thin by the end of a day.
I have read many books on parenting in the past eleven years — funny, I never read parenting books before I actually got pregnant. During the first year of parenting I had little time to even get in my daily shower let alone to read up on parenting. But, since that time, I’ve been a student. My own upbringing had more difficulty than blessing, so I didn’t walk away with a “I want to do just what my parents did” sort of attitude. I feel like I was flying blind for some years and I was soaking up all the advice, input and experiences I could from reliable sources. I had good friends whose children were older than mine and I spent hours gleaning wisdom from them when difficult situations arose in my own home.
One of the books which has blessed me more than any other is Help, I’m A Parent! by Dr. Bruce Narramore. This parenting book is chock-a-block full of practical advice and examples from Dr. Narramore’s own life as a parent as well as his expertise as a psychologist. A key concept which has blessed our family has been learning what needs underlie common behavioral problems. I want to share some key points here to help you think through your own parenting situations and perhaps give you a new window as you look at your children’s behaviors.
First of all, I want to say that looking at our children through the lens of behavior is not really the best way to view them. Our children are people. Our children are gifts. We can think of them as projects which “need improvement” or we can think of them as creations of God, in whom He delights and with whom we can enjoy relationship. When we look at our children through eyes of love and relationship, their behavior is not our central focus. That doesn’t change the fact that a bad tantrum or disrespect on their part isn’t going to potentially put a big damper on our day and on the atmosphere of the home!
In Help, I’m A Parent!, Dr. Narramore has a very helpful chart which talks about the needs of a child. Each child has four basic needs (outside of the innate needs we all have for food, water, air and shelter). The basic needs Dr. Narramore discusses are emotional needs — God given emotional needs. When a basic need isn’t met, there is a pain in the child’s heart and the child develops substitute behaviors to get that need met. Of course their substitute behavior never does meet the basic need fully. It is like someone who is starving for food settling for eating tree bark. The bark may keep them from dying, but it sure isn’t the first idea which God had as to what would meet our need for nutrition.
The four basic emotional needs of every child are: Love, Confidence, Worth and Constructive Activity.
When the need for love is not met, the child feels lonely, isolated or depressed. This child will then seek attention in the place of genuine affection. I’m sure you can follow the rabbit trail and see how this plays out in so many situations. I surely can reflect back on loveless moments and experiences in my own past and recall the pain I felt and the pain I attempted to cover by getting attention. Getting attention is not always done in loud ways. Instead of acting out, some children may try to be perfect so that people will approve of them and maybe, just maybe give them attention. Other children will decide that attention won’t come to them no matter what and they will turn inwards and decide not to engage socially at all. I can think about times when I didn’t give my own children the love they so needed. I easily see how they turn to their own version of attention seeking in these moments.
In order to avoid our children resorting to attention seeking behaviors, I have put into place some regular habits in my own mothering pattern. I hug my children regularly. I know this sounds simple, but it really is so easy to forget to hold and snuggle our children when life’s demands are flying at us. Touch is one big way to convey love to a child. Probably the hardest way to convey love as a parent and probably the most valued way to receive love by most children is the giving of TIME. Our children want us to stop and listen to them, to spend time playing with them — to invest one of our most valuable and limited assets in them. We need to stop our day and do what they feel is valuable — spend time doing what they want to do with us. I also tell my children positive things about them (compliments) and say loving words. When their tanks are filled, they seek our attention less and are more self-contained. Our children need our love. Our love reflects God’s love to them. As we love them, we are building the foundation of their faith in a loving Father in heaven.
I have learned from a sage friend of mine that I need to stop what I am doing and make the needs of my children a priority. She once said, “If I just stop and give them what they need, it is so much easier to get on with my agenda, but if I ignore them, the escalate until I give them what they need. It’s really simple and it doesn’t take long to give them what they need. It always feels like it will take so much, but it rarely does.”
Today was a prime example, my five-year-old wanted me to do something with him — anything! I was trying to finish my budgeting on the computer (which my husband had asked me to do for our family). My son kept climbing on me and making noise, bumping me and the keyboard. I was getting less and less done and then it dawned on me that he needed love and he needed constructive activity. So, I stopped what I was doing, I spent about ten minutes with him getting him set up with something fun — but, I engaged with him too. I didn’t just give him something to do so he would get out of my hair. I empathized with his need and put myself in his shoes. I imagined wanting my mom’s time and attention and I gave to him according to his need. When his tank was full (which didn’t take that long, did it?) I was able to leave him with the activity and come back to my computer and finish my budgeting in peace. Meeting needs will keep the home atmosphere in peace like nothing else. I could have viewed this as a time for “discipline,” but if needs are not met, it is not time to give a child a consequence, it is time to meet their unmet need and then see what behaviors remain to be addressed.
I hope this helps you think through parenting in your own home. In the my next post of this series, I will address the other three needs and ways to approach those to help your child thrive and grow to be a whole and healthy person.