Understanding Your Child’s Behaviors and Needs

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November 17, 2023

Understanding Children's Behaviors and Unmet Needs

Do you ever wonder why your kid is behaving a certain way? You worry they’re doing it for attention or that there’s something wrong. Or that you’ve failed at parenting!

Every behavior has an underlying need. The tricky part is that sometimes the need is hidden behind emotions and communication challenges (at every age!). It is our job to uncover the underlying driver of the negative behaviors so that we can help meet their needs in healthy ways.

Once kids have tools to understand and manage their needs, you’ll see more calm in your household!

First, Pause.

When your child shows undesirable behavior, first we pause.

We all know what those behaviors may look like, but here's a short list: yelling, hitting, slamming doors, tantrums, cursing or aggressive language.

The initial instinct may be to match the child's level of emotion with your own. But pause, take a deep breath, close your eyes or take a second to remember that there's something behind that behavior. And that while our child's feelings are on high alert, we won't be able to solve their needs. The first goal is to de-escalate.

Be a Detective

Every behavior presents an opportunity for learning and understanding. Often, these big feelings come from one of four things, which we remember with the abbreviation H.A.L.T: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.

Could any of these needs be contributing to their behavior?

Kids’ behaviors are the way they’re telling us they need something. But we want to replace negative behaviors with healthier, more productive ways of expression.

When we are able to recognize what the need is, we can think about what a healthy behavior might look like to get this need met.

Tackle Issues Together

Once you have identified the need driving your child's behavior, work together to find a solution. Problem-solving with your child empowers them and teaches them better ways to get their needs met. The more motivated they are, the more likely they will be to embrace the solution.

Does the child need access to a snack basket?

Hangry is real! Being hungry makes "little deals" seem like "big deals." Offer kids regular snacks every two or three hours, or have a special drawer or basket with easy snacks. The snacks can be store bought or fresh, just avoid putting too much processed sugar in there, which can make behaviors even harder. When the child is upset, it's not always the best time to offer a snack so use this as a preventative measure by having regularly-scheduled snacks or reminders to take a break.

How can you help the child feel heard and respected?

Anger often comes as a stand-in for a different big feeling like guilt, embarrassment or fear. Allow the child to express those feelings by using active listening. Active listening is when someone listens to understand, rather than fix, the situation and then validates the experience. Reflect back what they’re saying rather than adding to the conversation. It's okay for the child to dominate the conversation while you just show that you're listening. For example, “You sound angry. It feels unfair when your brother gets something you don’t. You wish you could do the same thing.” Accept their feelings, even if you disagree or their reactions seem out of proportion. When children feel heard, that could be all they need to regulate their emotions.

Are you giving your child enough attention during 15 crucial minutes each day?

All kids benefit from connection with their parent or caregiver throughout the day. Family rituals are a great way to do that! Learn why connection matters and how you can add it into your day. Even just making sure there’s focused connection three important times per day: the five minutes right when they get home from school, the five minutes right before bed, and the first five minutes when they wake up in the morning.

What can you do to allow your child more time for rest?

It’s easy to get in a cycle of going to bed late and waking up early for school. Collaborate with your child and discuss the weekly commitments. Can they find a way to get to bed even 10 minutes earlier (a slower routine allows for that connection time too!). Is there a social gathering they can skip? Or a way to decompress after school before going right into activities or homework?

Understanding Teens’ Behavior

Behavior challenges in teens are compounded with lots of emotions, social expectations and, of course, hormones. The underlying needs are often the same, but the behaviors are different.

In the first five years, the household is everything to the child. Then the kids go to school and as they get older, they look to friends to fulfill those needs. However, this does not mean we should distance ourselves as parents.

These are some questions we can use, especially with teens, to encourage reflection and problem solving:

•      Have you thought about what your options are?

•      What would you like to see happen?

•      What have you tried that didn't work?

•      Is there anything that might work or you want to try?

Your job is to teach them how to solve problems, a skill that will last a lifetime, build confidence and reduce anxiety.

Building a Life-Long Relationship

Remember: parenting is a skill, and you can improve that parenting skill!

“Throughout your child’s life you have to be a different kind of parent. A toddler’s needs are different than a middle schooler. It is imperative that parenting is not stagnant. You’re in a constant state of learning, evolving, and improving,” says Nicola Britton, Family Education Instructor with Any Baby Can’s Family Education Program.

Continue to build your relationship with your kids as they get into adolescence and teenage years. The better the relationship, the more likely they will be to cooperate and participate in our expectations.

Identifying the Need Behind Behaviors in Kids

Our role as parents is to help kids learn to get their needs met in healthy ways. To shift your approach as a parent, start by recognizing that behaviors are driven by underlying needs, then we can move from simply disciplining our children to guiding them towards being thriving adults. By actively engaging with our children, actively listening and problem-solving, we create an environment that supports their growth and development.

Embrace the role of a detective and together, let's help our children meet their needs in healthy and positive ways. Every parent can improve their skills! Check out our free parenting classes to work better with your family, kids and partners.


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