By Richard O’Keef
Many parents get frustrated and angry over their children’s behavior. Children can be a real challenge with behaviors ranging from whining, teasing, tantrums, ignoring, sibling rivalry, to saying “no,” back-talking, being defiant, and worse, doing horrible things that seem cold and cruel; things that cause parents to think, “How could you do this to me?”
Consider this. Most unwanted behaviors are symptoms of a deeper issue. Misbehavior is not random. There is a reason for everything children do. Once we understand what drives their behavior, then we can understand how to change it.
All children are born with two emotional needs that must be met. These needs are wired into every child’s brain, although the child is not consciously aware of it. Every child craves to have these needs met. They can’t help but seek after them. If parents meet these needs in positive ways, misbehavior decreases and cooperation increases. Here are the two needs: 1) The need for a sense of belonging, and 2) The need for a sense of personal power.
Let’s look at the need to feel a sense of belonging. To a child, belonging means to feel important, noticed, included, accepted and loved. Each one yearns for his parent’s undivided attention and approval. When a child does not feel a sense of belonging, he feels ignored, left out and rejected, and a child cannot bear to feel that way. So even though a child is not consciously aware of it, he is constantly looking for ways to feel like he belongs.
If a child does not feel a sense of belonging, he will go after it on his own. He will discover that whining, teasing, acting helpless, interrupting, and other negative attention-getting behaviors will get the attention he requires.
A sense of personal power means to feel significant, empowered, and have the freedom to choose. That’s why children love to explore and experiment – and get into mischief. It’s how they start to become independent, and ultimately, isn’t that what we want them to become: independent, able to think for themselves and take care of themselves? That starts with the need for personal power.
If a child does not feel a sense of personal power, she will go after it, and the easiest way to feel personal power is to simply say “no” to a request or demand. When she discovers that refusing to obey brings a feeling of personal power, she will repeat that behavior. Choosing to obey is the one thing she has complete control over no matter what her age.
If we meet these two powerful needs in positive ways, children have no reason to meet these needs on their own, and behavior improves.
One of the most effective ways to meet these two emotional needs is to spend one-on-one time with each child. Here’s the ideal way to use this skill. Spend at least 15 minutes of uninterrupted time everyday with each of your children, doing what your child wants to do.
This gives them what they most desperately want from you: your complete attention. If they can get that, their negative attention-seeking behaviors are no longer needed.
Spending personal time with each child also helps meet their need to feel a sense of personal power. Personal power is the freedom to choose. When you allow the child to choose the activity, you reduce the child’s desire to meet that need in negative ways.
I asked my 5-year old grandson what he wanted just the two of us to do together. He wanted to go to the park. So we went. “Look at me, grandpa. Come over here, grandpa. Push me, grandpa.” He had my full attention with no competition from his siblings. At one point, he looked up and me and said, “I’m the boss of you, huh, grandpa.” I had to smile because I knew I was meeting his two emotional needs.
Parents in my parenting workshops have reported that after only two or three days of spending one-on-one time with their children, they noticed a positive change in their children’s behavior. I think you will too.
Richard O’Keef is a long-time resident of the Westpointe community, father of six children, and has 18 grandchildren. He is the author of 3-Step Parenting – How to Replace Misbehavior with Cooperation (Available on Amazon). He teaches parenting workshops in Salt Lake City and can be reached at .