When it comes to parenting, why is it so clear when we’ve got it wrong, rather than when we’ve got it right? We see so many reactions, outbursts, and tantrums causing us to feel helpless, confused, and lost. First, let’s consider why these behaviors are such a big deal, and then we’ll look at what they tell us about our children.
When a child hits, screams, cries, or hides they are communicating with us. Actually, when an adult yells, scoffs, or goes silent they are communicating as well. All behavior is communication. Behavior from our child is not manipulation or defiance. It is their best attempt with their little brains and their little bodies to tell us something.
What children are telling us through behavior is what they are thinking and feeling:
A hit can say “Get away from me! I feel surprised by your interruption!”
A bite can say “My mouth is bothering me. I feel frustrated that this pain won’t go away!”
A tantrum can say “I can’t handle everything flooding through my world right now! I feel scared and overwhelmed by everything!”
Thoughts and feelings are also another layer of communication. They arise from needs getting met or going unmet. Unfortunately, we notice more of the behaviors that communicate unmet needs - these are louder, bigger, and more alarming. Once we choose to see all behavior as a communication of needs, we can get to the root of the behavior and help our child by meeting their needs. If you know you still need help tuning into your own needs before you can help your child, take a look at my Stress Buster Series mini course to get started.
3 Fundamental Needs of Children
All humans have core needs, like physical safety, health, social connection, joy, beauty, meaning, and purpose. These needs ebb and flow throughout our days and lives, and when they are getting met we are able to live our lives to the fullest. When some needs are not getting met we suffer and we often need support.
When babies enter the world their first and most critical need is for connection. A baby’s physical connection to her mother is literally a matter of survival. Babies are completely dependent on adult caregivers to receive food, warmth, and protection.The emotional connection is also critical for stimulation and brain development. Every interaction between adult and baby is creating the child’s sense of safety, trust, love, and security.
The need for connection doesn’t go away as babies grow into toddlers and children. The need actually expands into affection, acceptance, belonging, and respect. When these various types of connection are present for a child we see the joy, calm, ease, and curiosity that we imagine in the ideal picture of childhood.
When the need for connection is not getting met children will experience the hurt, loneliness, sadness, and worry that we as parents want to protect our children from. When these feelings come up we see our children hide, argue, yell, slam doors, cry, and whine. It is so counterintuitive, but now can you see how our children’s behavior that repels us can actually be a call for connection?
These undesirable behaviors are coming from our children when they are in a “tower of isolation” as Larry Cohen describes it in his book Playful Parenting. Children don’t have the capacity to express what they are needing and how they are feeling with words, so they express their experience through actions. They use actions that pull in our attention as a last resort to get connection. If you’ve ever ignored a behavior because you viewed it as “attention-seeking” it’s time to reframe. It’s not merely attention-seeking, it’s connection-seeking. Ignoring your child only increases the need for connection, and the behaviors will continue or they will escalate. It’s time to choose connection! We’ll get to how you do that in just a bit.
We know that babies come hardwired for connection, and that continues throughout life. We also know that “the lifelong development of autonomy is as innate to human nature as the drive to connect.” (Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, p. 135) We see this begin when children are about two years old: the separation of “me” from “you.” This development includes the ability to experience emotions, have preferences and opinions, and hold ideas that are different from the people around them. This separation from the parent and discovery of the self is both liberating and frightening for a child. This explains why toddlers swing from cuddly to obstinate and back again in a matter of seconds! They are experimenting with their new individualism and their desire for connection. Talk about a confusing time!
Autonomy is not limited to independence; it includes choice, freedom, and spontaneity. When these needs are fulfilled we see children thrive in confidence, pride, enthusiasm, and wonder. They are growing into their full potential as unique individuals, and it’s a rewarding experience. Many early education classrooms are designed to support a child’s independence with materials and routines that enable children to go at their own pace. Parents can learn a lot about small changes they can make within their homes to create more opportunities for independent exploration and personal responsibility.
When the need for autonomy goes unmet children fall into frustration, disappointment, impatience, and outrage. These feelings come out as physical aggression, insulting words, silent resignation, or a complete meltdown. Cohen summarizes this experience as the “tower of powerlessness.” Again, it seems counterintuitive that our child’s lashing out or battle for control is a symptom of their own absence of personal power. Their best attempt to communicate their need for autonomy comes out as hostile, threatening behavior. In peaceful parenting we choose to avoid punishing that call for help, and commit to supporting our children back into their power.
Play is the final need we’ll talk about today, and it’s an important need because it’s actually the bridge out of those towers and back to connection and autonomy. Play is a critical form of communication for children because it allows them to act out their feelings, and their desires without relying on the formal language to do so. Play IS their language.
What happens when children engage in play? Many things, and this is why unstructured, free play is an important part of your child’s daily life. During play children get to be in charge of their environment. They get to manipulate the things around them, give life to objects, and create fantasy worlds that exist beyond the boundaries of reality. They get to experiment, set limits, and create a space that is all their own.
Play is the key to unlock the towers of isolation and powerlessness.
Entering your child’s world through play is an effective and naturally enticing way to establish a caring connection. By choosing playfulness over punishment your child learns that you are on their side, you are there to support them, and most of all: they can trust you.
So what does being playful or joining your child in play actually look like? The first rule is that we adults stop taking everything personally. Seriously. When our child is spewing all the hurtful aggressive stuff our way, we need to catch that pang of insult and toss it out as a misunderstanding. Let me say that again: children do not push our buttons to hurt us. They push our buttons to get our full attention when all other strategies have failed. After we get over the hurdle that it’s not a personal attack, we need to gain more understanding of our child’s experience. Instead of trying to “teach them a lesson” we are aiming to teach them “big feelings are ok” and we’ll still be here through it all. Getting into their perspective is empathy, another skill you can learn and practice in my Stress Buster Series mini course.
Once you settle yourself and find your willingness to play, you can choose strategies that work best for your child. Recognizing their behavior as a call for connection enables you to turn things around by responding in a totally unexpected way. If they hurl an insulting name, you can pretend to be shocked that they revealed your secret codename. If they lock their door you can pass love notes under it and patiently await their interest in returning to you.
When you recognize their behavior as a plea for power, you can feign incompetence to give them a boost in confidence. This can be as simple as a game of tag where you nearly escape but always get caught, or playing catch and you just never get one, or anything where you blunder and stumble and your child comes out the winner. Yes, this may sound like an undignified way to play, and that’s the whole point! Your child wants to feel confident, capable, and in control of themselves. Seeing you, the adult, fumble all over yourself is the playful nudge that gets your child back into their zone.
A note about laughing and crying: both of these are ways that children instinctively release big emotions. You know those times where your child (and maybe even you) giggle at “inappropriate” moments, the moments that piss you off because you’re at your wit’s end and they think it’s so funny; laughter is also a way to release feelings of nervousness, fear, apprehension, or embarrassment. Again, don’t take it personally. Your child is not laughing at you. When the feelings are really big and laughter isn’t enough to release them we see the tears. Letting the laughter and tears flow is teaching your kids another important lesson: all feelings are accepted, and we need to let them flow.
Other options for play include rough house, fantasy or pretend, sports and games, storytelling, and role switching. Each of these types of play have their own benefits, and pose their own challenges for parents and children. Your willingness to “play around” and at least try different strategies will go a long way to enhance your relationship with your child. Many adults have their own blocks around play, and that makes perfect sense based on how play was embraced or shunned in their own childhood. Recognizing those potential blocks and doing your best to be adaptable and flexible will count for a lot.
The 4th and Ultimate Need: Safety
There is one underlying human need that often gets overlooked: safety. I do mean physical safety, especially when it comes to full-body play, but I also mean emotional safety, or from the child’s perspective a sense of complete safety.
Children depend on adults for survival. Anything that threatens the relationship gets interpreted as a threat to survival. When children are faced with this perceived threat they create defense mechanisms for their own inner protection. These defenses stay in place as they grow into adulthood and can eventually inhibit a full and thriving life.
How do we know if our children are building up emotional defenses? We slow down. We check in. We ask. We listen.
We all hope that our children are happy, resilient, confident little beings. But when they aren’t it’s actually not our job to “fix” what they are feeling or experiencing. Our job is to notice what they are feeling, and stay with them as they experience it. Our job is to stay in connection so we can help our children make sense of what is going on for them. By slowing down and tuning in we send the message that tough feelings will happen, and they’ll still be ok. They won’t get in trouble because they got mad. They won’t be left out because they are anxious. They won’t be ignored because they are afraid. Our children get to feel everything they feel, and they get unconditional love and acceptance from us. This is the reassurance that they are still safe.
Inevitably we will miss the mark. We’ll overlook an opportunity to connect. We’ll dismiss a chance to build confidence. We’ll pass on playfulness and fall into lecturing, or worse. These situations will happen and our kids will still be ok when we own these missed opportunities. We take responsibility for our words and actions or inaction. We give empathetic attention and authentic apologies. Every mistake is a chance to rebuild. The more we mess up and repair, the more our children see that they too get to mess up and move forward, growing and evolving into the amazing people we are raising them to be.
Yes, parenting is hard work. The reward is enjoying time with our children and feeling fulfilled as they grow into themselves. When we commit to providing our children with the connection, autonomy, and play that they need in a physically and emotionally safe environment, we are on the right path to a lifelong loving relationship.
Today is the perfect day to step onto the path of playful parenting. You don't have to go it alone. Let's make it happen, together.
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