Almost every parent has heard their child say “I want it now!” ~ most of us multiple times! But, as Patty Wipfler explains, this is a normal behaviour and it is our job as their parents to help them through the impulsive urgencies they feel.
A big part of our job as parents is to understand our children’s deeply felt wants and needs. What do they really need? What makes sense for a loving parent to do when a child wants things he doesn’t need or can’t have? And where do we go with our own feelings of sadness, frustration, or anger about how much our children need and want?
We want to make life good for them, but it is hard to be generous when our own needs for rest, reassurance, and resource aren’t well met.
This article will put aside developmental considerations, and focus on the abiding needs of children.
We know that our children need lots of undivided, warm attention from their parents and others around them.
They need to be treated with respect. They need us to help them understand what’s going on around them. And they need play, affection, permission to experiment, and as much positive regard as we can furnish.
Even when we meet our children’s needs well, there are moments every single day when they long for things we can’t give them, right at the moment they feel the need.
When we parents can handle these moments of intense longing gently and with understanding, it makes a huge difference in a child’s life.
So it is important firstly to understand that our children do have these needs and how we can best be there to support them through the difficult moments
Our world will become a very different place when we parents have spread the word about staying close and affectionate while our children cry and tantrum about the things they can’t immediately have.
FEELINGS OF NEED CAN PERSIST AFTER THE NEED OF MOMENT HAS PASSED.
Children have intense feelings of need—for attention, for protection, for food, for affection, for reassurance—during moments when they feel challenged. And sometimes, those feelings stick inside their emotional memory, long past that difficult moment.
For example, consider a baby who is teething, and is hungry. He tries to suckle, but it hurts and he stops. He tries again and cries, his frustration rising. If his mother becomes upset, his own upset is further magnified. He has a need, and it can’t be met without pain.
So even after he’s done with teething, he may feel agitated upon breastfeeding. It’s an emotional memory that upsets him, not current pain.
Another example is an infant who has had intensive medical treatment early in her life. When she finally gets back into her parents’ arms, her current needs for affection can be met at last. But the feelings of need from that frightening time may linger, often making her jumpy or given to long crying spells when she’s held close. The close contact triggers her memories of those times she felt so needy.
Sometimes feelings of need—“I need my Daddy!” or “I have to have my teddy!” hinder a child only under certain circumstances—when he’s tired, when he’s among lots of people, or when his parents are affectionate with each other.
And there are children whose feelings of need are activated most of the time, making them seem shy, demanding or selfish. The signals that a child gives, indicating that he’s got leftover feelings of need, can become so persistent that they govern his personality.
CHILDREN TRY TO SHED THESE LEFT OVER FEELINGS.
Somewhere deep inside, children know that these feelings need to be addressed. It is not yet commonly understood that children will instinctively set up situations in which it’s impossible for you to meet their stated ‘needs’. They do this so that they can feel the need fully, show you how they hurt, cry or tantrum about it, and release the hold the feeling has on them. Then they can function more reasonably and confidently, and feel much better about themselves.
This is why your toddler may throw down a toy from his high chair, whine to get it back, and when you give it back, look unhappy and throw it down again. He may be trying to ‘work on’ wanting! Children’s instincts on how to set up a good cry, so they can unload those outdated feelings of want that don’t really fit the present situation, are remarkable without giving advice. After all, we parents want something we long for deeply—we want our children never to have to feel hurt. And we can’t have that, hard as we might try.
As we address our own big backlog of longings, in the presence of another parent who understands what it’s like, we’re in better shape to take our children’s upsets in stride. We’re better able to set needed limits with caring, rather than guilt or irritation. We can see that, with our listening, they bounce back from disappointment and even make strides forward.
LISTENING TO LONGING IS A MUCH NEEDED SKILL.
Our world will become a very different place when we parents have spread the word about staying close and affectionate while our children cry and tantrum about the things they can’t immediately have. Children will have the chance to unload bad feelings, and in the process, to absorb their parents’ deeply satisfying attention. The empty and frightened spots inside them will have a chance to heal.
We are citizens in a world filled with people whose feelings of desperation need to be heard and healed, while justice for all is built. Offering love and listening to children while they wait for what they want is an important step in preparing our children for a world in which a good future for all depends on cooperation and connection.
LISTENING AND LOVE ARE WHAT WE NEED WHEN WE’RE ACHING FOR SOMEONE OR SOMETHING.
HERE’S HOW IT CAN WORK:
When I picked up my 5-year-old son from school today, he was in a great mood. We talked about his day and he told me that it was “good.” But when I brought up the subject of eating lunch with one of his friends, he told me that his friend no longer wanted to be friends, but was kidding when he said it.
I told him I was glad that his friend was kidding because it appears that they are close and love each other, but I noticed that for the rest of the ride home, he was silent. When we pulled up to the house, I began getting out of the car, but he wouldn’t move. “I’m not getting out until you let me eat the candy cane you have in the front.”
He pointed to a small candy cane that I had said he could eat after dinner. “I want that now,” he reiterated. I looked at his serious face and said simply, “You can have this after dinner, honey.” His voice got louder, “No! I want it now!”
Considering that he is generally extremely agreeable, especially with such a logical arrangement, I began to realise that this was not about the candy cane.
“No, honey, we will have it after dinner, and we are going to get out of the car to go upstairs now,” I said, warmly. He began to scream that he was not leaving. I made my way to the back of the car to be with him. “We are getting out now,” I said as I gently touched his back, “Come with Mama.”
He began to cry, resisting me. I didn’t force him. “What happened, honey, did you have a bad day?” I asked. He paused to tell me that he didn’t think his friend was kidding about not being his friend, and that his friend had been excluding him for a while. He continued to cry. I listened. Eventually, he seemed lighter and he got out of the car and followed me upstairs. He was his cooperative self again. It was clear that the candy cane was a way for him to access his feelings. He knew I would say no, he knew it would be the perfect excuse to get angry. I’m glad he was able to release his feelings.
–a single mother in Berkeley, California
Patty Wipfler brings parents support and tools that foster connection, cooperation, and understanding. Her approach is called Parenting by Connection. For more information on her approach, go toHand in Hand Parenting.