Behavior = Need

Behavior.  What can I say about preschoolers and their unpredictable behaviors?  A wise teacher told me, “Young children tell us what they’re feeling with their behaviors.”   Isn´t that true from the beginning of life? Babies sense distress – hunger, pain, wet, cold – they cry.  Their behavior (crying) tells parents, “Hey, something is wrong!  Fix it!”  Little ones are just the same, but now they have a vocabulary.  So why don’t they just tell you something is wrong?  Because.  They can’t.  They still don’t have the neuro development to figure out what is troubling them and verbalize it to you.   But if you learn to ‘read’ their behavior they are ‘telling you’ loud and clear.   For example, Corey age 4, asks you for a candy in the grocery store check-out.  (The back story: it is 5pm, Corey has shopped for 45 minutes pretty calmly, and he’s hungry.)  You say, “Not today.”  He pleads, “Please, please, please Mommy, I really want it.”  You say, “No means no.”  He starts crying, melts into a puddle by the cart.  Behavior.  Now what?  You tell him to stop, you [try to] pick him up off  the floor, he is melted and not able to stand up.  Your voice gets a bit sterner, “Stand up, please.” “Whaaaaaa, I want it.”  Mean while your ice cream is melting, and the grocery line is waiting.

I found this quote:  Beneath every behavior is a feeling.  And beneath each feeling is a need.  And when we meet that need rather than focus on the behavior, we begin to deal with the cause not the symptom.   Think about it…it makes real sense.  Need creates an emotion that drives a behavior to meet that need, in some abstract way.  Let’s check back in with Corey:  He was hungry, overstimulated (perhaps), bored (perhaps), was tempted by candy, and in need.  What was his need?  Of course, he needed food (perhaps not candy, but hey.) but what if his real need was for mom or dad to acknowledge him: stop the cart, kneel-down, and see what he needs.  “You want candy, I bet you are tired and hungry, and candy looks good…but now is not a good candy time.  Now is a good banana time.” Or, “You want candy, but now is not candy time.  Now is snack time, after supper is candy time.  Pick one to have after supper and let’s have a snack.”   You acknowledged his request, managed his hunger, and met his overall need.  What happened to the behavior?  Nine times out of 10, it is managed.

Too often as parents we are on a mission:  get [whatever] done and move to the next thing.   The fall-out of busy-ness is this dreaded behavior.  If we can see our way to spend a few precious moments to look beneath the behavior,  find the feeling, and name it.  Then trace it back to the underlying need and meet the need.  It sounds so simple.  Yet, time after time parents try to change behavior by talking, by telling children how to behave.  Sometimes, that works.  But when it doesn’t, and upsetting behavior is flowing like lava, find the need, take care of that, and look for smiles.

Dr. Susan Carter, PhD LP is a Registered Play Therapist – Supervisor, in private practice as a clinical child psychologist, play therapist, and parent consultant in Kalamazoo.