Listening to What Children Want (page 2)
A big part of our experience as parents has to do with developing ways to address the deeply felt wants and needs of our children. We deal with wants and needs from our babies' earliest moments through their entry into young adulthood. We have to figure out what our children's real needs are, and what to do when they want things they don't need, or can't have. And we have to deal with our own feelings of sadness, frustration, or anger about how much they need and want. We are dedicated to making life as good as possible for them, but sooner or later we find it hard to be generous when our own needs for rest, reassurance, and resource aren't well met.
Whole books are written about the developmental needs of young children, so this little article won't try to point out the difference between needs and wants at a particular age or stage. Suffice it to say here that children need lots of undivided, warm attention from their parents and others around them. They need to be treated with respect. They need play, lots of room to experiment, and lots of positive response to who they are and what interesting experiments they do. They need information about what's going on around them, from the very beginning--their minds work beautifully, and from early infancy onward, they understand far more language and emotional context than we realize. Even when we meet their needs well, there are moments every single day when our children long for attention or for things we can't give them. When Mommy and Daddy can handle these moments of intense longing gently and with understanding, it makes a huge difference in a child's life.
Feelings of need sometimes persist after the needy moment has passed
Children acquire feelings of need--for attention, for food, for physical closeness, for reassurance that everything is all right--during moments when they are frightened or sad. These moments occur in every child's life, no matter how attentive the parents may be. An example of such a moment might be a baby who is feeling pain from teething, and is hungry. He takes the breast or bottle, only to find that it hurts, so the parents' efforts to help him can't rectify the entire situation. He nurses and cries, nurses and cries, and the parents feel sad or frustrated, wishing they had a magic answer.
Sometimes children experience a big need that isn't filled--the need to feel safe and close and cherished in the days right after birth, for example. When a baby has to be medically treated or separated from his parents for other reasons, he has feelings of need and often fear that aren't addressed by the not-so-personal care of the hospital staff. When baby finally gets back to his parents arms, his present needs are being met at last, but the feelings of need from that earlier, scary time may linger and make him jumpy, unable to sleep well, or given to long crying spells for no apparent reason.
Sometimes a child acquires a collection of feelings from incidents we adults consider uneventful, such as Daddy going to work in the morning, or Mommy abruptly leaving him to answer the phone or help with the older children's homework. In any case, these big and little experiences of need leave packets of feelings that a child then carries along with him until he can heal from the hurt, large or small.
"I need my Mommy" or "I want attention" or "I'm afraid to be more than an arm's length away from my Daddy when he's home" feelings can keep a child from exploring confidently, from making friends, and from noticing that he's safe with trusted relatives or caregivers. Sometimes such feelings hinder a child only under certain circumstances--when he's tired, or when lots of people are around, or when the parents are affectionate with each other. Sometimes such feelings operate most of the time, making it seem like the child is "shy" or "timid" or "selfish." The "feelings of need" signals can become so persistent that they govern the child's personality.
Children try to shed these leftover feelings
Somewhere deep inside themselves, 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 thus eliminate the hold the feeling has on them. Then they can function more logically and boldly, 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's trying to "work on" his feelings of need, and to do it, he needs you not to fix the situation!
For instance, one three-year-old girl I know was being weaned from her bottle, to which she was very attached. Her Mom knew that holding her and loving her well while she cried about wanting her bottle (and not wanting the cup of milk her mother offered) was a good way to help her daughter work through this attachment. After several long cries about desperately "needing" her bottle, the child was spending more time playing without her bottle hanging from her mouth, and her general confidence was growing. One day, she gave her Mommy her bottle, and asked her to put it high up on a shelf across the room. Mystified, her Mom did what she asked, and returned to her daughter, who climbed into her mother's lap and began to cry heartily about wanting her bottle. She had set up her own time to cry about wanting her bottle!
Often, children will squabble over who gets a desired toy, or who gets to sit on Daddy's lap, or who got the most ice cream in their bowl. These squabbles can expose deep feelings of need, all wrapped around issues that are not, in the big picture, vital to the child. If a child is trying to work through his feelings of need, you will notice that although you try to fix things to make them "fair" or "equal," your child can't relax and enjoy the improved situation. He becomes defensive, runs away with the toy or hoards it, or remains otherwise isolated or unhappy although the situation seems to be "fixed." The feelings of need are still operating strongly, and they will continue to make your child unreasonable.
Your attention is a powerful balm
To address these feelings of need, a good long-range policy for squabbles is to move in and offer love and attention to the child whose turn it isn't, or who can't have what or who he wants. Move in and make gentle contact. Let him know that this time, he needs to wait, or that he simply can't have what he longs for right now. Stay, listen to his feelings, and keep letting him know that he will get a turn, or that some other day, he can sit in the chair next to Daddy, or have more ice cream. "I'll help you wait" is a good reassurance to give, or "Sally will be finished with it sometime. I don't know when. But I'll help you wait." A child can use wanting a turn or wanting more of something as a valve to let out lots of stored, outdated longings that keep him from feeling fully pleased with you and with life. You can give warm eye contact and loving touch, knowing that you and your love are pouring into some needy places in his experience. His feelings will be strong. In fact, the sweeter you sound, the bigger his cry will become. The healing process is full-throated when it's going well!
When children are feeling needy, you are the balm that they need. Your attention is by far the most powerful remedy, and if they can cry or tantrum with your attention surrounding them, you can be sure that they are getting what they need most in the world. (When you can't be there, and it's you they are longing for, any adult who can listen and love them while they cry will soon be seen as their very best friend and confidant. Listening and love are what we need when we're aching for someone or something. It's great to get the person or thing you want, but when that's not possible, it's great to have someone who opens their arms to you, listens, and lets grief do its healing work.)
With the "I'll help you wait, and listen to your feelings" policy, every child in the family (or in the play group or nursery school) will have a chance to be helped with their leftover feelings of wanting as time goes by. Every child will have the chance to dissolve some big "frozen needs," that create defensiveness or aggression. Several good cries with a loving adult can help each child move toward playing flexibly and showing generosity to other children.
Reprinted with the permission of Hand in Hand Parenting. © 1997-2011 Hand in Hand