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Listening to What Children Want (page 2)

By — Hand in Hand
Updated on Mar 17, 2011

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.

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