Monday, October 4, 2010

Identifying needs that need meeting

I received a comment on facebook suggesting that I write more about identifying our children's needs, particularly how to distinguish surface needs from deeper needs that may be harder to identify. The commenter suggested that sometimes meeting the surface need will exacerbate the deeper need. Here are my thoughts after reflecting on her comments:

How do we know what our children's needs are? When a child is out of sorts or there is disequilibrium in our family how do we discover the root cause, not just the easy answer. How do we know if what our child wants is a new toy or if their focus on shopping is really a way to spend more time with mom or dad? Does she really need new clothes or is she trying to make herself feel better after someone was critical of her body or her sense of style. Is he lashing out at you because he's tired and you said the wrong thing, or is the anger stemming from his frustration at not mastering a new trick on his skateboard? And in the process of figuring out which needs to meet how do we remain respectful of the person our child is? Sometimes in an effort to identify our children's needs we dismiss their experience or who they are, "He's just hungry, he'll be fine when he's had something to eat, that's just how he is." "Oh it's no big deal, she just acts this way when she's tired." "She's missing her friend, but she'll get over it."

And when we are trying to meet our children's needs, what about the times when we are absolutely sure we know what they need better than they do? What should we do then? Our child wakes up in the morning and is irritable and out of sorts. We know that our child is suffering from low blood sugar, having lived through this pattern ourselves and having seen it before in our child. We suggest that she eat something, but she resists. We keep offering different foods, pushing her to eat, telling her that we know that she will feel better (and be a whole lot nicer to be around) if she would just eat something. Our child becomes increasingly irrational, we become increasingly frustrated, and our child refuses to eat.

What about when your child has been invited to play with a friend but she says she doesn't want to play. You are sure that if your child got up off the couch and went to the friend's house she would have fun. You are absolutely certain that your child needs to socialize more and that she doesn't need to play computer games as much as she does.

It is easy, as parents, to think that we have a greater understanding of what our children need and that part of meeting our children's needs is sometimes taking control of the situation and making them do something for their own good. What happens when we do that? In our great parental wisdom we know that our child needs to get out of the house more. We tell our child that she must go play at the friend's house. She goes, but she is not happy about it and that affects her ability to have fun. In fact, she does not have fun, she ends up having a terrible time full of conflict, and comes home saying, "See, I told you I wouldn't have fun." The next time she is invited to play with a friend, and you start to push her to go, she remembers the conflict the last time you made her go and she has even less desire to play.

Some of you are going to point to the times it has worked for you, you pushed your child to go play and she had fun and see, you were right. Why do you need to be right? Would the world have ended if your child sat on the couch for a few more days before she decided that she was ready to go play with a friend? What does your child learn when you are right and she is wrong? She learns that her own judgment cannot be trusted and that she needs someone else to tell her what to do. She learns to stop listening to her inner wisdom.

Keeping my mouth shut is a huge challenge for me as a parent. I know what they need, I have the answer, I can fix this, I want to tell them what they should do because I love them and want them to be happy. Yes, sometimes my girls come to me wanting my help and asking me what I think and we talk things through together, however there are times when they wish I would shut up already. Different children want different amounts of parental input. Some children really want to be left alone to figure it out on their own. As painful as it can be to watch them struggle when we have an easy answer, we need to respect their desire to do it themselves. On the other hand, some children want us to provide the answers all the time, to come up with the solution, to do it for them. For those children we need to be willing to do more than we think we should. They will learn, they will get to the point of doing it on their own. They are watching us model those behaviors and activities. They know if we are helping then with unconditional love and respect or if we are grumbling about having to do it for them when they need to learn to do it on their own. We can choose to connect with our children who want more support through love and nurture or disconnect by being scornful and irritable.

When we give our children the room to explore their needs in a safe and supportive relationship they learn to trust themselves, their judgment, their inner wisdom. They learn from first hand experience that eating too much candy on an empty stomach makes them feel icky, or perhaps they learn that they have an iron gut and they can eat anything they want with no ill effects. This does not mean that we set them up for negative experiences so that they learn the lesson. We do not give them a huge bag of candy and tell them to have at it and then say "see I told you so" when they feel sick. We are right there with them, still meeting their needs when they ask or if they are receptive. We provide them with information about the possible outcomes of a choice or help support them in doing research to learn more, if they want the information. If they want our input and involvement we help them process their experiences, or share our experiences in a conversational manner, "When I first get up in the morning I can feel out of sorts until after I eat something, do you feel that way too?" It means making peppermint tea for their tummy if they feel sick from eating something that caused a negative reaction in their body and bringing it to them with empathy, not a lecture or guilt trip.

How do we identify what our children need? We are actively involved in their lives and have a strong connection with them so that we are more likely to understand what they need or they are more likely to ask for what they need. We trust them to know what they need. We trust their methods of learning new things, remembering that making mistakes is a great way to learn and that many people learn best through experience. We keep trying. If we try to meet a need and end up being rejected by our child or feeling like we only made things worse we learn from that and try again. Sometimes that means backing off and giving our child room to experience things on his own. Sometimes we may know the answer, but that is our answer, and our children need the space to find their own. Meeting our children's needs is not about us as parents, our wisdom, or even about always getting it right. We do not have to figure this out on our own. We have partners in our children and together we can figure out what their needs are and how they can be met.


  1. What a lovely post. You've been hiding in my closet observing my daughter. I've always said that kids communicate in code, both verbal and behavioral. And that they can see when they have made a mistake, and don't need it pointed out to them.

    Biting my tongue continues to be one of my biggest challenges too. I'm never sorry for saying too little. But too much...oh yes.

    Thanks for writing.

  2. Yes, lovely.
    You were talking about me in there somewhere :)

  3. No, she was definitely talking about ME Stephanie! :) It is so easy to assume what is wrong, to attempt to minimise what we perceive to be the reality of their situaion, or to jump too quickly to try to fix their problem, without really listening or validating what is going on for them personally. I have become much more aware of this in recent years and find it really disrespectful when I hear other people doing it to their children. Sometimes it's easy to not see myself doing it at times too! I think I might just print this out and post it up somewhere! Thanks! :)

  4. I received an e-mail asking about a specific situation in an adult relationship that has some mother/daughter aspects to it. Here is my response:

    You were taking her needs and your needs into consideration. You knew what you needed and you were pretty sure what she needed. As much as I don't think that it's good to push kids to do things because we think they will benefit, I do think that there are times when they know what they should do, what they want to do or what is best for them and they want someone to confirm for them that it is what they should do. Think of yourself as a tarot card - you were reflecting back to her what she already knew. Does that make sense or seem to be accurate?

    Your needs were equally important to her needs. Even if it hadn't been best for her to venture off on her own, you had clarity about what you needed and it is your responsibility to make sure your needs get met. The challenge is always in trying to balance needs, but if one person has clarity about what they need and the other person does not then the person w/ clarity gets their needs met and when the other person figures it out then their needs will get met. (obviously we are talking about adults here, w/ kids we wouldn't say "I know what I want and you don't so when you figure it out get back to me" - we'd do our best to continue to support them in figuring out their needs.) So, if she had headed off down the road and it had been horrible and she needed to come back to where you were that would have been an option, or perhaps someone else would have been available to meet her need at that time.

    Perhaps you could think through how you could have handled it differently and had the same outcome w/ more comfortable feelings on both your parts at the time?

  5. Thanks for responding to my comments, Jenna (ftr, I've copied them in a separate post below). My post is too long so I'm splitting it into several sections.

    Part 1 of 3:

    I agree with many aspects of what you have said, but, not surprisingly, still differ in a fundamental way on other aspects. I suspect that's part of the beauty of human relationships.

    The parts of what you have said that resonate for me include:
    - not pushing children (or anyone) to do the thing we "know" is best for them
    - listening to children as the autonomous people they are
    - nurturing our children's ability to figure out for themselves what their true needs are

    I also really appreciate your perspective about the necessity of children having the opportunity to learn for themselves how to trust their own intuition and judgement. I've valued this idea all along, but your making it explicit is something I will bring into my parenting choices in the future.

    As someone who decided I'd unschool my kids 5 years before I gave birth, I started out as an extremely radical unschooler. I am the mom who let my daughter discover for herself what it felt like to eat an entire bag of chocolate chips; who breastfed on demand for nearly 5 years (with kids 1.5 years apart); who continues to protect my kids from relatives' attempts to quiz my kids; who has never made a big deal about a scheduled bed-time; who even spent a year basically in our house despite my intense social needs due to one of my children's difficulties with social situations... and on and on.

    Then we get to the "but."

  6. Part 2 of 3:
    Over the years, I have realized that for my family, at least, my complete devotion to always saying yes was not working. My children got crankier, had worse allergies, tourette's, and mood swings, intensified fighting, and lost a lot of their natural curiosity. I also got more and more exhausted, and ended up exacerbating my own health issues.

    By working to focus on underlying needs (often preemptively) rather than always trusting perceived needs, I've seen an amazing positive change in our family dynamics. The kids are enjoying each other rather than fighting, and all of our health is improved - which nurtures the positive cycle. The kids have also opened their minds to listening to my ideas about their needs, because they have had the chance to see that sometimes I'm right... and knowing they will consider my opinions makes me that much more eager to meet the needs they have which I may not understand, when they are adamant about them.

    I have come to believe that a lot of times, the advice come by in unschooling circles is more focused on (much needed) recovery from an authoritarian approach to parenting than on what is best for an individual child or family.

    Perhaps because I started out at the permissive end of the spectrum in reaction to my own authoritarian upbringing, I find myself reaching for balance in a different direction.

    I'm not suggesting that we tell our children what they have to do for their own good. Or assuming that when we "know what is best" that we are necessarily right. In fact, I pledged to myself as a teenager that I would never say "Because I'm the Papa, that's why" like my father, and would always listen to my children's reasoning and desires, and have stuck to that to the best of my ability.

    I am suggesting loving guidance. My kids are now at developmental stages where reasoning with them is possible. In this case, when a need is demanded, but I think that need is going to make an underlying problem worse, we have a conversation about it. I may ask leading questions - something that is manipulative, but often does spark realizations the child feels responsible for.

    When they were younger, after I realized that sometimes I could not always meet the needs they expressed (usually due to conflicting needs in the family - my children have opposite temperaments and I have health issues that must be considered), sometimes I have found the solution that resulted in the most health for everyone has been for me to make a decision, as parent, which I carry out against their wishes.

    I do not think it is ideal to exert constant control or to always, unquestioningly say yes. I believe part of how people learn to understand what their bodies are telling or what their underlying needs are does have to do with another person sharing their perspectives. As a parent, I feel it is part of my responsibility to give my children experiences they might not have chosen, but which help them see their choices and available choices from more vantage points.

  7. Part 3 of 3:

    Response to previous article:

    Joy: I like this article, though I wish she would have said more about learning to recognize what the needs are. I find that sometimes the things that the kids (most people, not just kids) say they need are different from the root need. Telling the difference between a true need and a need that masks a deeper need is sometimes a daunting process.

    It's important to recognize the deepest needs as well as those that live on the surface, and to see that sometimes granting the surface request will actually exacerbate the deeper need.

    Then Jenna asked for examples and here are mine:

    Hi Jenna,

    I'll use myself rather than specifics that have come up with my kids, since I don't want to put their stuff on display too much:

    When I get hungry or thirsty I often crave sugary foods. When I eat sugary foods instead of a meal or healthier snack, I forget that I was hungry in the first place. All the manifestations of hunger, however (crankiness, lightheadedness, upset stomach) are then exacerbated. My midwife pointed this out to me when I was pregnant with my first - telling me sweets are ok, but reach for something high in protein and water first if you crave a sweet. Most of the time that sates the "need" for the sweets. Not surprisingly, the same kind of thing plays out for my kids.

    A more emotionally focused example out of my life is that I need to talk out my problems and feelings. That is a true need. However, sometimes I'll start talking out my problems and get in a negative cycle of helplessness. I'll go on and on about the hopelessness of the situation, my frustration, my anger, whatever. It becomes a negative feedback loop. When this cycle is indulged, I will lash out at the people and things around me, and usually end up depressed. When I cross the line from needing to talk about the problem or my emotions with someone else, and demanding that they listen to me repeat myself with growing negativity, my true need is not the thing I am demanding. My true need is for that person to refuse to participate in the conversation any more, or, sometimes (usually not possible in that moment) to help me out of my way of thinking. One of my kids also has the same kind of pattern.

    Another example from my life is staying home from a planned activity. Sometimes I will just really, really want to stay home instead of doing the thing I planned. I'll even start feeling sick the moment I think of going, and develop real symptoms. If I stay home in this case, I usually feel worse and have more and more dread of going out and enjoying planned activities or seeing friends I would have seen there. Usually, the true need is *more preparation - I'm nervous because I'm unprepared for what I am supposed to do there OR *to deal with a conflict or uncomfortable personal dynamic that I'll have to face if I go OR *anxiety in general (new places scare me). When I do go in spite of my desire to stay home, I almost always feel better as soon as I get there and start *doing* whatever it was I was afraid of. Both my children have a similar tendency.

    I could keep going and going!

  8. in my experience, once my kids learned to trust that i was not going to be authoritarian about things, they began to *come to me* for my perspectives and opinions. at first, they took my advice rarely, but now, much more often. and sometimes, they don't at first, but do come back to it, well down the line.

    one example is recent: my son has been taking a supplement that helps with some gastrointestinal stuff he used to suffer from regularly. the recommended dosage is twice a day, but for over a year, he has only been willing to take it once a day. it seemed to help, though, that way, and i never pushed the increased frequency.

    last week he came to ME and said "i have been having some more stomach problems and i'd like to start taking that twice a day now"

    he knew my opinion, he knew the recommendations, and he came to his own decision, eventually, given the freedom to do so. if i'd insisted, he'd definitely have refused to take it at all.

    that same kind of thing has happened multiple times lately, with many different topics.

    i never avoid sharing my opinion, and i don't think unschooling is about not sharing our parental perspectives! it just helps to do it in an "i may or may not be *right* and there's no loss of dignity in me OR the child being "wrong" sort of way.

  9. Joy,
    Have you read my other blog posts? I do not think I have presented meeting needs in the way you have described. I have written quite a bit about relationship and connection between parent and child. When there is trust between parent and child then meeting needs is not about the authority of the parent or the entitlement of the child to a yes answer. A parent with a relationship built on trust and respect and connection will be able to proactively meet a lot of needs. A child in this relationship will be open to the perspectives and ideas of their parent.

    It is not about always saying yes, because we know that isn't always possible. It is ultimately about conversations and sharing and exploring life together. Learning together what our needs are and how we can meet them. It is about what is best for the individual family and each child in that family, but when we talk about parenting we usually talk in broader terms so that it is more universally understandable. Each person is then able to take the ideas apply them uniquely to their family.