If we want to prevent children’s negative behaviors, we need to understand the real reason behind those behaviors. It’s important to keep in mind that negative behavior is never the problem; it’s the symptom. Kids don’t misbehave to make our lives difficult. It’s their way to get their needs met.
In general, understanding motivation that drives human behaviors requires considering three fundamental psychological needs that every human is born with: relatedness, autonomy, and competence. When all these three needs are properly satisfied, a person reaches a state of well-being.
Children are unique, and these three needs will manifest on different levels depending on their age and personality.
Let’s explore these three needs and see how they manifest in our children depending on their age and what we can do to satisfy the three needs positively and proactively.
Need 1: The need for Relatedness/Connection
Between the ages of zero and six, children learn how to trust. So especially at the baby age, the need for connection is extremely high, and it’s usually manifesting through their desire to be held in arms and be close to their parents and caregivers.
As they grow up, they start to give hugs, give compliments, such as “You’re a wonderful mom”, “You’re an amazing dad”, make small gifts such as drawings, and in general, all those behaviors that carry this message.
“Look at me.”
School-aged children will usually manifest the need for connection through their desire to experience that their thoughts and feelings are important in their family and their desire to experience the sense of school belonging, which includes connection to their teachers and peers.
As children grow older, parents grow less important than peers. You might start noticing behaviors that children will adopt from their peers to belong. It’s important to keep in mind that connection is crucial if we want our children to keep the door for communication open.
In essence: the need for connection is children’s need to feel unconditionally loved, valued, and appreciated. Children who generally have a higher need for connection are usually those children who are more sensitive and who are more attached to their parents, especially their mother.
When a child doesn’t have her need for connection satisfied positively and proactively, she will try to satisfy this need herself by manifesting what we call “attention-seeking” behaviors which are, in reality, connection-seeking behaviors such as whining, constantly interrupting and all kinds of different behaviors which can eventually escalate to tantrums.
Need 1: How to satisfy children’s need for connection
You’ve already heard these millions of times: spend quality time with your child every day.
One of the main reasons children have attention-seeking behaviors is that some children get as little as seven minutes a day of one-to-one time with their parents. So, offering your time to your child will create a strong foundation for your long-life relationship.
Be fully present while giving your child your time. Put away the screens, surrender and enter your child’s world. Let them choose what they would like to do in that special time and let them lead the activity. Getting down on the floor with your child to play will help you create a connection by maintaining eye contact.
Encourage kids to participate in your daily or weekly activities, such as doing grocery shopping, sitting at the table, and cooking. These are good opportunities for connection.
Spending quality time with the kids can be a huge challenge, especially for busy parents. But the benefits to parents and children make it worth the time and effort.
Remember that we are trying to build a long-life relationship, and connection is the foundation.
Need 2: The need for Autonomy/Control
The need for control is usually quite high between the ages of three to six and will manifest through children’s desire to make choices, make decisions, be in control and act on their own free will.
When a child can experience autonomy even in small ways, it helps build his confidence, independence, and self-esteem. The need for autonomy is still very high for children aged 6 to 12. They start to feel the need to be independent, to experience a sense of free will.
It’s important to understand that if kids aren’t given enough autonomy and control in positive, productive ways, they will find power in other ways, usually through power struggles and refusals. They refuse to clean up, pick up toys, brush their teeth, do homework, turn off the TV, and so on.
Need 2: How to satisfy children’s need for control
We must offer children a decision-rich environment and give them plenty of opportunities throughout the day to make choices and age-appropriate decisions, such as what they would like to have for lunch.
“Would you like to have pasta or soup?”
“How you would like to spend their afternoon?”
“Would you like to go to the playground or ride your bike in the park?”
And remember to add these words at the end.
“It’s your decision. It’s your choice”.
Adding “it’s your choice” or “You decide” after offering a choice can empower children as they gain a sense of ownership by knowing they have a choice.
Need 3: The need for competence
The need for competence refers to children’s need to learn, grow, develop skills, and feel able. For younger children, the need for competence will manifest through children’s curiosity to explore, try new things and ask “why?” a hundred times a day.
Between the age of one and three, children learn in terms of cause and effect, and their need for competence is high. If the need for competence is not properly satisfied at this age, it might lead to a lack of self-confidence around school age, and they can even refuse to try new things because they fear failure.
As children grow, the need for competence translates into their need to experience opportunities for developing and demonstrating individual capabilities. Every time we make things for our children that they can do by themselves, we take away the chance to learn those things and build competence. Competence’s a process that it’s built step by step.
Need 3: How to satisfy children’s need for competence
Take time for training and teaching.
Whenever you plan to teach a new skill or ability, take all the time you need and notice the difficulty when you see your child struggling. Of course, it’s super easy to tie shoelaces, ride the bike, cut bread and make a sandwich. But it can be difficult for a child to do that particular activity for the first time. So notice the difficulty and encourage efforts because competence is a step-by-step process.
You introduce the knowledge, then apply it by showing or telling how the task needs to be done, and finally, give kids opportunities for practice until they master the skill. Training also refers to teaching appropriate ways to behave, not only to skill development.