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Needs and Rewards: The Keys to Your Child's Behavior
By Eleanor Reynolds Children and Families Expert

Eighteen-month-old Angela wanders aimlessly around the house. She picks up a toy, examines it, then throws it down, and repeats this behavior with several toys. Her mother looks at the clock and realizes that Angela is due for a nap; her behavior has indicated this need. Twenty-four month old Stevie also needs a nap. He demonstrates his need by hanging on to his mother’s leg and crying. The behaviors are different, but each child is expressing the same need. What about other needs and other behaviors? Are they as easy to identify?


The word “behavior” simply means a way of behaving; there is no value judgment in the definition. When parents say their child is not behaving, they usually mean the behavior is inconvenient, perplexing, or irrational. A more accurate way to describe a child’s behavior might be: “A way of behaving to get needs met.” Young children, especially preverbal children, cannot express their needs with language.  Some children express their needs in subtle and indirect ways; others are more direct and assertive. It is a parent’s job to interpret the need behind the behavior. When you begin to see behavior as an expression of a need, you can begin to teach children how to get their needs met appropriately.


This is where another word, “reward,” enters the picture. A reward can be a payment or prize for work, but it can also be the feeling of satisfaction that comes with an accomplishment. When your child is able to meet her own needs, she develops a sense of accomplishment also known as “self-esteem.” Your child first develops self-esteem by receiving your unconditional love, but as a toddler, she needs to feel independent, capable, and powerful. This is usually when power struggles between parents and children arise over toileting, weaning from breast or bottle, eating certain foods, sleeping habits, and making transitions. The way in which you show - or fail to show - respect for your child’s needs influences your relationship.


There are possible roadblocks to deciphering the need behind your child’s behavior. If your parenting approach is based on discipline, you might mistake a need for defiance and respond with punishment. If your parenting approach is permissive, you might confuse a need with helplessness and prematurely rescue your child. A middle road is called the problem-solving approach to parenting. The problem-solving approach encourages you to be aware of your child’s needs and treat them as a problem to solve. Finding the solution includes treating your child’s needs with respect, involving your child in the solution when possible, and finding solutions that are agreeable to both of you.


Identifying Your Child’s Needs

Following are some examples of how to identify your child’s needs:

PROBLEM: You want your child to use the toilet; your child refuses. What are your child’s needs? Your child needs to feel more in control of his bodily functions. He might be afraid to fail or afraid of the toileting process. He needs plenty of time without pressure to take charge of his own toileting.


PROBLEM:  You want your child to be weaned; she cries and demands to nurse. What are your child’s needs? Your child still has an emotional need for the bonding and intimacy of nursing or the comfort of the bottle when she is tired or upset.


PROBLEM:  You want your child to sleep in his own bed; he screams until you bring him to your bed. What are your child’s needs? Your child needs the security and closeness of your body. He might feel frightened and vulnerable when left alone in his bed, have nightmares, or feel left out.


PROBLEM: You want to take your child to school; your child dawdles and ignores your requests to cooperate. What are your child’s needs? Your child needs time to transition mentally, physically, and emotionally from the comfort of his own home to the outside world and the process of separating from you.


The solutions you find should meet the individual needs of both your child and yourself. By respecting your child’s needs you are building the foundation of a rewarding, lifelong relationship.    




Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at problem@blarg.com.