When They Say This … They Might Need You To Know This. How to Strengthen Your Connection and Influence With Your Child

When They Say This, They Might Need You to Know This

Children have a beautifully rich capacity to influence their world. There will be times this influence will feel strong and vibrant, as though their very important corner of the world is theirs to shape. Then there will be the other times – the ones when their capacity to influence will feel wafer-thin and shadowed by rules, boundaries, louder voices, and other people. 

As they grow, children will experiment with their ability to influence the people and the world around them. They’ll do it with tears, tantrums, those smiles of theirs and increasingly, they’ll do it with words. As it is for all of us, sometimes the words can come out wrong. What they say won’t always reflect their inner world of feelings, needs and wants. Frustration, exhaustion, confusion, sadness, vulnerability, or disconnection can drive children to behave in ways that don’t always make sense. When we can see through their words to the needs, feelings and wants beneath, we expand our capacity to teach and guide them towards the values and behaviours that are important. 

Here are some clues to the hidden needs and wants behind the things children say. It isn’t a formula of course – we humans can be wildly and beautifully unpredictable. It’s part of the joy of having heartbeats and skin instead of mechanical parts. 

  1. When the questions ask for something, but need something else as well. 

    Some of their questions will be driven by curiosity and a need to learn more about the world. Other questions will be driven by a need for reassurance that they are safe and loved. Sometimes these questions can sound the same. When a child asks: ‘What makes thunder happen?’ or, ‘How do people know if an earthquake is coming?’, or, ‘What happens to the kids when parents get divorced?’, or, ‘Do kids go to jail when they do something wrong?’ the underlying question in all of these may have an element of, ‘Am I safe?’, ‘What will happen to me if […] happens?’, ‘What if I do something wrong?’ or, ‘Will you always love me?’

    What to do:  As well as giving them the facts they’re looking for, also be open to the need for reassurance. ‘Are you wondering what would happen if we got divorced?’ ‘Everybody does the wrong thing sometimes but kids don’t go to jail, because they’re still learning. What sort of ‘wrong things’ are you wondering about?’. Reassurance doesn’t mean promising that nothing bad will ever happen, but letting them know that whatever happens, they will be safe, loved and protected. ‘Thunderstorms happen a lot in summer but we know there are things we can do to stay safe. Would you like to talk more about that?’ ‘If you’ve done something wrong that’s okay. I love that you’ve told me about it. Let’s talk about what we can do to put it right.’

  2. When the words sound mean.

    The need for acceptance and to feel safe from judgement and rejection is universal. Messy attempts to fulfil those need can sometimes steer open-hearted, good-natured kiddos to come across as a little mean or critical. A comment along the lines of, ‘She doesn’t build very good sandcastles’, might actually be asking, ‘What happens if the things I do aren’t very good?’ Similarly, ‘She always gets the words wrong when she sings that song,’ might be driven by the need to understand what happens to people when they make mistakes, or, ‘What happens to the kids who aren’t as good at things as other kids.?’ The words might come out like little swords, but the feelings behind them can feel that way too. 

    What to do: Expand the idea of what’s ‘acceptable’ – ‘Here we build all sorts of sandcastles. You can make the ugliest, wobbliest sandcastle in the world if you like.’ Giving them permission to be imperfect, or to make mistakes, strips the potential for shame and the reluctance to try new things. It also nurtures the acceptance of others who might do things differently to them. Once they feel safe, they will be more open to your influence. ‘People can build things however they want to. There is no wrong way. We all look after each other here.’ 

  3. When they sound as though they are excluding others from their kingdoms and queendoms.

    Mean words can also be used as a way to establish belonging in a group and to ease feelings of vulnerability or insecurity. Comments such as, ‘We like playing soccer and she doesn’t play soccer, so I don’t want to play with her,’ may be less a reflection of how that child feels about another child, and more a reflection of the need to establish solidarity with a group or child. 

    What to do: When differences are used to explain exclusion, highlight the similarities. ‘It’s true that she doesn’t play soccer but did you know she has a big brother like you do?’ Then, make it safe for them to bring their fears or insecurities into the open. This might have to be done gently. Even the strongest of hearts can find it tricky to admit vulnerability. ‘What might happen if you become friends with Georgia?’ or, ‘Are you worried that the other kids might like Georgia more than you? I get that. I’ve felt like that before. You know the thing is, what’s more likely to happen is that Georgia would realise how great you are and you might become each other’s favourite people.’ Once a fear is brought into the open, it stops having as much power over behaviour.

  4. When feelings make the words messy.

    When words are driven by big feelings, they might sound angry, inconsolable, jealous, defiant – or any of the not-so-lovely sounding sounds. As messy as the words might be, they have a good reason for being there. Big feelings are a way to influence the environment to meet a need. Of course, this doesn’t always happen seamlessly and sometimes the fallout can be nuclear. Where there is a big emotion, there will always be an important need. The need may be for comfort, attention, safety, rest, or connection. The need will always be valid, even if the way they’re going about meeting it is a little rough. As with so many difficult parenting moments, there will be gold in the middle of the mess if we know where to look. 

    What to do:  There will be times for shaping the behaviour, but in the middle of the big feeling is not one of those times. Think of big feelings like a storm. As with any storm, sometimes the only way through is straight through the middle. We don’t take a storm personally and we don’t try to ease it away with logic, reason or persuasion. Ditto for big feelings. Big feelings are NOT a sign of dysfunction, bad kids or bad parenting. They are all a part of being human, and they bring rich opportunities for wisdom, learning and growth. Parenting isn’t about stopping the emotional storms, but about reaching the end of the storms and having our children feel safe, connected, and open to our influence.

    To calm a big feeling, name what you see, ‘I can see you’re disappointed. I know how much you wanted that’, or ‘You’re angry at me about .. aren’t you. I understand that. I would be mad too if I had to […],’ or ‘It sounds like today has been a really hard day.’ When we connect with the emotion, we help to soothe it. The emotion has done its job and can start to ease. Someone has noticed and moved to meet the need.

    When they ‘let go’ they’re letting us in on their most honest emotional selves. We don’t need to change that. What we need to do is meet them where they and gently guide them from there. When they feel seen and understood, their connection to us will deepen. When this happens, they will be more open to our wisdom and gentle direction.

  5. When their ‘observations’ sound a teeny bit like … complaining. 

    Sometimes children will register their disappointment, and it might be tempting to dismiss their words as whining, trivial, or a play for control. ‘He got to sit near the window and I never get to sit near the window.’ ‘You helped her pack up and you didn’t help me.’ Their disappointment can contain important information about how they might be interpreting your response to them, how safe they feel, or the things that are worrying them. An observation that one child was treated differently, for example, might be a sign that they are worried you love them less, or that the other child has more power than they do. 

    What to do: Sometimes it will be important for our kids to discover their own resourcefulness and resilience, and sometimes they’ll need a hand. If you can, speak to the need or feeling behind the statement. For example, if they come to you with something like, ‘It’s not fair that I got into trouble and Meg didn’t.’ The temptation might be to point out the rationality of this, ‘But you hurt her when you threw the book at her.’ Your response might be perfectly justified, but emotion often has little regard for logic or rationality.

    Connecting with the emotional part of them opens the door for the rationality to find its way through. ‘You feel as though I haven’t listened to you. Why don’t you help me understand how you see it?’ Or, ‘Are you feeling like I care more about Meg than I care about you? You made a mistake and that’s okay. Your mistakes never make me love you any less.’ Or, ‘You’re angry at me for supporting Meg. I understand that.’ When we acknowledge their feelings without needing to change them, we give them precious reassurance that they’re normal, that they’re not broken, that they’re loved, and that we trust their capacity to cope. We also take away the need to push against us, making it easier for our guidance or wisdom to find a way through.

  6. When they are defiant.

    Children have many important jobs to do. One is to discover their flourishing independence and who they are in the world. This is a great thing, and watching them explore and experiment will, at different times, make us laugh, burst with pride, or have us questioning who is actually in charge. Sometimes, to assert their independence, they’ll feel the need to act or think differently to you. This won’t always feel gentle. Sometimes it might feel like an almighty push. Or a fight. You’ll say the blue shirt is blue, they’ll swear it’s green and refuse to wear it on the basis that green is for babies and grass – of which they are neither. You’ll say, ‘Let’s have burgers.’ They’ll say, ‘Nah – chicken. I hate burgers.’ You’ll say, ‘Really? You loved burgers last week. But okay then – chicken it is’. They’ll say, ‘Actually no … burgers – but only with chicken, and I want to make it myself’. Many times, defiance isn’t about them getting their way on a particular issue, but about them experimenting with their independence. It about showing you (and the world) that they have their own minds. This is a great thing, even though it can be tough to deal with sometimes. 

    What to do: Pick your battles. If it isn’t going to hurt anyone or compromise the values you’re trying to teach, consider letting it go. Whenever you can, treat them as though they are already the people you want them to be. ‘I know you’ll make the decision that’s best for you. You’re great like that.’ This will help them feel as though you trust them and give them a sense of control.

    They want to make you happy and they want to do the right thing. Sometimes this will mean doing what you suggest, and sometimes it will mean going against it. There is magic in both. We want them to see that we trust their judgement because it’s the best way for them to learn they can trust their judgement. If we keep stepping in and overriding their decisions, the risk is that they’ll stop trusting their own capacity to make good decisions and they’ll increasingly look to someone else to make decisions for them. This will become more important as they get older.

    Involving them in the decisions that affect them can also help to break down resistance. This doesn’t mean letting them run the show, but teaching them to recognise their own power and use it wisely. If they don’t want to go to bed, try to hand some of the power over to them. ‘Would you like to brush your teeth before you put your pyjamas on or after?’ or, ‘Would you like to read two little stories or one longer one?’ 

  7. Whey they are furious at you, or when they might even … (deep breath in) ‘hate’ you.

    One of our most primal, important needs is that of connection. We humans are wired for it like we’re wired to breathe. There will be times our children feel the connection with us deeply and they’ll relish in the security of that. There will also be times they long for us – for our attention, presence, time, warmth – and it just won’t be there the way they need it to be.

    This is normal and will happen to all children from time to time. However loving and available we try to be as parents we can’t just can’t do everything or be everything the time. It happens. This won’t break them, but it might make them feel fragile, exhausted or vulnerable, anf this might come out as big emotion. Their words and their emotion are more a reflection of their frustration or fragility, and their difficulty voicing that. It’s not that they ‘hate you’, it’s that they love you, need you and want you, but they can’t quite reach you the way they need to.

    What to do. Give them the opportunity to connect with you. Let their big feelings happen. You don’t need to change them and you don’t need to fix them – they aren’t a sign of breakage or misbehaviour. They’re happening for a reason – to let you know that they need attention, love, warmth, protection, or to feel the security and safety of you. This isn’t children being ‘naughty’ or manipulative. It’s children being children who need to feel close to you. It’s also an opportunity for you to give them what they need – to feel your presence and the security of you. If you can’t do it right then, that’s okay. Let them know that you see them, and there will be time just for them – whether it’s a story before bed, a game, afternoon tea or a walk together – whatever it is that they love about their time with you. If you can establish a daily ritual where they know they will reliably have you, this can be a powerful way to help them tap into the predictability of that connection when they’re missing you.

  8. ‘But I can’t do it!’

    Sometimes hard things can get the better of all of us. When kids want to down tools, it can be a sign that the fear of making a mistake or failing is feeling too big. This can be an opportunity to nurture qualities that will help them to feel more confident, rise to challenge, embrace change, or take risks that will be life-giving for them.

    What to do: Explain that it’s not that they can’t it, but that they just can’t do it yet, and with practice, a little more explanation, a little more learning they can improve. We all learn in different ways and it can be powerful for kids to understand ttheir brains are magnificent and powerful and ready to give them what they need to get the job done, but sometimes brains need practice. Ask them to think of it like this: ‘You know how it feels when your foot goes to sleep? It feels awkward and strange and a bit wobbly to walk at first – but you don’t just stop walking! You keep walking and moving until your foot wakes up and is able to walk you around like it never went to sleep at all. Brains are the same. Like the rest of our muscles in our body, sometimes our brains need a teeny bit of practice to be stronger and better than ever.’

    Giving them permission to fail can be a powerful way to encourage them to keep trying. Let them know that failing or making mistakes is often the best way to learn. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes because it gives us clues about what to do next time. Success isn’t about getting there first time, but about being brave enough to keep trying when you get it wrong.

And finally …

Language is powerful, and the words they use will help them to relate to the world, influence it, open it up, or shut it down. They’ll learn some of this the hard way. The most life-giving lessons won’t always feel kind. One of our very important jobs as the adults in their lives is to help them use their influence in ways that work for them. First though, we need to be able to see through the words they are using, to the important information they need us to hear. This won’t always be easy. When we can see through their words to the needs, feelings and wants beneath, we become more able to respond in a way that can protect them, and deepen our connection with them. We expand our capacity to teach and guide them, and to strengthen the foundations on which they can grow and relate to the world with courage, compassion, and wisdom.

15 Comments

Mimi

I absolutely love this! I have a granddaughter who loves to chat, with Mimi, she’s 5, and a Daddy who loves to jump on her for things that come out of her little mouth. I so enjoy our chats, treasure them, and know that it is usually about something that is on her little mind. I know this will help me help her more. Thank you!

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Jean Tracy, MSS

This article really goes underneath kids’ surface talk. I appreciated reading what kids might be wondering or worrying about. Thanks for your answers, too, Karen.

I will share it with my social media sites and hope others do too.

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Christine

Hello Karen, As a grief counsellor for those who have been bereaved this is indeed a great resource for myself and colleagues and great factsheets clear and concise to give to parents………….including myself a parent of a 13 12 and 10 year old

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Andressa

I don’t have children but I still loved this post. I had never thought about some of these things. I think many of them are true for teenagers or even for adults as well. I have always believed that adults are nothing else than “grown-up children”, in the sense that they still have those very basic feelings, fears, and desires that you have mentioned in your article. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us!

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Katharine

I like reading your articles but the pale grey text on a white background is not easy to read, especially on a phone. Please consider changing to a darker text colour.

Reply
Karen Young

Katharine thank you for letting me know! I didn’t realise the text was coming through so faintly. You are the second person to let me know today. I’ve changed the text to a darker colour and a heavier font. Hopefully that will make a difference.

Reply
Ayoung kwon

Got lots of informations and truth that I missed so often! I am glad you shared this secret mystery solving codes. Thank you.

Reply
Lisa

This goes to the heart of what it takes to be a parent. So much of what our kids do and say has to be analysed so we understand what it is they truly need from us. Gosh I wish I had had this article 20 years ago! My kids are now adults (just) and they still challenge me at times – and this wisdom applies to them even now. Thank you for a beautiful article.

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Tara

One of the best posts I’ve read in a while!
Very well put, helpful, simple tools to help nourish our children’s souls. Thank you

Reply
Amy

Amazing. Thanks for this well written piece. and the reminder that trust and connection is the key to being open to guidance. “Gold in the middle of a mess if you know where to look” ❤️

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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