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.
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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?’
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.
‘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.