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.

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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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