In the last piece we saw how to set flexible yet solid boundaries and limits by which young children can abide. We also learned why using affirmations and encouragement with children is better than praises and rewards. And finally we saw that using natural and logical consequences with children helps them to be able to take responsibility for their actions. Again, it is important for us to remember that all the discipline strategies in this series are biblically supported, and are effective when used consistently and in conjunction with each other. In this piece we are going to discuss how to figure out the need behind unwanted behavior in order to help our children fulfill that need. We will also discuss regression in children and how to deal with it in a positive manner.
Fulfilling Needs—“Why is my child behaving this way?”
Many Christians, as we have seen throughout all of my series, believe that most of children’s unwanted behaviors are due to their sinful natures. They place so much emphasis on keeping children’s sinful nature in check that they forget, ignore, or deny the fact that God created children to develop the ways that they do, and that young children do not set out to sin. They are learning about their worlds. The more we understand child development and how God designed children, the easier it will be for us to guide and discipline (teach) our children.
From infancy, children have needs that must be met in order for children to thrive. Since young children have zero to limited vocabulary in the first few years of life, they cry and find other ways of trying to communicate their needs to us. As I’ve discussed in many of my series, an infant’s crying is not manipulative. Infants’ brains do not allow them to be able to manipulate us. A toddler will test limits, but will also try to communicate their needs by acting out as they still lack vocabulary and are just beginning to learn how to appropriately express themselves. “Behavior is the main way children let adults know what their needs are. Young children who cannot yet speak often communicate by using body language and emotional expressions, such as crying, cooing or smiling. Children from birth to 5 years of age have limited ability to understand and to express themselves clearly using words” (CCHP, 2006, p. 2). Even older children may display unwanted behaviors in order to communicate a need that they just can’t put into words. Guess what. Even adults sometimes do this when we’re upset and having a hard time getting needs met. Most arguments between husbands and wives are really because of unmet needs. The Bible talks about the Holy Spirit interceding for us during prayers where we can’t find the words to express our needs to God. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26). If God, Who knows our needs before we ask Him (Matthew 6:32-33), helps us pray through the Holy Spirit when we are lacking words, shouldn’t we also look beyond what we might consider “misbehavior” in our children in order to figure out what they need? We need to stop seeing our children as “willful little sinners” and see them as little people trying to communicate their needs.
Children’s behaviors are often an expression of how they are feeling inside. What many people would consider “willful” is actually the child trying to communicate with us. We need to listen instead of engaging in an unnecessary battle of the wills. Christine Dance (2012) from Floortime Center created by Jake Greenspan and Tim Bleeker based on Dr. Stanley Greenspan’s “Floortime Therapy,” which helps children with special needs, traumatized children, and other children with behavior issues states:
“Because behaviors so often represent a communication of inward workings and needs, we must remember that unwanted behaviors are not always a willful exertion against us, but likely an external representation of a need or difference inside our children.
Behaviors can feel personal and it can be hard not to get into control battles. Remembering the first three points, however, can decrease a behavior battle and help you as a parent focus on how to best maneuver through the situation. The unwanted behavior has enough factors leading to it without adding in a power struggle between the behavior and a force to stop the behavior” (http://thefloortimecenterblog.com/2012/07/02/behavioral-battles/).
One of the primary needs that I have witnessed many times throughout my work with young children is attention. Adults usually do not give children their undivided attention much throughout the day as they have so much to do. But children crave love and attention from us the minute they are born. This is not selfish; this is how God created children. While we cannot give children our undivided attention 24/7, there are times throughout the day when we need to make a conscious effort to provide each child with quality one-on-one time with him or her. For young children, the easiest way to do this is during daily care routines as we’re already one-on-one with them anyway in order to feed, bathe, or change them. Daily care routines should be a fun, relaxed time for you and your child. “Be sure to allow time in your daily schedule for this kind of slow interaction rather than leaving dressing for the last minute and having to rush through it” (Gerber, 1998, p. 71). When children do not receive our undivided attention enough throughout the day, they tend to act out more in order to gain our attention. As I’ve pointed out before in my work, sometimes even negative and painful attention from us is better than no attention. Children quickly learn that by acting out they can get their parents to focus solely on them. This is not a healthy cycle to have in the parent-child relationship.
Instead of using punishment to deal with unwanted behaviors in children, we should figure out the reason for the behavior and meet that need. Most unwanted behaviors disappear when the need behind the behavior is met such as hugging and giving them our undivided attention for a little bit when we know that is the need. “When your child is be doing everything in their power to make you upset, sometimes the best thing you can do is hug, cuddle, and kiss them. Make sure that you are fulfilling your child’s need for touch and affection. It will put you both in a better mood” (Pruitt, 2012, http://naturalfamilytoday.com/parenting/correcting-your-childs-behavior-by-meeting-basic-needs/). This is what Josh did with his 3-year-old son after he and his wife had their daughter. In an electronic message dated July 29, 2012, Josh conveyed the following to me:
“Our 3-year-old son has been going through some behavior issues lately since our 2-week-old daughter was born. We know he’s a little jealous. He has thrown away his baby sister’s pacifiers, bottles, and yesterday he smacked her lightly on the arm and each time my wife was near our daughter so she caught him before he could hit her hard. Each time he’s done something to her he has admitted he doesn’t like sharing his mommy. So I took him to our steps in our house we call the ‘thinking steps.’ I sat down with him and explained why we don’t hit each other and that his sister is so little she doesn’t understand at all why he is upset with her. And how would he feel if she was bigger than him and hit him for being with their mommy also. He replied, ‘Me wouldn’t like it,’ so I said, ‘Ok, that’s also why you can’t do that to her.’ I also explained that right now baby Emi needed more of Mommy but Mommy still loves him more than she ever has and he won’t lose her. So I let him get up and he went to his little sister and kissed her and apologized to her. I also then took our daughter for the rest of the day and my wife and him had a ‘mommy and son day’.”
The point is what would us spanking him have done?? Nothing but show him that he got hurt by Mommy and Daddy, and that the baby still gets attention, and it wouldn’t stop his jealousy. We just have to try and balance both kids’ times with us even more. People say toddlers can’t be talked to; YES they can!!! You just have to get down to their level and take the time to explain things. It will take time though sometimes. But our kids are worth it for us to TAKE more time and not cause them any physical pain. Teaching through pain only teaches them they will get hurt doing something they shouldn’t; not why they shouldn’t. I never ever think there is a reason to cause a child even a sting. And yes even the most ‘strong willed’ child can be raised without pain.”
Thank goodness Josh and his wife were able to see the need behind their son’s unwanted behavior and instead of scolding and punishing him, they validated him, reassured him, explained to him why hitting is never okay, and gave him some much needed time with Mommy. In other words, by meeting his needs, they solved some of his behavioral issues. Had they seen their son’s undesirable behavior as “willful,” they would have punished him, which would have made him even more jealous, angry, and resentful of his sister and his parents. As I mentioned previously in this section, we must change our perceptions and assumptions about our children in order to better understand the reasons behind their behaviors. Blaming all unwanted behavior on the child’s sinful nature, as so many Christians do, is a real disservice to the parent and child. This requires, as I pointed out in Part 1 of this series, that parents take the time and effort to be tuned in to their children in order to know them on a deeper level. This means using observation with our children. Dr. Kuzma (2006) states:
“LOOK carefully at your child. Observe what circumstances led up to the undesirable behavior. What message is your child’s body language trying to convey? Look beyond inappropriate behavior to what may be causing it. What does your child need? If it is attention, show it before he or she has to ask for it negatively. If it is comfort, give it. If it is correction, correct appropriately. If it is information, teach. If it is food, fill that hungry tummy. If it is sleep, put your child down for a nap. If it is medical attention, provide it. The better you know your own child, the more you will understand how to respond, teach, and motivate” (p. 29).
Often times we need help in understanding our children. As I’ve mentioned throughout this series, prayer is an absolute must in gently but firmly disciplining children. We must be tuned into God, ad allow the Holy Spirit to guide us with our children. The Holy Spirit will empower us to appropriately fulfilling our children’s needs if we allow Him to do so. “The key is to have a teachable spirit—and a whole lot of Holy Spirit common sense” (Kuzma, 2006, p. 30).
Another very common need that causes children to display undesirable behaviors is a physical need. A child that is hungry, thirsty, tired, in pain, allergic, or getting sick will have a hard time behaving appropriately. Even adults have a hard time when they don’t feel well physically. I get grouchy, whiney, and impatient when I have an unmet physical need. And I can usually tell when my husband is getting sick because he doesn’t act like himself at all. So if adults have a hard time when they have an unmet physical need, why do we expect immature children to behave when they have a physical need? I have witnessed parents punishing children before naptime. What good does it do to punish a child that is tired? It doesn’t make sense to me. Why not just take the child in your arms and help the child fall asleep? If the child refused to clean up before nap or bedtime, then leave at least some of the mess there for the child to clean up when he or she wakes up. How many times do we adults leave the dirty dishes or laundry for the morning because we are too tired to do them before we go to bed? The natural consequence of this is that we will have to do them the next morning. God doesn’t punish us for this. Instead, He allows us to deal with the consequences when we wake up. We need to do the same with our children.
And don’t count out sickness or allergies as a reason for undesirable behaviors. As with my husband, sometimes children will behave unusually right before they get sick. Again, punishment will just make a child feel even worse, and will not prevent the illness from occurring. Dulce de Leche notices this with her own children. “How often have our kids have had a tough day, and then the next day they get sick? I can’t tell how many times I have been aggravated at their behavior, only to look back a day or two later and realize that they were coming down with something. Even if they don’t have visible symptoms yet, they may be fighting off an ear infection, a virus or something” (Dulce de Leche, 2011, http://dulcefamily.blogspot.com/2011/11/opening-up-gd-toolbox-physical-needs.html). If we stop assuming that our children are being “willful” and “defiant,” it will make us more empathetic towards them in order to pick up the subtle signs that they’re behavior is trying to communicate with us that something isn’t right within them. “People who don’t feel well usually don’t act right. We know that. But sometimes we need to be reminded. If your child’s behavior is telling you that something is wrong, take a look at possible physical causes. There may be more than meets the eye” (Dulce de Leche, 2011, http://dulcefamily.blogspot.com/2011/11/opening-up-gd-toolbox-physical-needs.html).
As I’ve already pointed out in this section, figuring out the needs behind behaviors and helping our children fulfill those needs is a biblically supported idea. Look at Proverbs 24:5-7, “A wise man is strong, And a man of knowledge increases power. For by wise guidance you will wage war, And in abundance of counselors there is victory. Wisdom is too exalted for a fool, He does not open his mouth in the gate” (NASB). And Romans 8:6 states, “The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.” What these verses are saying is having wisdom given by the Holy Spirit is very important to obeying God in all areas of life, especially when it comes to knowing the needs of our children. I believe that it is actually our flesh speaking when we just assume that our children are acting up due to their sinful natures. This foolish thinking, and as we saw in my series, “The Christian History of Spanking” and “The Effects of Spanking,” this type of thinking usually does lead to death—spiritually, emotionally, and at times, physically. But when we truly ask God what our children need, this wisdom from God will always lead to life in every area of our children’s lives.
Jesus met everyone’s needs as He continues to do with us. “He nourished his disciples and others he met in his ministry with listening food” (Whitehurst, 2003, p. 190). Whitehurst (2003) goes on to state:
“Jesus’ disciples sometimes urged him to press on, and on occasion it may have been more prudent to keep moving in his travels, but again and again he stopped to talk with someone in need, to feed some spiritually hungry person with listening food. We too can feed our children’s hunger for attention and understanding by asking how they feel and what they think, then listening without interrupting or becoming distracted. What more nutritious snack can you give your child than listening food” (p. 190).
Finally, Jesus is always there for us when we need Him no matter what. He said, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b). Shouldn’t we as parents do our best to follow Jesus’ example with our children?
Regression—“Stop Acting Like a Baby!”
I have heard many parents—including my own—say the above statement as well as, “Act your age,” or “You’re a big girl/boy now. Big girls/boys don’t…” The problem with statements such as these is that children usually are acting their age, and that regression is very common and developmentally appropriate. Regression is when children, and even adults, revert back to a stage of development in which they had made progress. Regression is noticed the most in the first five years of life as children navigate through major milestones in a relatively short amount of time. Infants and toddlers are able to focus on only one major milestone at a time. This is how God created their brains to work and develop. As I mentioned in, “Attachment Theory- Why NOT to Train a Baby,” Dr. T. Berry Brazelton refers to these periods of regression as “Touchpoints.” For example, it is completely normal for toddlers to lose some of their vocabulary as they focus on learning to walk. Infants also may stop sleeping well right before they hit a major milestone. Toddlers may seem completely potty trained and go weeks without having an accident only to begin having accidents again. While all of this may be frustrating for parents, the child is not doing this out of spite. Regression must be dealt with in a positive, loving, respectful manner.
Child development theorist Arnold Gesell, Louise Bates Ames, and Francis Ilg saw that young children often go through periods of progression and regression as they proceed through childhood. Dr. Jean Mercer (2010) states:
“Gesell, Ames, and Ilg felt that abilities like inhibiting impulses developed at different periods than their apparent opposites like “letting go”, but that gradual maturation of both kinds of abilities was needed during the progress to adulthood. They applied these concepts to toilet-training, for example, noting that a person who is thoroughly toilet-trained can inhibit the impulse to urinate or defecate when that’s appropriate, but can “let go” when the time and place are right. Gesell and his colleagues described the alternating successes and failures as children master toilet habits; there are periods of time when the child seems to have “forgotten” his or her training and frequently does not make it to the bathroom in time, but these alternate with periods when there are no “accidents” but the child spends an interminable time sitting on the toilet without being able to release. Parents tend to see the “accident” phase as regressive, but not to realize that the other situation also indicates immature and incomplete mastery of elimination” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/child-myths/201004/can-regressive-behavior-be-normal).
While keeping the necessary limits and boundaries with our children, this is why we must be able to be a bit flexible in order to make the appropriate, reasonable adjustments to help our children to successfully make it through periods of regression. Children’s systems can’t handle everything all at once, and rely on us to help them. Many parents are often blind-sighted and confused when their toddlers go through a period of regression.
“In fact, these phases of toddler regression may actually be a sign that your child is working on progressing in another arena. Confused? You won’t be if you think back a few months: Remember when your six-month-old kept waking up all night and fussing all day, and you finally figured out that he was teething? Or when your six-week-old suddenly needed to nurse twice as often, and it turned out to be a growth spurt? Well, when a toddler suddenly turns demonic, he’s — guess what? — also growing and progressing. And it just so happens that big developmental milestones for toddlers (like walking and talking) are sometimes preceded by periods of toddler regression. It’s almost as if their little systems get overloaded when they’re processing a brand-new skill” (Murkoff, 2012, http://www.whattoexpect.com/toddler-behavior/toddler-regression.aspx).
Murkoff (2012) goes on to explain how we can make simple adjustments:
“Make temporary adjustments. If your toddler has hit a developmental bump, consider that he might need a bit more sleep. Or a few extra snacks throughout the day — or simply extra cuddles from you. Sometimes physical development (like walking) can be both scary and exhausting, so be sensitive to your child, and permit him a little regression in other ways until he gets his footing, so to speak. When in doubt, extra physical affection will always help your child feel more secure, and it just might help tame a savage toddler as he navigates a rough spot” (http://www.whattoexpect.com/toddler-behavior/toddler-regression.aspx).
Stress, trauma, and punishment can cause children to regress and/or make it last longer than it typically otherwise would. Regression is actually “expectable behavior for a child of a given age who is distressed or even traumatized. Acting ‘regressed’ can be a very normal response to frustrating or frightening circumstances” (Mercer, 2010, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/child-myths/201004/can-regressive-behavior-be-normal). Sadly, some parents, especially Christians that are convinced that most, if not all, negative behaviors in children are due to their sinful nature, punish and shame children for regressing as if they are purposely doing it just to be defiant. As we can clearly see, this is not the case. And research shows that punishing and shaming children for regression will only make it worse. Nevertheless, after extensive review of this literature, it can be concluded that a single stressful incident in early infancy has negligible long-term effects. However, multiple or long-term stresses can create cyclical patterns of increasing risk and deprivation and are more likely to be associated with long-term emotional or behavioral disorders in later childhood (Rutter, 1979; Wachs, 2000)” (Fogel, 2011, p. 467). Since punishment is rarely an one time occurrence in young children’s lives who have parents that believe that the use of punishment is an absolute must, these children are at a higher risk of having a higher rate of regression throughout their lives leading to more behavior and emotional problems throughout their lives.
Of course, not all stress can be avoided such as moving, having another baby, or the death of a loved one. We must lovingly and empathetically help our children through these difficult times. For example, if your toddler has weaned from the breast or bottle and asks to nurse or wants a bottle, go ahead and nurse or give your child a bottle of milk. The child will move on again when he or she is ready. In fact, I know of a mother who gave her two to three-year-old daughter a bottle of milk once when the child was sick and asked for a bottle. No, the child did not keep asking for bottles after that. She just needed the comfort and security of having a warm bottle like she had as an infant. The mother didn’t make a big deal out of it. If your toddler wants to go back to wearing diapers after or during the potty training process, let him or her. Soon she or he will go back to being a “big kid” and wearing underwear again. The key is not making a big deal out of times of regression—positive or negative. And of course, don’t give in to huge things such as giving an 8-year-old a bottle or allowing him or her to sit in a stroller. Huge acts of regression are a sign that something major is going on with children and professional help should be sought. But minor regression should be dealt with by just going with the flow. As Gerber (1998) states:
“Allow regressive or ‘incorrect’ behavior. Don’t force your child to do things the ‘right way. Life is not made up of right or wrong, black or white. Unless another person is suffering as a result of your child’s actions, it’s perfectly fine to allow this. If your child wants to experiment, let him. It’s his creativity coming out. If your walking child wants to crawl, don’t belittle him by saying, ‘Don’t crawl. You’re not a baby anymore.’ If a child who’s been weaned wants a bottle on a whim, it’s all right. If your child wants to read a book upside down, rather than say, ‘Turn the book over. That’s not the right way to look at it,’ let him. Respect your child by allowing him to experiment and do what feels comfortable. He may have a unique view of the world upside-down” (p. 195).
As I mentioned previously in this section, even as adults, we regress in times of stress. “And don’t we adults indulge in regressive behavior ourselves when we snuggle into our beds or chew on our fingers? All of us want to be babies some of the time and go back to a comfortable time when we were taken care of” (Gerber, 1998, p. 195). God allows us to regress. He doesn’t punish us or make us feel bad when we regress. We see an example of this in 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 and Hebrews 5:11-14 where God admonishes believers that should be eating spiritual meat, but instead were still drinking spiritual milk. God just simply pointed out where these believers were and where He had hoped that they would be at that point. He didn’t threaten to punish them if they didn’t hurry up and “grow up.” Instead, He was (and still is) ready to help guide His people through ties of regression. Isn’t that how we should try to be with our children?
Meeting children’s needs and helping them through periods of regression will help them grow into healthy adults. And by showing children that God is always there for them when they need Him, we are providing children with an accurate view of Who God truly is. When children act out due to unmet needs or regression, we need to help them and guide them instead of punishing and shaming them. As Dr. Whitehurst (2003) states:
“When thinking through your child’s needs—whether for reassurance, support, or guidance toward self-discipline—you can feel confident that you’re parenting as Jesus would if, before carrying out a plan of action or having a conversation, you put it through the filter of Jesus’ remarkable teaching in Matthew 25 about doing to God by doing to others. If you take this teaching seriously, over time you’ll find that your typical ways of viewing, responding to, and guiding your children have been utterly transformed. And that’s what’s needed to get ‘heavenly results’” (p. 202).
Heavenly results should always be our motives when caring for and disciplining our children.
California Child Health Program. (2006). Social and emotional development of children. http://www.ucsfchildcarehealth.org/pdfs/Curricula/CCHA/15_CCHA_SocialEmotional_0406_v2.pdf
Dance, C. (2012). Behavior Battles. http://thefloortimecenterblog.com/2012/07/02/behavioral-battles/
Dulce de Leche. (2011). Physical needs. http://dulcefamily.blogspot.com/2011/11/opening-up-gd-toolbox-physical-needs.html
Fogel, A. (2011). Infant development: A topical approach. Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.
Gerber, M. & Johnson, A. (1998). Your self-confident baby. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Kuzma, K. (2006). The first 7 years. West Frankfort, IL: Three Angels Broadcasting Network.
Mercer, J. (2010). Can regressive behavior be normal? http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/child-myths/201004/can-regressive-behavior-be-normal
Murkoff, H. (2012). Toddler regression or progression? http://www.whattoexpect.com/toddler-behavior/toddler-regression.aspx
Pruitt, V. (2012). Correcting your child’s behavior by meeting basic needs. http://naturalfamilytoday.com/parenting/correcting-your-childs-behavior-by-meeting-basic-needs/
Whitehurst, T. (2003). How would Jesus raise your child? Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Rewell.
Discipline without Harm by Steph is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.whynottrainachild.com.