There are times when a child’s behaviour can seem so perplexing or irritating or infuriating, that even the most committed gentle parent might stop to wonder how on earth to respond.  Maybe your baby is insistent about playing with the cord of the floor lamp.  Maybe he throws his plate across the room like a frisbee as soon as you set it before him, laden with lovingly-prepared food.  Perhaps your toddler walks into a playgroup, throws toys at the babies, bites another child, then throws himself down on the floor to scream as soon as you go to him.  Maybe your pre-schooler starts making annoying repetitive noises while you’re trying to have coffee with a friend.  Or perhaps it’s the daily squabbles between older children, the resistance to helping with chores, the back-talking or insolence.  Many parents wonder, “How should I respond?”

I’ve been there.  I was there only three hours ago.  More about that later.

Some might say that a smack is the answer.  Their argument goes that a child needs punitive discipline to be brought to obedience.  The children described above are ‘spoiled’ and need to be taught that adults are in charge and children should fall into line.  Show them who’s boss, and children will behave properly, the argument goes.  If that’s what you believe, I guess we’re just not going to see eye to eye about this parenting issue, but let’s go for a coffee anyway and find out what else we might have in common.

Dandelion clock

There is no doubt in my mind that parents have a role to play in helping children learn socially acceptable standards of behaviour.  Of course it’s not ok for the toddler to hurt another child.  Of course I want my children to speak to me in a loving way.  Sure, I’d rather that my older children not scream at each other.  I don’t suggest that children should just be allowed to get on with it, without guidance.  But I don’t think that punitive discipline methods are the way to get there, especially if your main parenting goal is to foster deep and loving connection with your children

What I am suggesting is a paradigm shift.  I’m suggesting that we look at every behaviour as an expression of needs.

This isn’t a new idea.  If you’ve ever been on a Non-Violent Communication course (as I have), you will have heard about this idea.  If you’ve read Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Let me explain what I mean when I say that every behaviour is an expression of needs.  Remember the toddler who pretty much melts down as soon as he walks into the playgroup?  Let’s go sit beside him.  He’s throwing toys at babies, he’s bitten another child, and now he’s in the throes of a tantrum.  What needs is he expressing?  I wonder whether he’s tired, hungry, overstimulated, overwhelmed or in need of attention?  I wonder whether he really wants to be at this group? I’d consider whether it’s normal for him to struggle at groups such as these: is there a pattern for him?  When I watch his behaviour, what can I learn about him?

(And if you want to take your observations deeper, if you are interested in leading a child-led life, consider: what do your own reactions teach you about yourself?  Are you ashamed, infuriated, resigned?  Is your instinct to punish or perhaps to retreat?  What can you learn about YOU?)

There are other people in this picture.  The other children have a need to play, a need to be safe, a need for space.  Perhaps you as the parent have a need to be around other adults, a need for someone else to make you a coffee for once, a need for a change of scene (i.e., to get out of the house).

Now let’s think about the pre-schooler who’s being noisy while you’re talking to a friend.  Have you ever been cut out of a conversation?  Ever been to a party where everyone else seems to have something in common, except for you?  Maybe your child has a need for acknowledgement, attention, entertainment or rest.  You have a need to speak to your friend and your friend has a need to be with you.

The key is to consider each person’s needs and to ask, “How can everyone’s needs be met?”

Sometimes with a little creative problem-solving, everyone’s needs can be met.  If your toddler has a need for a quiet morning but you have a need for stimulation and adult company, how about having play dates with one family at a time, either at home or at a local park or the beach/woods?  If your pre-schooler needs entertainment and distraction, how about taking your friend to the local park so you can talk while you push your pre-schooler on the swing or ride the roundabout together?

Other times, compromises might be appropriate.  You might need to make a request of your child or of yourself.  Here, it helps to consider the developmental capabilities of each person involved.  Many times I find that I naturally make more compromises, because I am the adult.  Would I be willing to go without company this morning because my child is obviously struggling with unmet needs?  Would I be willing to delay my visit with my friend until my pre-schooler has gone to bed?  Would I be willing to put the floor lamp away until my baby understands that it’s dangerous to pull on the cord (or until he grows out of this stage)?  Would I be willing to accept being spoken to unkindly by my child, because I understand that he’s still learning how to communicate when he’s angry?

So let me tell you about my morning.  My elder daughter was irritated because while she was out last night, one of her younger siblings went into her bedroom and got out her High School Musical DVD.  “I don’t want her going into my room and rooting around for things!” she said.  So I said, “OK, so you don’t want her to go into your room.  But she just wanted to watch the DVD and she had no malicious or nosy intent.  It’s ok for her to watch the DVD, right?”  She acknowledged that it was alright for her sister to watch it, but she objected to her sister entering her room without permission.

It was early, I’d had a bad night and I hadn’t had breakfast or a cup of tea.  Many of my own needs were unmet!  In hindsight, I can now see that my daughter has a need for space and autonomy.  Her sister had a need for entertainment.  But instead of acknowledging those needs, I said, “I think you’re being unreasonable.  All she did was go into your room and get out a DVD.  Stop being ridiculous.”

Not a stellar parenting moment, and at that point, communication ceased.  And it’s no wonder, because this sort of evaluative commentary and directive reasoning, combined with my taking her sister’s side, was bound to make her think that I wasn’t going to listen to her.

As I considered how I could resurrect this communication stumble, I noticed that I didn’t need to.  Already, the girls were upstairs talking about their needs, and I took the opportunity to overhear:

Child 1: “I know you want to watch those DVDs, and I don’t mind if you do, but I really don’t want you to go into my room and look through my things.”

Child 2:  “But I didn’t look through your things!  I just wanted to watch High School Musical!”

Child 1:  “Okay, but what I’m going to do is put all my special things away, and just leave the DVDs on my desk, so if you want to watch one, it’s ok if you just go in there and get one.  And if you don’t see the one you want, don’t look through my drawers because that means it’s already downstairs next to the DVD player.  Are you happy with that compromise?”

Child 2: “Yeah, that’s a good idea! Ok!”

Child 1: “Thank you.”

What this interaction says to me is that these children (ages 10 and 7) have taken on board our family ethos that at the heart of every behaviour and communication there are deep, deep needs.  Even though I stumbled this morning and shut my daughter down, I felt so grateful that afterwards she was able to draw on the examples of effective and loving communication that her father and I have tried to model.  Instead of beating myself up, I practised self-compassion.  I had so many unmet needs.  And I acknowledge that this paradigm shift is something that takes practice. I’m human; I make mistakes.  It’s okay.  Maybe what I could have done is to say, “Would you be willing to talk about this after I’ve had breakfast and a cup of tea?”  There will be another chance to practise, guaranteed.

Think back to when your child was a baby.  When he cried, you picked him up.  He needed to be held, or fed, or changed or kept warm.  Maybe he woke a lot in the night.  He needed company and reassurance.  His communications were an expression of his needs.  At the time, you probably needed rest, comfort, to be heard by others, to be supported, and perhaps sometimes you needed someone to acknowledge your needs for space, comfort and reassurance.

All human beings have needs, not just children.  When we adopt a model of needs versus one of control, we instantly move into a position of compassion and love.  When we see the beauty of other human beings and their needs, it is possible to see them and ourselves as fallible, needy, interdependent beings.  I look into another person’s eyes and I see myself.  I know that they have unmet needs and so do I.  How can we work together to help our needs to be met?

It’s a different way of approaching every area of our lives.  And when you look at life through these lenses, it changes everything.

Words and photographs © Lisa Hassan Scott 2013.



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Reframing difficult behaviour in our children: seeing every behaviour as an expression of needs
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19 thoughts on “Reframing difficult behaviour in our children: seeing every behaviour as an expression of needs

  • 28/06/2013 at 12:47 pm

    I’m glad you got your need met to get out by yourself and write. 🙂 Thanks for sharing the conversation your kids had–that was great. I was better at figuring out my children’s unspoken needs when they were younger, absolutely. We have this idea (or maybe it’s just me) that as they get more verbal, we don’t have to guess those needs anymore–they’ll tell us! But of course that’s ridiculous; I know adults who can’t figure out what they need, never mind how to express it.

    I can also say that many of my needs are not being met right now. It makes it far more challenging to be a good parent. I often don’t have whatever it takes to figure out what their unspoken needs are when I’m struggling so myself.

    • 28/06/2013 at 2:27 pm

      it’s not just you, amy 😉

      “more” verbal does not always mean “improved” verbal skills. sometimes it’s just more. more to wade through and harder to decipher. i am so with you there.

      and it’s not automatic that adding more years to one’s life brings a better understanding of one’s self and one’s needs. that’s a different process entirely, one that requires its own skill set development. i think much of what we consider to “come naturally” is both terribly and wonderfully complicated, but we don’t realize it unless – or until – something unexpected happens and we realize how very challenging it is to grow, physically and emotionally.

    • 28/06/2013 at 8:31 pm

      Hi Amy,
      It’s insightful for you to mention that I had my need met to be alone and write. Yes, exactly. I felt so nourished today, and now that I have come home I feel like it’s easier to listen and ‘practice what I preach.’

      On the other hand, when I feel that my needs haven’t been met I feel resentful, cross, unhappy and lonely. I sympathise with you, because it is really hard to reach out to another person’s needs when your own are unmet… especially when they have been unmet over a long period.

      My experience is that once I began responding to others’ needs and helping them to name those needs, I then began verbalising my needs in clear terms… and miraculously, my family seemed more in tune to what I was saying. For example, I might say, “Remember how you had a need to be heard yesterday when you were upset about breaking the glass? Well, right now I have a need to be heard too.”

      Thank you for taking the time to read, comment and share my writing, Amy. Your support means so much and your comments always add something essential to every conversation.

  • 28/06/2013 at 12:56 pm

    Beautiful Lisa! Love how your two girls worked it out, it is amazing what they learn from observation.

    Love Marshall Rosenberg, I am listening to Non Violent Communication for the fifth time right now, can’t get enough of it. So good!

    Thank you.

    • 28/06/2013 at 8:36 pm

      It was so amazing today Kim, because as I was writing this post a woman sat down next to me and pulled out the Rosenberg book! How improbably is that? It is such a great book and I’m glad you enjoy it too.

  • 28/06/2013 at 2:19 pm

    i am, once again, reassured by your words that a parenting stumble does not bring the whole world crashing down. so much of what we do as parents is unseen, unrecognized for the strong foundation-building that it is. but think about the careful attention to the architecture and design that go into creating a structure that can withstand the effects of a natural disaster; if and when the earthquake comes, the building will stand firm. it is clear that in a moment of crisis and frustration, when no one is at their personal best, your children – on their own – fell back on what they feel is a solid grounding of respect and trust within your family that has been built, mostly invisible, over time.

    yes, i agree entirely with practicing self-compassion. our children watch us so carefully, especially when we think they are not, and they build their self-talk with our own as a model. if we want them to be patient and forgiving and understanding with themselves and others, we can show them how by starting with ourselves. no, it is not a guarantee of success, but it is certainly a more loving and peaceful way to view the world, wouldn’t you agree?

    • 28/06/2013 at 8:46 pm

      Hi Dawn,
      You make a really important point. This is not a quick fix, nor is it effortless. Really listening, trying to understand, helping a child to identify his own needs– all of this means somehow moving past what might be an instant knee-jerk reaction from you. It takes time and effort. It takes commitment. In other words, it’s a practice. But yes, as you say it is a more loving and peaceful way to relate to the world.

      And it is always important to me to represent my life in real terms on this blog. I don’t want readers to imagine that my reactions are A1 perfect all of the time. It’s not like that at all. I learn an incredible amount through my mistakes, about parenting, but above all, about myself.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment, and I appreciate your comments to Amy’s post as well.

  • 28/06/2013 at 3:00 pm

    beautiful piece and lovely advice.

    i saw this in school quite a bit — adults are quick to slap a convenient label on children’s behavior and move on, without digging beneath the surface to see if there is something deeper that can be addressed.

    he’s naughty, she’s shy, he’s bad at sharing, she’s bossy, etc. — not only do these quick-diagnosis labels do the children no good, but it seems as though most adults are conditioned to believe that children have a natural bent toward being naughty. if you accept that’s the case, why look deeper?

    • 28/06/2013 at 8:57 pm

      Hello Lori,
      Indeed. Perhaps it’s quicker and easier to apply labels than it is to take a deeper look and attempt to connect with a child (or an adult, even) as a human being.

      Time and again, when someone in my acquaintance seems aggressive or unkind, there’s *always* a deeper need running beneath it. It’s easy to slap a label on it, but what’s really behind it? Asking that question takes us deeper into compassion, but it’s not a quick fix or an easy way out.


  • 28/06/2013 at 4:42 pm

    A very insightful post. I used to hate the label ‘naughty’ – still do! children have reasons for what they do. The trick is to really fathom them out and guide them towards dealing with their own behaviour rather than stamping on it. But also remember that we are all human with human failings and be kind with ourselves as well as our children!

    • 28/06/2013 at 9:03 pm

      Hello Ross,
      Yes, as you and other commentators have said, how we treat ourselves in these situations speaks volumes to our children. Is it ok to make mistakes? How do I treat myself when I do?

      And no, labels don’t help. I dislike ‘naughty’ too. It’s an unhelpful label that doesn’t actually help a child to understand how he might have behaved differently, and it builds a wall between adult and child rather than aiding connection.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  • 28/06/2013 at 9:14 pm

    I love this Lisa. Your girls’ way of working things out together is amazing, and really demonstrates what a great role-model you must be to them!

    I really dislike the ‘toddler taming’ philosophy. As though children have a natural inclination to be naughty and so it is our job to show them who’s boss so that they will behave appropriately. And neither am I a fan of the behaviouristic approach that says that if we just bribe them into ‘behaving’ in a certain way – e.g. with reward charts – all will be well. I can’t help but think that that’s the approach that results in adults who need to be ‘tamed’ because they’ve never considered the needs of others and the impact that their behaviour has on them – because they were not helped to consider those needs as children. Let alone being helped to consider their own needs.

    Considering the needs behind every behaviour is, though, as you say, often easier said than done. Particularly when our needs as parents are not met. I really try – not least because I find that it takes me along the path of least resistance! A hard line doesn’t work in this house!

    • 30/06/2013 at 10:30 pm

      So true. I was only reflecting the other day how I think my own childhood experiences have left me perhaps a tamed child! It is the one of the things I wanted to change most for my children. I want them to be able to think fir themselves and know who they are. If I was just given one thing I could give them as a gift as adults, this would be it.

      • 01/07/2013 at 5:43 pm

        Yes, I totally agree. I hope that if I recognise the needs underlying my children’s behaviour, and discuss them with them, they’ll start to recognise them themselves and that’s got to be good for them as adults – both in understanding themselves and in understanding others. Makes me think of the article Lori shared last week (called “I know what you think of me” or something) – it’s one thing to understand that we are a complex mixture of emotions, but it’s hard to remember that others are the same. But I guess knowing that about yourself is a start!

    • 09/07/2013 at 9:06 pm

      Hello Kirsten,
      Family time means that it’s taken me much longer than I’d have like to reply. My apologies for that.

      You helpfully mention two parenting ‘philosophies’ (for want of a better word): the behaviouristic approach and the taming approach. To my mind, each of these approaches has a single major fault: they imply that there is a list of parenting rules, i.e., a right way and a wrong way. The only rule is love. Compassion is what enables us to bypass the rules and go straight to the heart.

      It can be hard to shake off the power of other approaches. Or perhaps it isn’t for you, as you say that they don’t work in your house? Interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences if you feel comfortable sharing.


  • 30/06/2013 at 10:32 pm

    It must have been such a proud moment to hear your daughters work through it like that. Thank you again for a great blog post.

    • 09/07/2013 at 9:13 pm

      Hi Charlotte,
      Proud? Maybe. More like humbled. They reminded me of how I would really like to communicate, and yet I fall down so many times.

  • 01/07/2013 at 4:33 pm

    Great piece Lisa, though I must admit that I’m more a ‘People Skills’ book fan than NVC – although it’s on my list of books to read. Just spoke with a mother today about using assertion (rather than passive or agressive statements) in a difficult situation. I’m hoping to write something about that one day… Maybe you will too?

    Best wishes, M x

    • 09/07/2013 at 9:15 pm

      Hi Marija,
      Yes, I do love People Skills. In fact, it’s one of my favourite books. The biggest thing I love about NVC is its focus on needs. I think that puts people’s behaviour and communication in a totally fresh light and helps us to see them as needful humans rather than as manipulators, etc.
      Thanks for stopping by,

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