Back To Basics: 5 Needs We Must Meet For Our Children

posted by Andrea | 06/24/2019

As many of you might remember, Nora was a very high-needs baby and toddler.

She caused a huge amount of stress for Dave and for me during the first 2-3 years of her life when we basically had no idea what we were doing in terms of parenting. To add to our stress, almost everyone we knew gave us advice about what to do, what not to do, what books to read, what products to buy, and what “always worked for them” (news flash, it never worked for us!)

Nora was always hyper-sensitive to any type of “different” situation, often over-reacting and having a complete meltdown with even the slightest discomfort.

Because of this, I got VERY good at watching her, reading her cues, and doing everything I could possibly do to prevent her from being over-stimulated (and having a massive meltdown in public). 

It was more-than-frustrating at the time, but looking back, I can see how this steep learning curve has paid off exponentially with the rest of our children, because I’m so much more attune to their needs (many times, even before THEY know what they want or need). 

If you are the parent of a high-needs baby, a slightly-sensitive toddler, or child who regularly acts out for seemingly “no reason”, I would strongly encourage you to put your parenting books back on the shelf for a month or so and simply get “back to the basics”.

Spend more time with them, talk to them, listen to them, and read their cues. Even if they can’t talk yet, there’s a good chance they can “tell” you what they need… as long as you’re listening! 

In my opinion, there are 5 basic needs we must meet for our children… I ask myself the following questions whenever my children start acting out, BEFORE I start threatening punishments or forcing them to do something I think they should do. 

1. Are They Hungry?

Whenever my kids get crabby or start acting out in any way, my first thought is ALWAYS “are they hungry?” I mentally calculate how long it has been since they last ate something, and if it’s been more than a couple hours, I offer a banana or a cheese stick (or serve up the next meal, depending on the time of day). 

More often than not, hunger is the cause of SO much of my children’s ill-moods and uncooperative behavior — and as I’m sure many of you can relate to, sometimes I have already offered food and they have declined because they don’t want to stop playing or they truly don’t realize they’re hungry.

Simon is our child who seems to be most affected by hunger, so I always take a handful of snacks along with us wherever we go. If he starts getting crabby, fighting with his siblings, or complaining about everything, I know it’s time to stop and have a quick snack. His mood is often instantly transformed and we can move on with the rest of our day. 

Food is a relatively “quick fix”, but it’s something that is very easy to overlook (especially when we’re frustrated because our child is misbehaving or being uncooperative.)

.

2. Are They Tired?

Children need SO MUCH SLEEP — it’s honestly sort of crazy to realize how much they can (and should) sleep every day. 

Back when we hired our sleep consultant, we realized just how much sleep our kids really do need — and since then, we have worked extremely hard to get our kids IN BED by 7 pm every night so that they can wake up bright and early (often by 6:30am) for school and other activities the next day.

I will admit to pushing this bedtime back a bit over the summer — we’ve been letting them stay up until closer to 8:00 in the summer, but they’ve adjusted to sleeping in until closer to 7:30 as well (Clara usually sleeps until almost 9!). 

Many of the parents I hear from tell me that a 7:00 bedtime is totally impossible for their family because of all the extra curricular activities the kids are involved in… and while I think extra curricular activities can be very beneficial, I will always say that sleep is more important (especially for very young children). 

If your children are constantly irritable, disrespectful, crabby, etc. try bumping their bedtime up 15 minutes every few days or see if you can figure out a way to get them to nap (or even just rest) for a bit in the afternoon.

There were times this past year when Clara went to bed at 6:00 because she was acting tired already after dinner. I’m thankful the 6:00 bedtime didn’t stick around for long (maybe she was just having a growth spurt) but I’m happy we were able to figure out why she had been so crabby, and make the necessary changes to bring back our happy, smiley little girl!

Sleep is not always a magical cure like food (it might take a few weeks of consistently earlier bedtimes to see any sort of result) but you might be surprised to notice how much of a difference more sleep makes in terms of the child’s overall mood, disposition, attitude, and behavior.

.

3. Are They Overwhelmed?

Young children have very little control over their life or the situations they are forced into… we tell them what to eat, we buy the clothes they will wear, we decide where they will live and go to school, we drive them (or don’t drive them) to the places we allow them to go, we set rules for so many things throughout the day, their teachers have rules for everything at school, etc. etc. I can’t even imagine dealing with that as an adult — it could definitely get overwhelming at times!

I figure there’s a strong likelihood our children might feel overwhelmed if they are pushed into a new situation with strange people, forced to eat foods never tried before, or told to do an activity they’ve never done before.

Maybe they’ve been away from home all day and just need to decompress for a bit. Or maybe their home situation is very stressful but they can’t get away. Maybe their parents have recently divorced, maybe a new baby just disrupted their happy-go-lucky life, maybe they just moved to a new town with a new house and a new school and they don’t know how to deal with all the changes. 

Towards the end of the school year, Nora came home in such a bad mood and was acting very disrespectful and rude to us. I finally asked her what was wrong and she instantly started sobbing and told me all about a “hard project” they were working on at school and then a friend who apparently “yelled” at her on the way home. After we talked about it and I let her cry for a bit, she was totally fine the rest of the afternoon — but I was also much more empathetic towards her as I could tell she felt very overwhelmed with the day’s activities.

Although it’s not always easy (especially in the heat of the moment) I often try to put myself in my child’s shoes when they are acting out. It definitely helps me see things from their perspective and realize they might just need a bit of time to decompress after a “stressful” day, or they might just need an empathetic listening ear. 

.

4. Are they Uncomfortable? 

Are they hot, cold, or feeling claustrophobic? Do they have sand in their shoes, a hair in their mouth, a sliver in their finger, or an itchy tag on their clothing? Is their shirt too fitted, is the seat belt too tight, are the lights too bright, is the music too loud, are there too many strangers around, or too many strong smells?

These might seem trivial to us as adults, but they can be a HUGE deal to small children — maybe even the difference between a pleasant morning running errands and a stressful scream-fest that leaves both the parent and child completely exhausted.  

This point is probably the biggest take-away I got from parenting Nora for the first 3 years of her life — if I could keep her from being uncomfortable, I could drastically reduce the number of hours she spent crying every day.

Now, 4 kids and 4 years later, I’m hyper-aware of my children’s discomfort and can usually remedy the situation before it escalates out of control.

It’s a sanity-saver, that’s for sure! 

.

5. Are They Developmentally Ready?

Sometimes I think we fail to consider what our children are actually capable of. They seem so competent at times, but they are still children who lack many of the basic skills we have been perfecting for years already. 

Even IF they are capable of learning a certain task or skill, we are still responsible for teaching it to them in a way they can understand AND giving them enough of an opportunity to practice the skill before we expect them to do it the right way every time. 

For example, Dave and I try not to get upset when James talks too loudly in church (I swear, that boy has no “inside voice”). He’s not trying to be disrespectful or disruptive, he simply doesn’t know how to whisper yet and he’s not ready to sit through an entire church service without asking us a question at some point. Nora and Simon, on the other hand, do just fine and never cause any issues in church. James will get there eventually! 

Other situations that immediately come to mind are potty training and sleeping through the night. These are 2 HUGE milestones for parents of young children — but unfortunately they cannot happen until the baby/child is physically, emotionally, and mentally ready to do it. You cannot force it to happen, and you often can’t “teach” the child to do it any faster than they are ready to do it. 

For older children, it might be something like buying phone, having a social media profile, or staying home by themselves — there’s not a set age when these things should happen for all children. We as parents need to use our judgement to determine if our children are actually developmentally ready for these tasks (and yes, it can be tricky!)

This should not discourage you from trying to teach your children new skills or give them new privileges and responsibilities, but rather, it should hopefully help you to realize that there might be times when your child just simply isn’t ready to do something… and instead of getting frustrated with them or thinking they are trying to disobey us, we can take a step back and give them a bit of grace. 

.

I want to clarify… these tips and suggestions are for ALL children and parents – not just parents of high-needs children (although they are especially helpful in those high-needs situations). 

Until we address (and remedy) these 5 basic needs of our children, we will not be able to coax or force or bribe them into being more cooperative or better behaved. 

Of course, meeting these 5 basic needs will not always guarantee our children will magically behave all the time… however, they are a REALLY great place to start. 

It doesn’t require a degree in childhood psychology or a library full of the best parenting resources to pause and consider if our children are hungry, tired, overwhelmed, uncomfortable, or simply not developmentally ready for something… but it can make a HUGE difference in how we react in a tense situation and how our children respond to us. 

Give it a try and see for yourself! 

What are your best “back to basic” parenting tips? 

7Shares

Filed under: FamilyParenting

Leave a comment

29 comments

  1. Heather

    06/26/2019

    Andrea! Thank you. As the mother of a high-needs 17-month-old, I can’t tell you how timely and helpful this post is for me. I feel like I spend all day frantically juggling, trying to keep all the balls in the air, attempting to mitigate my son’s next meltdown (or even whine-out). He is a demanding dude, and while I’ve learned to take his personality in stride, it is EXHAUSTING. I appreciate the reminder to focus on those basic needs little (and big!) people have. So easy to forget!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    oh my — yes! It’s SO exhausting, especially when you can’t ever leave it or get away.
    I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but it WILL get easier — even if your daughter continues to be very high-needs, it will be easier once she can talk and communicate with you, and it will also FEEL easier because you’ll have more experience and feel like you actually (sort of) know what you’re doing!
    Keep it up Heather — you’re doing great!

    [Reply]

  2. Natalia

    06/26/2019

    Excellent post, Andrea! I am grateful you reminded me to check these basic needs, especially now, with the change in routine (probably meal times changes, playdates, different activities! – oh, my! I get the privilege to plan for them and to know what to expect, but they probably don’t know and don’t have the capacity to push through it all)

    One important thing I noticed that my daughters need is the 1-on-1 connection. They need to be reminded, again and again, several times throughout the day, that I am on their team. Showing empathy, giving them my full attention and my time is very hard (sometimes I do not have it!!), but it is SO important!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    thanks Natalia! Sometimes we all just need a little reminder!

    [Reply]

  3. Esther

    06/26/2019

    Thank you , Andrea, for this reminder and encouragement.
    We have 3 hearing impaired children and often when they get grumpy I also ask are they experiencing something that they need words for…even a 6 month old , I might need to teach how to sign milk or hungry. Another thing , often during fussy times if I gave ANY info , maybe about elephants in Africa made them happy again.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    haha — elephants in Africa! That’s great! Sounds like you are a good mama to your little kiddos!

    [Reply]

  4. Sue

    06/25/2019

    Andrea,
    I love your down to earth approach to life. You are a great inspiration to young moms!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Sue!

    [Reply]

  5. Michele

    06/25/2019

    My two kids are 15 and 11, and both are on the autism spectrum. These guidelines are very similar to what we follow even now. Yes, my 15 year old son has an 8:00 bedtime, but that is because he NEEDS it. When he was very young, we were all miserable because he did not sleep well — sometimes no more than 2 hours a night! We tried everything. Finally after consulting with his doctors, we made the decision to put him on a sleep medication at night. It was the best decision we ever made. Now he goes to bed at 8, and he has to be up at 5:30 to catch his 6:10 school bus. He is much happier and does better in school with that 9 1/2 hour sleep.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    I think that in general, high school kids get far too little sleep — good for you for helping your kiddo get the sleep he needs!

    [Reply]

  6. Margaret

    06/24/2019

    All this is true for any non-verbal being. I work with people with dementia, and this is pretty much the checklist I have been taught to run through when someone starts acting out or even becomes violent. Work your way up from the most basic needs to the more complex. Every sequence has an antecedent, a behavior, and a consequence. Internal triggers, caregiver triggers, environmental triggers; singly or in combination. If you can figure out the origins of the behavior, you’re a long way towards helping the person get it under control. It’s truly amazing how much violence is averted just by taking someone to the toilet.
    I also know from my experience as a dog trainer that just because the dog (or child) knows a behavior in one location (a familiar training location/at home) doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do it in a different environment, whether it’s the Obedience ring or the grocery store. Get them over threshold, back in the more primitive parts of their brain, and they literally can’t think–they are overwhelmed, and, depending on the individual, you’ll either get a meltdown or a shutdown if you keep pushing.
    So it’s hard.

    [Reply]

  7. Lori

    06/24/2019

    Fantastic post, Andrea! Any summer recipes your looking to try?

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Lori — I’ve been baking with a lot of rhubarb lately, but no specific summer recipes right now ๐Ÿ™‚

    [Reply]

  8. Bonnie'sMama

    06/24/2019

    My young daughter would go from being sweet and obedient to horribly stubborn and completely unreasonable so fast. It was like her brain suddenly stopped working. No discipline or strategies worked . . . until the day God showed me that she needed protein, just like I do when my blood sugar drops.

    Now when she gets the scowlies and starts being horrid to me and everyone around her, she gets to sit down and eat about six almonds (or she will lose the stereo and audio books for the rest of the day–a terrible consequence!). In about two minutes, she is back to her normal, cheerful, obedient, friendly self.

    For my babies, tuning in to them and understanding their signals was much easier when I learned about baby language from Priscilla Dunstan. My latest baby used his “words” for nine months instead of the typical three months. He knew it worked! Now we’re working on baby sign language, which removes so much frustration for both the baby and the parents. I would probably scream too if no one could understand me!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    yup, we have food with us ALL the time! Crazy how much of a difference it can make (and so quickly too!)

    [Reply]

    Jenny Reply:

    Protein seems to be the key. While fruit, juice, even milk can quickly relieve the symptoms that come with low blood sugar, they cause a quick rise and then a quick crash again. So it can become an unpredictable
    roller coaster, requiring more and more carbs, both physically and emotionally. Almonds, a piece of cheese, etc. and things with more fiber and a little fat do a much better job of stabilizing levels while lowering the cravings problem. I am a medical professional BTW! But try it for yourself

    [Reply]

  9. Lindsey

    06/24/2019

    My daughter is 18 months now and for the first year, she hated baths and car rides. Whenever I would mention this, anyone and everyone would tell me that babies LOVE the car! They go right to sleep! In fact it’s the vibrations they are so soothed by. Baths are also SO calming! Babies just love water. You need to give her bath toys and she will play! It was a terrible time of being “told” we were simply wrong. Now sleeping we had no problem with but I can’t imagine being told over and over you are just doing it wrong. The sleep sense program which is White noise, blackout shades, no pacifiers or sleep props and taking naps in the same place she sleeps at night (her crib) helped us have a kid who has slept 12 hrs a night starting at 6 months old and takes good naps too. It was a lifesaver.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    hahaha — yes, We had a couple who HATED car rides. It was rough!
    And yes, we did white noise, blackout shades, no pacifier, no sleep props, no sleeping with mom or dad, always in her room, etc. etc. and nothing worked!

    [Reply]

  10. Jen

    06/24/2019

    What a great reminder and message, Andrea! My kids are very sensitive to their amount of sleep. Their behavior and demeanor changes so much when they are well rested.

    I also think they benefit from a routine and getting outside at some point during the day. I know being outside helps me feel better, and I see it helps them too.

    Thanks again for this post. Have you written about potty training? I’ll search your site. It went poor with my daughter, and I’m so nervous about doing it with my son. Any tips, especially for boys, would be appreciated.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    I have not written about potty training because I feel like it’s such an individual thing. What worked for Nora didn’t work for Simon and what worked for Simon didn’t work for James! Who knows how it will go with Clara — maybe I’ll have more insightful wisdom in a couple years when I’m looking back on potty training 4 children!

    [Reply]

    Jen Reply:

    Ok, thank you for the reply! I find your post about Nora and I’ll read it over. Even if your tips don’t work for everyone (of your kids, even), I still like to gather information.

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    yeah, information is good — and it’s really fun when it works for our own families too!

    [Reply]

  11. Stephanie

    06/24/2019

    This post is insightful, simple, and to the point. I have a high needs child too and try to remember these things. Having such a child gives u so much insight. Iโ€™ll never look at a child again and think they are just being โ€œbratty.โ€ Usually, a lot more is going on under the surface. Thanks, Andrea, for sharing!

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks Stephanie! And yes, one “benefit” from having a super high-needs baby was that I have more empathy and insight now!

    [Reply]

  12. JJ

    06/24/2019

    Yes, yes, yes!!! ALL THREE of my children are highly sensitive. It can be very overwhelming, frustrating, and honestly annoying at times. My husband is an extreme introvert, so that adds to the stress. As a parent of multiple highly sensitive children, I read that it is OK to to grieve the children I wished I had. Then to move forward and love them for who they are. Reading that and realizing that was a ME problem, totally helped my perspective!!! I’m sharing this for moms who may feel guilty for their feelings about their kids(highly sensitive or not!). We don’t have “the easy child” to rely on to smooth things over. We have had to say, “No!” to a lot of things to save our sanity and to keep our children from overload. Reading the two books I’ve mentioned before have really helped me to feel more normal and have given practical and helpful advice(like this post!).

    Simply allowing my children to have their feelings and acknowledging them have been HUGE! Also keeping things in the positive have kept a good balance. Instead of, “No, you can’t have that.” “Would you like this or that?” And yes, just being aware and perceptive of their needs!!! My daughter has a very similar personality to my husband, so he has helped me to understand a lot of things that make absolutely no sense to me.

    The best thing you can do if someone’s child is having a meltdown or is highly sensitive is to be encouraging to the child and parent. We have an awesome support of friends and church family. They are loving and patient. So thankful!!! Even if it’s a text after checking on them and letting them know you’ve been there before, too.

    I have two introverted children. One of them takes A LONG TIME to warm up to something new or something where there is a larger crowd. So, sometimes just standing next to them and waiting patiently while gently nudging them has been helpful for us. Our VBS had a huge bounce house and slide. My daughter sobbed because she didn’t get the courage to go on it. She sobbed while waiting. She sobbed when they told us they had to take it down and she didn’t get to ride it(her brothers did). A week later we went to a bounce house place. We went at a time with fewer people and many options. She confidently went on all of them. It was so rewarding to watch her!!! And when I saw a little girl sobbing on the bounce house climbing wall, I gave a warm smile to the embarrassed parent trying to console her from outside the bounce house while the brother tried to help her.

    I’ve learned that experience for me often breeds empathy. So I guess I’m ironically thankful for highly sensitive kids! And I hope they love their highly sensitive mama. Haha!!! Yes, they get it from me!!! โ€โ™€๏ธ

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks so much for sharing — I’m certain it will be helpful to others!

    [Reply]

  13. Glenda

    06/24/2019

    This is probably one of the most important and valuable teaching posts that I have read in a very long time. It made me immediately think about the adults, in our lives, as well. If we all tried harder to pause and tune into others, there would be more communication and less tension in family relationships. Thank you for a wonderful reminder, Andrea.

    [Reply]

    Annette Silveira Reply:

    Exactly! I am grumpy in all of these situations too

    [Reply]

    Andrea Reply:

    Thanks so much Glenda! And yes, it’s definitely the case for adults too!

    [Reply]