When working with parents of young children, I often find myself puzzling along with the mother – trying to work out why her child behaves the way he does. My clients often find it helpful to use the following ideas to help them figure out the confusing or offensive behavior and why the child is doing it.

Take 5-year-old Jack for example. Jack is into everything, his mom tells me. Especially his father’s electronic gadgets. Jack simply cannot keep his hands off them and inevitably ends up “breaking them”. Dad gets angry with Jack and labels Jack as naughty, disobedient and destructive. Mom has tried time outs and removal of privileges and even yelling. Nothing seems to stop Jack from touching his father’s camera, cell phone etc.  It’s as if he cannot help himself.

During our talks I explained the following to Jack’s mom:

Let’s assume (based on psychoanalytic research) that everything we do represents an action we take in response to some basic need we have. Let’s assume also that we can classify our basic needs into 5 very separate areas. In addition let’s accept that we cannot just turn off our needs, because they are always present in the background or the foreground. They are always motivating us to meet them through some kind of action.

Psychoanalyst Joseph D. Lichtenberg believes we can divide our needs into groups of five systems. They are:

(1) The need to fulfill physiological requirements (e.g. eating, sleeping, exercising);

(2) The need for attachment and affiliation (e.g. calling a friend, falling in love, spending time with another);

(3) The need for assertion and exploration (e.g. stating your opinion, building something, discovering and being curious about the world around you);

(4) The need to react aversively through antagonism and/or withdrawal (e.g. fighting, arguing, hitting, stone-walling, ignoring, retreating into aloneness);

(5) The need for sensual and sexual pleasure (e.g. affection, massage, sexual activities).

In each of us, at any moment during our day, one (or more) of these motivational systems assumes dominance or is in the foreground.  They are there to alert us to what we need both for our physical survival and also for our psychological and emotional well-being. When these needs are met we feel a sense of vitality and aliveness.  When they are not met we feel frustrated and eventually, over time we can feel misunderstood, helpless, empty and depressed.

When your child’s behavior is puzzling or simply not what you would like, it can be helpful to figure out what their need is at the time. For example, if you have a child who is clinging to you when take her to a birthday party, you might tell yourself that your child’s clinging behavior is motivated by her need for attachment. You are the person she feels attached to. Thus, in order for her to move into her exploratory motivational system, she will first need to have her need for attachment satisfied. Thus staying with her longer than you expected, until she feels able to attach or affiliate with someone else at the birthday will help her to move this need into the background. Once secure, she will go out and explore the situation as you want her to. And you may well be able to leave her there until you pick her up.

Going back to our first example – it is easy now to see that Jack has an overwhelming need to explore. He is not necessarily touching the electronics because he is naughty and disobedient, but rather because he is curious about how they work and how they are put together. Instead of focusing on frustrating his need to explore, his parents could provide him with other, older electronics that he could take apart at will. He will therefore be more inclined to leave dad’s stuff alone!

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