A mom was trying to decide how to respond to the behavior of her two and a half year old son. She described how recently, when he wants something he becomes very emotionally intense and says, “I need it, I really need it”. If he can’t have it, he gets very upset and repeats that he “needs it”. And no matter what it may seem like, he really does! Which doesn’t mean mom has to give it to him.
This is a beautiful example of young children’s deeply felt emotions and the way they express these feelings. When this little boy would like to have something a friend is playing with, or wants an object in the home that is not for playing with – examples the mom gave – he experiences this as “needing” it. It is essential to his sense of well-being at that moment. It is almost as if his life depends on it.
This can be confusing to a parent because from an adult point of view, he doesn’t need it, he just wants it. The emotional intensity, and often the behavior that goes with it, doesn’t seem justified. We may begin to think in terms of needing to teach him that he can’t have everything he wants, which then influences the way we respond.
On the other hand, parents are very sensitive to the idea of meeting their children’s needs. One may wonder, why such a strong emotional reaction to what seems like something minor? Does he need something that is being overlooked? Should we give him what he is asking for so he will feel better?
Actually, this goes to the question of what we mean when we think about needs and wants. Have you ever thought, or said, “I need a new pair of shoes to go with that outfit”? That is different from, “My child shoes are too small, she needs a new pair.” Unhappily, there is also “need”, as in needing money for food or rent.
So even as adults, we often say “need” when we really mean “want”. And even need may mean something not only to make life more comfortable, but also even possible. Think about the times we say need when we really mean want. Even when we don’t need something for survival, wanting it may make it feel necessary for our emotional well-being. Hopefully though, as adults we don’t have temper tantrums if it’s something we can’t have.
The difference is that young children have not yet mastered their emotions. Not only that, they also experience things in black and white terms: things are either wonderful or terrible, mom is either the best mom in the world, or the Wicked Witch of the West. So often, when a child wants something, he really feels as though he needs it for his survival.
Of course, he really doesn’t need it for his survival. We know that, but he doesn’t. As I said earlier, that doesn’t mean we have to give it to him. What he does need that we can give, is for us to understand that it really feels that way to him. He really believes he won’t survive the frustration or disappointment he is feeling. We help him learn that he can and will survive by acknowledging his desperation, and supporting him as he lives through it. This at times may mean riding out the storm with words of comfort rather than criticism.
At other times, however, it may be possible and even desirable to help a child get what he wants. Think about yourself, again. How do you decide whether to indulge yourself with something you want, rather than need? Well, if it’s desert and you’re on a diet, you may question whether the momentary pleasure is worth the calories. If money is tight, you might question if you can afford it. Or it may come down to a question of priorities, whether what you want in this instance is more important than other things you are hoping to do.
Your child is not yet capable of such rational decision making. Even as adults we sometimes give in to the impulse of the moment – although we may regret it later. The point is, if what the child wants is reasonable, why not help him have it? Perhaps the other child will share the toy, or your child can have it next. Perhaps he just wants to touch the object on the shelf rather than play with it. Even if it is something that has to be bought, it might be possible to help him think about whether he wants that toy rather than a different one he has been thinking about.
If we remember how our own wants can feel like needs, it can help us feel compassionate toward our children, knowing that when they say they “really need it”, they really mean it.