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Understanding Children

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

This two-part article is written for the most important people in the lives of children: the adults who care for them. Parents and educators (teachers, educational assistants, and educational administrators).

 

Understanding Children, Part I: Why Do Children Misbehave?

Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved."

-Dr. Jane Goodall Jane Goodall: 40 Years at Gombe

Art by Erin Vanessa (https://www.erinvanessa.com)

Children often experience conflict with others, hardships, and hurt feelings as they grow and learn. Like these other challenges, misbehaviour is also a normal part of growing up. Helping children with these challenges is one of the most rewarding (and difficult!) responsibilities of adulthood. Furthermore, adult responses can either help, hinder, or hurt children as they develop. For decades, behavioural approaches have been used to train children to behave in more orderly and socially-acceptable ways. While behavioural approaches can have favourable results, they do little to help adults understand children. Understanding children is a fundamental skill for the adults who raise children (parents, educators, etc.) and wish to help them with their challenges. This article is part of a two-part series which presents a relational approach to helping and understanding children: empathy. Empathy is the accurate understanding of another person’s internal frame of reference, which includes their feelings and needs. The connection between needs, feelings, and behaviours is described in Part I: “Why Do Children Misbehave?” Empathy and reflection skills are described and supported by evidence in Part II: “Empathy and Reflection”.


What We Do "For Their Own Good"


Despite our best intentions, adult responses to children’s challenges are often unhelpful. Consider the following example: In the morning before going to work, you receive a phone call and learn that someone you love is seriously ill. At work you feel stressed, you are distracted, your productivity suffers, and you snap at an irritating colleague. Your boss pulls you into their office to lecture you about focusing on your work and maintaining good relationships. At lunch, a colleague asks you “what’s up?” When you share how your morning went, your colleague compares your problem to one of their own which was way worse. After work you meet a friend, and they offer you advice about how to deal with stress in a healthier way and tell you to “be grateful and look on the bright side of life.”


When adults respond to children’s challenges, they often respond in the ways the characters in the story did—lecturing (the boss), comparing and minimizing (the colleague), and advice (the friend). Take a moment to think about how you would prefer these people to treat you in the story above. Did words like “caring, compassion, kindness,” and “respect” come to mind? Children deserve no less than adults.


Yet, adults often feel annoyed, incompetent, or overwhelmed when faced with children’s challenges. This can lead to unhelpful adult behaviours such as distracting, giving advice, interrogating, lecturing, minimizing, pity, sarcasm, and threatening. These behaviours are often justified as “being for their own good,” which points to the fact that the intention in most cases is, in fact, to help the child learn. These methods may “work” to stop misbehaviour in the short-term, but they are likely to increase challenges in the long-term, which is precisely the opposite of what the adult wanted. Why do methods such as advice or lecturing fail to help children with their challenges in the long term? Because the adult has failed to look past the child’s behaviours to what motivates behaviour in the first place: feelings and needs.


Two Approaches to Helping Children

Of course, there are also some methods that do help children with their challenges. Behavioural management and behavioural modification are two of the most popular methods used by people who raise children. These behavioural methods aim to maintain order and change unacceptable behaviours, they are easy to learn and write in books and manuals, and they have been applied successfully for generations. Unfortunately, behavioural methods have been emphasized so greatly in education and parenting that they are often applied in unhelpful ways. Why? Because behavioural methods rarely take into consideration the feelings and needs which motivate behaviour.


Consider this example of a clumsily-applied behavioural modification: A child has been misbehaving, so an adult applies a negative punishment—“no screen time for a week.” Then, the adult teaches the child how they are expected to behave in the future. For many adults, they would now consider their job done—they applied a consequence and taught the correct behaviour. However, the adult did not actually learn what feelings or needs motivated the child’s misbehaviour. For the child, their initial feelings remain unresolved, their needs unmet, and they are left with an awful new experience which may sound familiar: “[this person I care about] doesn’t like me.”


Relational approaches to helping children see the relationship between the child and adult as what drives behavioural change. The adult strives to gain an accurate understanding of the child’s feelings and needs, which helps them to see how these motivate the child’s behaviours. This requires empathy. Empathy is helpful when addressing a wide variety of challenges, such as conflict, hardships, hurt feelings, and misbehaviour. Furthermore, empathy combined with behavioural methods, such as modeling, can be highly effective in promoting behavioural change.


Empathy involves "looking past" behaviours to what lies behind: feelings and needs. When adults focus on behaviours, they fail to see the whole child. Empathy provides an adult with a much greater depth of understanding through behavioural methods alone because the adult sees much more of the child. This learning is invaluable as it teaches the adult more about the child and gives insight as to the reasons why a child misbehaves in the first place. The child also experiences someone they care about actually trying to understand them—this adult hears and accepts their feelings and needs before attempting to teach them other ways of behaving.


Why Children Misbehave


All misbehaviour is the best attempt of a child to satisfy their needs. Although both children and adults have the same needs, the behaviours that a child uses to satisfy their needs can differ from an adult greatly. For example, when an infant feels hungry, it cries so an adult will come to feed them. When an adult feels hungry, they search the fridge for a snack.


Needs are motivating—they push or pull a person to behave in a certain way—and feelings are what notify a person of their needs. In both the above examples, the infant and adult felt their hunger, they were motivated to acquire food, and they behaved in ways to satisfy that need. After they ate, the feeling of hunger would have changed to satiation and the need would no longer be noticed. Eventually, the feeling returns and so does the motivation to acquire food.

Humans also have psychological needs, which include autonomy, belonging, competence, safety, and secure attachment, as shown in Table 1. Psychological needs are similar to physical needs (e.g., hunger)—they also motivate behaviour and have associated feelings. For example, a child whose need for autonomy is met feels free and in control of themselves. This child is motivated to perform well, they are engaged in their learning, and they are likely to cooperate with others. By contrast, a child whose need for autonomy is not met may feel fearful and frustrated, act bossily towards other children, and act defiantly towards adults. We call this child’s bossiness and defiance “misbehaviour.” Although their misbehaviours may be annoying and hurtful to others, to the child, they are simply trying to satisfy their needs.


Behaviour And Needs


Behaviour is the attempt of a person to satisfy their needs; sometimes, even a child’s best attempts are not enough to satisfy their needs. Behaviours can also be mature or immature and socialized or unsocialized.


Mature behaviours are those that are typical of other people of the same age. Socialized behaviours are those that are accepted within a community or society. Some mature behaviours are not socialized; for example, it is mature for a four-year-old to cry when they must do something they dislike, such as clean up their toys. However, this behaviour is also unsocialized because it is not considered acceptable to cry to avoid responsibilities. When a behaviour is mature yet unsocialized, others are usually forgiving—the child is acting their age. However, behaviours that are immature and unsocialiced, such as a sixteen-year-old who cries to avoid responsibilities, are called "misbehaviours." Four examples shown in Table 2 illustrate the relationship between behaviours and needs.

Child A is able to satisfy their needs, and their behaviours are mature and socialized. They grow and learn well and their relationships with others are harmonious. This is the kind of behaviour that most adults hope children will learn. It is the responsibility of adults who raise children to help them learn these ways of behaving.


Child B is able to satisfy their needs, but their behaviours are immature and unsocialized. An example of this is the bossy child who controls every game and makes threats such as “I won’t be your friend if you don’t do what I say.” They are ensuring their need for belonging is met, albeit in a way that hurts and irritates others. Adults are often involved in conflicts caused by or with Child B and may respond with behavioural methods (e.g., consequences). But, since Child B’s needs are being met, they are unlikely to change their behaviours. However, in many cases the other children grow tired of Child B and exclude them, which deprives them of the need for belonging. This crisis will likely motivate the child to change their behaviours, but the change is not necessarily towards more acceptable behaviours. In fact, it may be toward more destructive behaviours such as aggression. Furthermore, the change that comes from crisis also comes at the cost of suffering.


Child C is not able to satisfy their needs, but their behaviours are mature and socialized. An example of this is the silent child who behaves well all the time, takes care of others, and never contradicts adults even if they have a different opinion. Children like Child C are ensuring their survival by “putting away” their needs. This, by definition, hurts the child—they do not grow nor learn well. Adults in their life often attribute these difficulties to the child rather than the environment, seeing Child C as distracted, inattentive, lazy, slow, or unintelligent. Environmental factors such as dangerous communities, discrimination, poverty, and war are widely recognized causes of childhood difficulties. However, the behaviours of adults (abuse, neglect, threat) and other children (bullying) can also push a child to adopt behaviours like Child C. It is an unfortunate truth that many adults prefer Child C to Child B or Child D because they do not cause problems. These children often go unnoticed in their silent suffering.


Child D is not able to satisfy their needs, and their behaviours are immature and unsocialized. They are hurting inside, and they behave in ways that are hurtful toward others. The adults in their life often feel annoyed, challenged, disappointed, humiliated, hurt, inadequate, irritated, guilty, and even hopeless. Unfortunately, these adults often react to the child’s misbehaviour with unhelpful behaviours such as blaming, ignoring, lecturing, punishing, and threatening. When adults try to help with behavioural methods (e.g., reward and punishment), the methods employed may work if they tend to the child’s feelings and help them satisfy their needs. However, without first gaining an understanding of their feelings or needs, it is impossible to know if the methods will actually help.


These examples should be taken as descriptive and not diagnostic (not to be used as labels). They do not account for the many other factors which influence children's behaviours, which may include traumatic experiences, medical disorders, intellectual exceptionalities (giftedness, learning disorders, etc.), and more. These oversimplified examples are best seen as a way to understand that misbehaviour (Child B and Child D) as well as silent suffering (Child C) are signs of a child who needs the help of a caring and understanding adult. Adults have the ability to address misbehaviour, relieve suffering, and encourage positive behavioural change by intervening through the use of empathy (see Part II: "Empathy and Reflection").


Conclusion


Every behaviour is a child’s best attempt at satisfying their needs. Needs exert a powerful influence on behaviours through feelings, which motivate a person to satisfy their needs. Children’s attempts to satisfy their needs often include immature and unsocialized behaviours, which adults call “misbehaviour,” and which can lead to conflicts and hurt feelings. Adults are best prepared to help children with these challenges when they understand how a child’s feelings and needs motivate their behaviour. Then, adults can help children with their challenges by “tuning in” to a child’s feelings in the moment and “hold up a mirror” so the child can learn for themselves how their behaviours, feelings, and needs are related. This effective, practical approach is covered in Part II: “Empathy and Reflection”.

 

Understanding Children, Part II: Empathy and Reflection

"Empathy brings even the most frightened person into the human race. If a person can be understood, they belong."

-Dr. Carl Rogers

The Evolution of Psychotherapy

Art by Erin Vanessa (https://www.erinvanessa.com)

There is an effective and practical way to help children with conflicts, hardships, and hurt feelings. This same approach can also be used to help children to change misbehaviours toward more mature and socialized ways of behaving. This approach is empathy, which focuses on understanding children, rather than on changing them. The first step toward developing a deeper understanding of children involves learning the link between behaviours, feelings, and needs. This is covered in Part I: “Why Do Children Misbehave?” This article describes a practical, step-by-step approach to practising empathy. A set of skills, including reflection, is described along with examples and evidence supporting the effectiveness of empathy.


Understanding Others


The most effective way to understand another person is through empathy. Empathy is usually seen as a listening skill; however, it is also possible to adopt an attitude of empathy. You can practice this attitude by treating children’s behaviours as communication—try to see things the way they see it, feel as if you were them, and connect with their needs. You are asking, “What is it like to be them? What motivates them to behave this way?” This attitude is particularly helpful because children often cannot communicate in words in the same way that an adult can.


When a child speaks, being empathic is more straightforward: listen attentively, acknowledge them, name the feelings, and reflect what you hear and see. Often, as you listen and respond empathically, a child will begin to express themselves more and more. This helps the child to “tune in” to their feelings and needs, which also helps you to understand them.


Practising Empathy


The first step is to “tune in.” Calm and focus yourself—if an adult is not calm when they are interacting with a child, then the child cannot be calm either. Look at the child’s face and their body language. What do you notice? Disregard distractions that come your way. Often, other children or even adults will try to draw your attention. You can respond simply by saying “I am listening to Alex right now and I need you to wait.” If it is safe to do so, kneel or sit so that you are at the same level as the child. It is easy to forget that we adults are giants and, when a child is upset, our physical size can be threatening. Finally, listen without interrupting out loud (butting in) or in your mind (thinking of what to say next)—just tune in.


The second step is to acknowledge (also called “validate”). Simple responses such as “mmm,” “mhm,” “okay,” “uhuh,” “I see,” “I understand,” and nodding your head help the child to feel your attention and to share more.


The third step is to name the feeling (also called “empathic statements”). The acronym “SSUNN” describes the essential elements of these statements.

Speaking in a soft and slow voice, using simple statements, helps the child to feel calmer and safer. Using the child’s words ensures that what you are saying makes sense to them. This does not mean parroting exactly what the child says back to them. Rather, it means not changing the child’s words—if they say “mad,” use mad and not “infuriated.” Empathic statements are not questions. Questions are interrogative and may even feel threatening to a child who is already upset. Some examples of naming the feeling include “you feel upset,” it hurts to get called names,” “you feel angry with Ali,” “it was fun at first but then it was scary,” “you do not like it when your sister takes your toys,” and “when dad went away, you felt sad.”


Reflection: "Holding Up a Mirror"


Often, basic empathy is enough (see above). Reflection is an additional skill which can be a powerful way to practice empathy. At first, it may seem that reflection is not empathic yet in every reflection there is the message, “I see you and I am trying to understand you.”


To practice reflection, first you must listen, notice, and observe the child. This is the same as “tuning in” as described above. Then, you “hold up a mirror” and describe what you hear and see back to the child or children. If there is more than one child, it is helpful to encourage the children to look at each other’s faces. You can do this by saying “see Li’s face?” then looking at Li and back at the other child.


Reflections are most helpful when they are simple and free from personal bias and judgment. Some examples of reflections with children who are misbehaving include “you are drawing all over the book,” “you ripped up the assignment and threw it on the floor because you felt frustrated,” “I saw your face was frowning and your body was tense, but you said you weren’t angry,” “it looked like you wanted to hurt Li’s feelings when you put her down.” Some of these reflections contain feeling words or describe possible motivations and others do not.


Reflection can also be used in conflict situations to help multiple children better understand themselves and others. Some further examples illustrate: “you felt angry with Peter and told him you won’t be his friend anymore,” “it looks like Leila felt hurt when you called her stupid,” “Kasia did not like that you kept following them even after they told you to stop,” and “you said something to the group and now they don’t want to talk to you .”


What Empathy Is Not


The goal is not to be able to say exactly what a child is feeling. Often, simple language and using the child’s words works best. If a child corrects you, accept their correction and restate yourself. For example, “I see... you are not frustrated, you feel mad.”


Naming the feeling as fast as possible and moving on to the adult agenda is also not an effective way to practice empathy. If a child is experiencing conflict or hurt feelings, or if they have been misbehaving, it is best to be calm and move slowly. By going slowly, you are better able to understand the child and you also encourage them to slow down and pay attention to what they are feeling and doing.


A common misconception about empathy is that it means we adults must accept all of a child’s behaviours. This is wrong. Empathy is about developing an accurate understanding of another person’s experience, which includes their behaviours, feelings, needs, and so on. When empathizing, it is important to show understanding by naming feelings and communicating acknowledgement and acceptance. This does not mean that you must accept all their behaviours, though. Discerning between feelings and needs on one side and behaviours on the other is important, as it allows adults to maintain boundaries and expectations for behaviours while also bestowing the many benefits of empathy.


The Benefits of Empathy


Empathy satisfies psychological needs: it supports the child’s autonomy since it is non-controlling; it supports belonging since it shows acceptance and builds the connection between you and the child; and it may support competence since the child is given the opportunity to try new, more effective ways of behaving. Furthermore, empathy communicates care and responsiveness, which are both essential elements of secure attachment.


The need for emotional (or psychological) safety is also supported by empathy. Safety allows a child to learn and to express their feelings and needs. The opposite of safety is threat, which prevents learning, self-expression, and is likely to increase misbehaviour. Children can feel threatened when they experience strong feelings but do not know what they are. Empathy can help a child to identify and understand these feelings. Children can also feel threatened by being questioned when they feel overwhelmed. This is one of the reasons why questions are generally unhelpful and empathic statements (SSUNN) are more effective. Unhelpful adult behaviours (e.g., threatening) which reduce safety also prevent children from being able to learn different ways of behaving. Therefore, it is essential that adults learn to empathize with children.


Over 70 years of research confirms that empathy is an effective and necessary “ingredient” in counselling and psychotherapy. Empathy helps clients to change their patterns of behaviour and thinking, the way they feel, and their ability to meet life’s challenges. These outcomes are the same aims adults have in their attempts to help children with their challenges.


Neuroscientists have revealed that humans are born with an innate ability to empathize, which is active even in infancy. They have also discovered that empathy is both an automatic and an intentional process. This means everyone can learn to empathize.


When an adult empathizes with a child, they are also teaching the child how to empathize with others. Children who show more empathy experience more peer acceptance and show higher competence in social situations. Since empathy contributes to secure attachment, it also helps children to manage their emotions better. Poorer emotional management and lack of empathy are risk factors for aggressive and psychopathic behaviours (e.g., violence against others without care or remorse). This suggests that empathy may also be a preventative measure to mental illness and violence.


Educators have found empathy to be just as powerful in their work with students as counsellors have in their work with clients. Children’s reading ability shows significant improvements in classrooms where the teacher demonstrates high empathy. Experiencing empathy from a teacher and from other students also fulfills the need for belonging. As a result, the students feel accepted, worthy, and their engagement in school is greater. On the other hand, an atmosphere of low empathy has been found to be related to more conflict and misbehaviour over time. Children tend to feel that unempathetic teachers do not like them. This experience can have serious negative effects on the child’s academic success, emotional well-being, and peer relationships.


Empathy and reflection are also educational and may act as an “immunization” to alexithymia [A-lex-i-thigh-me-a]. Alexithymia is the inability to understand and name one’s own emotions or feelings. People with alexithymia are more vulnerable to mental illnesses, especially depression. Every empathic statement is a form of teaching—the child learns about how their emotions feel, how emotions or feelings affect their thoughts and behaviours, and how to name and express emotions and feelings. These little lessons help a child to develop what psychologists call “emotional intelligence”. People with higher emotional intelligence have more harmonious and satisfying relationships, better mental health, higher academic achievement, and leadership skills.


Children also gain self-understanding through empathy and reflection. When they hear empathic statements, they “tune in” to their feelings and needs. When they hear reflections, they can observe how their behaviours relate to their feelings and needs. Then, they can ask themselves “are my ways of behaving satisfying my needs?” and “will these ways keep working?” If either answer is “no,” then they will be motivated to change. Such gains in self-understanding will help them to adopt more mature and socialized ways of behaving, that also satisfy their needs.


Conclusion


Helping children begins with understanding them. For the adults who raise children, every conflict, hardship, hurt feeling, and misbehaviour presents an opportunity to practice empathy and reflection. Empathy is a helpful and practical response to the challenges of childhood—it satisfies psychological needs, helps children develop self-understanding, and strengthens relationships. Reflection offers the additional benefit of helping children to “see themselves in a mirror,” which can be a powerful motivator for behaviour change. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, children learn to do unto others what was done to them. Creating a more compassionate and peaceful community begins with the way adults treat children.

 

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