I hear so often from parents that family life would be perfect and harmonious if only [that one child] didn’t always provoke arguments, pick fights and disrupt the peace with petty wind-ups.

It feels like sabotage, it feels predictable and it is exhausting and heartbreaking.

You love all your children deeply, madly, evenly and you have always been conscious of treating them the Same. Equally. Fairly.

So why does it feel like you’re spending 85% of your time admonishing, nagging and justifying everything to [that one child]?

And how can you stop it happening?

Here is a little 2 step exercise that will change the way you feel about your child’s behaviour and will enable you to compassionately help your child even when it looks, seems and sounds to all the world like they are behaving really badly.

Step 1:

Ask yourself what your child gets from their behaviour? How does it serve them? Be curious and ponder the question for a while.

Your answers may look something like this:

  • they get a lot of attention, even if negative
  • they get to feel strong and powerful in that moment of disrupting the rest of the family
  • they get a cuddle and physical affection when the whole thing has escalated and ended in full blown meltdown

Step 2:

So you know what they are getting by behaving the way they do, now see if you can identify the needs your child is meeting.

So in this example the child’s behaviour meets the following needs:

  • the need for attention
  • the need for control
  • the need to feel safe
  • the need to have social status within a group
  • the need for intimacy

According to the Human Givens Institute “When a person is getting their innate physical and emotional needs met in a balanced way they will be mentally healthy (unless they are also traumatised or brain damaged in some way).

Scientists and psychologists have identified the fundamental givens of human nature which everyone needs to have satisfied in their life if they wish to function well.

There are nine fundamental emotional needs that, when adequately met, enable us to thrive. We are neuro-biologically wired to try to get these needs met:

  • Security — safe territory and an environment which allows us to develop fully
  • Attention (to give and receive it) — a form of nutrition
  • Sense of autonomy and control — having volition to make responsible choices
  • Emotional intimacy — to know that at least one other person accepts us totally for who we are, “warts ‘n’ all”
  • Feeling part of a wider community
  • Privacy — opportunity to reflect and consolidate experience
  • Sense of status within social groupings
  • Sense of competence and achievement
  • Meaning and purpose — which come from being stretched in what we do and think.

So in the example above, your child is meeting 5 of 9 common essential human needs – not a bad result eh!

When you reframe their behaviour like this, your child is no longer ‘bad’ or ‘disruptive’ or ‘naughty’.

They are just a small person with big needs.

AND you can drop all the agonising and analysing about your parenting skills and throw away the self-blame and guilt.

Instead accept ‘what is’ and don’t judge them for their needs, even if it seems incredible to you that one small person really needs all that much attention or safety or  control and autonomy.

If it was a physical need like hunger or sleepiness, you’d let them eat or sleep until they’d had enough of either. And sometimes they have an enormous appetite, and other days hardly any. Physical needs like appetite and sleep vary. So do emotional needs. Sometimes by the minute.

What doesn’t change is the neurological wiring in the brain designed to get the need met.

The magic of you ‘accepting what is’, is that it will transform the way your child will try and meet that need.

Before, the behaviour met resistance in you because you deemed it unacceptable and wrong. And what we resist, persists.

What we accept, dissolves.

Your acceptance of the fact that your child is trying to meet a need is what will transform the behaviour because you will react with compassion instead of censure.

It will allow you to say things like:

“You are really angry, I see that”, instead of “don’t talk to me like that.”

“I can see you are really upset and feeling bad, how can I help you?” instead of “oh come on there’s no need for that.”

So, to sum up: when [that one child] is being extreme, you have a choice to observe their behaviour, validate their need and offer different ways to meet the needs.


Have you experienced that your acceptance of ‘what is’ changes the behaviour of your child? Have you noticed that when you are not emotionally engaged it is ‘water off a duck’s back’ and the behaviour changes quicker?

How do you get yourself out of the way and into Objective Observer mode?

Please leave a comment below and share your hard-earned parental wisdom with us. We would love to know how you deal with [that one child].

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