Features, Headline

Parenting with compassion: Tending to your children’s psychological needs

Parenting with compassion Tending to your children's psychological needs

There are no easy answers as to why some children have behavioural issues such as school withdrawal, low moods, angry outbursts, anxiety and fears. We can start to understand them if we ask the question, “What unmet psychological needs could be driving these behaviours?”

The idea of psychological needs is not new. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we learn that human beings are motivated to get these needs met—the physiological needs of rest, food, safety and shelter, and at higher levels the psychological needs of love, acceptance, belonging and esteem.

When a baby cries, a parent quickly checks if the baby is wet, hungry, in pain, or needing attention and comfort, and responds accordingly. The baby’s physical and physiological needs are met and the crying stops.

When an 8-year-old child whines at the frustration of not being able to figure Maths out, this whining behaviour is somehow frowned upon, and quickly dismissed. The child feels frustrated, not validated for his efforts, is discouraged and concludes that he is probably not smart.

Or a 14-year-old who is constantly being told to clean up his room repeatedly hears, “You can never do anything right” and together with disappointments from school, feels discouraged and unaccomplished. As he walks away, it appears to the parent as if he did not care.

These unmet needs continue to build up and can produce feelings of isolation, inadequacy, insignificance and inferiority. While parents do a lot to provide shelter and food, children’s psychological needs may not have been adequately attended to.

When we look beyond children’s misbehaviours (e.g. disrespect, disobedience, rudeness, anger or bad attitude), we may in fact perceive a lonely, fearful, rejected, disappointed, wounded and hurt child. This is how complex psychological needs are. Deep inside, unknown to the child, are unmet needs and desire for acceptance, empathy, understanding, validation, affirmation and comfort.

The Crucial Cs

Clinical psychologists Amy Lew and Betty Lou Bettner explain how a child’s behaviour is linked to a child’s psychological needs. Known as the Crucial Cs, instilling Connect, Capable, Count and Courage in children will help develop the internal belief that “I belong”, “I can do it”, “I matter and can make a difference”, and “I can handle what comes” respectively. The goal is to raise children who are secure and cooperative, independent, interdependent, contributes to others and are resilient.1

  • Connect
    Children need to feel connected to others and have a sense of belonging within them. Children high on Connect are successful in making and keeping friends. They can relate in ways that build relationships and feel secure. Children low on Connect struggle to form meaningful friendships and as a result lack a sense of belonging and feel isolated. They may be driven to act out in undesirable attention-seeking ways.
  • Capable
    Children need to feel competent and confident to take care of themselves. Children high on Capable have self-mastery, are independent and responsible. Children who are low on Capable feel inadequate, are not willing to try and can give up easily. They may compensate by displaying controlling behaviours.
  • Count
    Children need to feel that they matter and can make a difference. Children high on Count feel valuable and valued by others through their contributions. Children low on Count would feel “I don’t matter” and have low self-worth. They may compensate their feelings of insignificance by acting superior, hurting and intimidating others.
  • Courage
    Children need to believe that they can handle challenges that life brings. Children high on Courage will be willing to try new e experiences and persevere through difficult tasks. Children low on Courage tend to be fearful, unwilling to try and give up easily. They display avoidance behaviour which reinforces inadequacy.

Responding differently to misbehaviours

When you need to correct your child’s misbehaviours, there is no need to make them feel worse in order to elicit better behaviour. A parent’s negative emotional reaction can perpetuate the problem by causing the child to further act out in frustration or be discouraged. As Colossians 3:21 cautions us, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.”

Discipline methods do not have to ruin the parent-child relationship. They can be age- appropriate and do not have to be harsh. An example for a time-out for an 8-year-old who does not like to read could be reading for 30 minutes alone. Likewise, the 14-year-old who displayed bad attitude can be asked to send a 50-word text apology, stating what they could have done differently.

In conclusion, parents can adopt another way to perceive a child’s behaviour if we see it from a child’s unmet psychological needs, while reflecting on these questions:

  • How are we meaningfully connecting with our children and fostering a sense of belonging in them?
  • How can we help our children build self- confidence and a sense of self-efficacy that they can say to themselves “I can, and I am enough”?
  • How can we communicate to our children that they matter? Not only by what they do, but because of who they are as children of God?
  • How can our graciousness instil courage (encourage) in our children?

By fostering Connect, Capable, Count and Courage, parents can better channel their efforts to the encouraging and positive aspects of parenting. Keeping our tone light-hearted helps to cushion difficult conversations.

The next time your child is having difficulties, consider different responses. How different would it be, if we had said to the 8-year-old, “I know Maths is so hard and you are trying, here’s a hug for you”, thus conveying the message that you can identify with your child’s difficulty, and are present to give your support. And to the 14-year-old, lending our strength by saying, “I know you had a tiring day, let me give you a hand and together let’s quickly tidy up your room, so that you can have a clean space to work.”

When we are slow to anger, and parent with compassion, our children will be able to come to us for comfort and find courage to face their setbacks.

God sees us beyond our outward appearances. May we also look beyond our children’s outward behaviours, and instead, discern our children’s hearts, focus on addressing their psychological needs and build up their emotional health.

1 Joseph A. Cice. (2021). “Cice Crucial Cs Assessment (CCCA): Practical Implications for an Assessment of the Crucial Cs”, Journal of Individual Psychology 77 (2).

To foster Connect

Engage in activities you can do together
Engage in activities you can do together. Bake a cake, play a ball game, walk the dog, plan a birthday party, share duties to host cell group meetings at home or serve alongside a worthy cause or ministry at church.

Increase connection
Pay attention to what is important to your child, be present at child’s sporting competition, support an event your child is leading, taking interest in the child’s favourite digital game.

Model positive interactions
Speak calmly even when upset, say please, sorry and thank you, initate topics and sustain conversations, demonstrate helpful social skills at home for them to learn.

Increase sense of belonging
Create family traditions. Go to a favourite restaurant or do a regular family activity like watching a movie. Invite your child’s friends to the home.

To foster Capability

Communicate you believe in them
Focus on what your child does well, highlight your child’s uniqueness and strengths.

Make space for growth
Help children feel capable around the house by assigning age-appropriate responsibilities—for example, a 7-year-old can tidy and organise his study corner, a 10-year-old can take public transport, a 14-year-old can prepare her own meals and a 17-year-old plan the family vacation.

Be patient and have reasonable expectations
Scaffold difficult tasks and teach with patience. For young children, use a three- step process of first providing information and showing them how, then doing the tasks with them, before expecting them to complete the task independently. Allow teens to share their views, seek understanding of their views as you coach and guide from there.

Provide age appropriate structure and limits for self-empowerment
Younger children require more guidance, structure, rules and routine for forming healthy habits to grow and develop skills. Teens should be given more latitude to make choices, try things out and learn from their experiences, and consequences.

To foster Count

Give them a voice
Ask teens for suggestions when choosing a lunch place for the family, paint colour or a piece of furniture for their room.

Highlight their contributions
Children who represent their school in competitions, assume a leadership role, or accompany a friend to the sick bay are moments parents can remind their children they made a difference. Simply looking out for small acts of who they are—enjoying the story they tell, the laughter they bring, or how they express concern for their younger sibling.

To foster Courage

Communicate grace
Children need to know and experience that making mistakes is a normal part of learning.  Parental reactions can be gracious.

Assign tasks that are achievable first
Start them with tasks that have a higher chance of success or lend them your strength and capabilities to help them achieve more challenging ones.

Grow together with them
Parents can expand a teen’s horizon and worldview by exploring new experiences together with them.

Koh Ai Jin is a senior counsellor in private practice and has extensive experience in marriage and family counselling, in addressing mental health concerns and psychological trauma. She counsels children, adolescents and adults, and is also a parent-coach. Passionate about both counselling and Christian ministry, she has worked in church settings for over a decade, and was previously a polytechnic lecturer for several years. She serves as Vice-President of the Association of Christian Counsellors (Singapore) and is a registered clinical counsellor and clinical supervisor with the Singapore Association for Counselling. Ai Jin is married to a Methodist pastor and has three teenagers. She worships at Holland Village Methodist Church.