Look below the surface, and you'll find 7 emotional needs

This is the first in a series.

On my walk this morning, I approached two children just returning home from a bike ride. The younger of the two, a boy of about 4, was doing this whining-crying-yelling thing that every single child on the planet has done at some point. I couldn’t hear precisely what he was complaining about, only the tone and volume. By the time I passed the house, the girl had gone inside (I practically hear her eye-rolling), and the boy was lying in the driveway.

“Mo-oooom! Mo-oooom!” he was whining-crying-yelling in a voice that I knew grated on her a thousand times more than it grated on me. (Kids are awesome that way.)

'Don't make me count to three'

After a while I heard the mom begin to count: “1……. 2…… 3…….”

I don’t know what happened after that. Maybe she did the 1-2-3 Magic thing, or maybe she went with a threat: “Get inside now or you won’t be riding your bike for the rest of the day.” Or maybe she just kept counting — as much for her benefit as her child’s.

It reminded me so much of the days when Maxine was that age and would fall to pieces for reasons I couldn't fathom, and then throw each of those metaphorical pieces directly at my face. Every cell in my body would revolt. I would want to scream, “No! Stop! Not okay! NOT OKAY!”— as though she were a teething puppy chewing up my shoe.

Compared to that, counting to three seems pretty tame. But only by comparison.

What I was missing at the time, and what this momma was missing today, was the point. Or maybe I should say “the tip.”

When it comes to kids, difficult behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. What they are doing is indicating that something is going on under the surface — and that something is usually an unmet emotional need.

As Linda Hatfield says, we all know about physical needs: food, shelter, clothing. “But oftentimes,” she says, “emotional needs can be more important than any of that.”

What are the 7 emotional needs?

So what are the emotional needs of children? Search the Internet and you’ll find dozens of words: acceptance, affection, freedom, respect, safety, support, trust, understanding. The list goes on and on. The one thing they all have in common: They’re all frustratingly vague. How can we be expected to meet our kids’ emotional needs if we can’t even define them?

That’s why, a full 15 years ago, Hatfield “bundled” these needs into a tight back of seven and gave them one easy-to-remember name: SPECIAL. SPECIAL is an acronym for Smile, Powerful, Explore, Connection, Important, Attention and Love. For years, my husband and I had this acronym on our fridge and would refer to it every time we hit a bump in the road.

“Christ Almighty, she's driving us to an early grave," we'd be thinking, and then: "Oh, wait, let’s check the fridge and figure out why!” Soon enough, our inner rage emoji would beg off and be replaced by happy, glowing-cheeked emoji.

To say that little acronym was a game-changer for us is an understatement. Which is why I'm going to spend a bit of time in the coming weeks discussing Universal Truth No. 1 in the ParentShift paradigm: All Children Have Emotional Needs. The next handful of posts will introduce you to each of the needs — and, in doing so, comprise some of the most foundational parenting information you’re likely to find anywhere.

For now, just remember: Whenever you are in doubt about why a child is, say, lying on the driveway and whining-crying-yelling “Mo-ooom!” at the top of his lungs, know that there is a logical reason for it — and as soon as you discover that reason, the “what to do" part will appear before you like flashing bulbs on the Vegas strip.

And just in case you were hoping to pull a Derek Smalls* and raise a practical question at this point, I'll just tell you: No. Yelling, threatening and counting to three are not on the marquis.

*My apologies: It's hard for me to get through an entire day without at least one Spinal Tap reference. If you know of any good websites that might help me kick this troubling habit, let me know.

To read the next in this series, click here.