3, 2, 1…Contact!

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“You can never get enough of what you don’t need, because what you don’t need cannot satisfy you.” This observation discussed here two weeks ago (Sept 16) has many applications and implications, and goes a long way toward explaining how we can easily become stuck in the very behaviors that cause us the most grief.

What if parents kept that in mind when responding to their children, and the behaviors that concern them? Instead of using rewards and punishments to nudge (manipulate) them, we could help our children learn skills that will help them to get what they need now and in the future, thereby avoiding the tendency for people to compulsively doing what will never get them what they really need.

I wish this was my original idea, but it is has been around for a very long time. Michael Popkin, my go-to guy on parenting, articulated it in a way that resonates for me.

Popkin states that all human beings have the need for contact with others. We crave and require some degree of human touch, eye contact and conversation. This need is so great that a lack of it often results in mental and physical disability. More commonly it leads to children doing obnoxious things to get an immediate response from parents or peers.

Think back to the “class clown”, the knuckle-head who would do anything to get attention from the other kids. He probably got at least as much negative attention as positive, and yet he persisted in getting a response from others. But negative attention may be better than no attention, right? The problem, of course, is that he can never get enough negative attention to fill his need for contact with others, so it becomes a vicious cycle.

Such is often the case with young children at home. A busy parent may not notice and reach out to touch or smile at the child quietly going about his business, but if he spills water on your work papers or hits his younger brother it is very likely that he will get a response. In fact, he might get some brief physical contact as you pull on his arm or swat his behind.

In some homes children get the sense that there is simply not enough to go around; it seems like a starvation economy where each compulsively seeks to get some morsel before it is all used up. Children in these homes often fight and argue, vying for favored status among exhausted parents. Ask them what they are doing and they will honestly respond, “I don’t know”. All they know is that they feel compelled, and this compulsion is fueled by the very real need for contact and a sense of belonging.

So how do we break out of this negative cycle? Wise parents recognize that attention-getting behavior is often a manifestation of unmet needs for contact and belonging, warranting two courses of action.

First, offer contact freely. Extend a gentle touch, tap or tickle routinely throughout the day. Even teens respond to a pat on the back or shoulder, followed by a sincere smile while looking them in the eye. Full frontal hugs are not always necessary; small gestures and conversations throughout the day or evening usually go even further. But a warm hug after family prayer and before bed is a wonderful routine for any family.

Second, teach children to contribute, and express appreciation for their efforts. Ever notice how young children love to help around the home or on your projects? Encourage and help them to help. Let them set the table, fold the towels and feed the cat. Warmly let them know how their assistance is appreciated and improves the environment for all.

Parents who recognize and meet their children’s need for contact find that those kids are calmer and less prone to acting out behavior, because they are not starving for something they really need. Children whose contributions are appreciated grow to be teens and adults who know how to reach out and help others as a means of connecting and getting their needs met in the future.

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About the Author:

Michael Williams is a licensed psychotherapist, a Marriage and Family Therapist with over 25 years' experience. A specialist in quickly improving important relationships, he is also an expert in helping clients to quickly overcome problems with anxious, depressed or irritable moods.

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