Much is being written about empathic care and being in-tune with the needs of children. Below is an excerpt from my book A Short Introduction to Promoting Resilience in Children (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2011), which, itself, is based on material I originally published in A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2009).
To respond with understanding protects against reinforcing unhelpful beliefs about oneself and adults in a caregiving role. Responding to the need as well as the behaviour is one method by which an adult in a caregiving role can respond with understanding. Nearly all human behaviour has a function and purpose and children rarely misbehave for misbehaviour’s sake. Among other things, misbehaviour can serve as an emotional release (such as when children are tired and over aroused) or as a strategy to draw attention to an unmet need. Maladjusted and pre-verbal children are typically unable or unwilling to express their needs directly/verbally and do so through controlling and manipulative behaviours. From their first day, infants draw attention to their needs through affective displays that might later come to be viewed as developmentally inappropriate and socially unacceptable. Nevertheless, they have learnt that crying and screaming is an effective way to draw parental attention. It is not surprising that this broadens to other unacceptable behaviours among toddlers, such as throwing objects, banging doors, turning the TV and lights off and on, and so on. Naughty behaviour typically attracts more attention than good behaviour. When a child is misbehaving it is important to try and work out what unexpressed need might be giving rise to the behaviour rather than simply responding to the behaviour alone. Thereafter, it is important to respond to the need as well as the behaviour. Responding to the need as well as the behaviour is soothing for the child, it reinforces for the child that their caregiver is understanding and responsive, and it is helpful in preserving and promoting secure attachment representations. This process of responding to the need as well as the behaviour is exemplified in the table below (click on link).