“I want that toy!”
“I need more kisses!”
“I want these jeans!”
Kids of all ages can get laser focused onto the thing they just have to have. They often use this focus to hold parents hostage, with a meltdown lurking right around the corner if demands are not met.
It’s easy to get disgusted and assume that your child is being selfishly controlling (and sinful!) and needs to obey immediately. You might think (or even say), “Seriously? You don’t need that! Stop being so ridiculous!!”
Sometimes parents address kids’ demands by being demanding themselves. This can send the message, “You are ridiculous, and what’s important to you doesn’t matter to me.” Hearing this may leave kids feeling rejected, opposed, and discouraged, and can actually lead to more demanding behavior.
Sometimes children may struggle to identify what’s wrong or put their feelings into words. Especially when they are anxious, or somehow feeling out of control inside. So they lock onto something that meets a superficial need and gives them a sense of control. They may even try to control you and your big emotions!
It’s important to note here that the root cause of all bad behavior – in both parents and children – is the problem of sin. All of us are inclined to “turn to our own way.” But if we can recognize the roles anxiety and discouragement play in our kids’ misbehavior, we can engage with a new level of compassion.
Here are four principles you can follow to bring a sense of grace and kindness to your kids’ demands:
- Remember your own sin and selfishness. It’s more refined as an adult, but is your response rooted in your desire for control? Or do you truly have your child’s growth in mind? Admitting your agenda, even to yourself, is a great first step at letting go of unhealthy control.
- Consider the question, “What does my child need right now?” This has helped many parents choose a new and more effective response. Maybe the child just needs a break or a sense of ownership over his choices? Maybe he is tired or needs a snack?
- Empathize. Have you ever felt similarly to how your child might be feeling? Say it out loud. Expressing understanding helps your children know they are not alone. Ask them why they want what they are asking for and then listen to the answer. Kids often want to be understood about why they want something–it’s their God-given desire to feel heard.
- Give choices that keep you in charge, but honor your child. It helps kids greatly to know what their options are rather than just being forced to do what mom or dad says.
Kari put these ideas to work with her intense and sensitive 3-year-old daughter Abby. At bedtime Abby consistently made demands like, “Mommy I want 5 hugs, and 10 kisses on each check, and 5 butterfly kisses. Line up my stuffed animals in a straight line. No, no, no! My blanket is crooked! And it’s wrinkled!! “ If Kari gave in to these demands, they continued. If she firmly denied these demands, Abby would wail hysterically, and demand more the next time. Kari felt frustrated and trapped.
Kari was coached through this challenge and then we interviewed her later about how she met Abby’s deeper needs while setting clear boundaries, without giving in to Abby’s demands.
Kari looked inward and realized she was acting controlling due to judgments about Abby’s demands. Once she realized her own selfishness, she was able to consider what Abby was feeling (anxiety) and what she needed (security and some sense of healthy power).
Kari determined to “cast out fear with perfect love” by making sure Abby felt delighted in. She gave Abby lots of affection before getting into bed. Then, as she tucked her in, she held her daughter’s face, looked into her eyes and smiled, saying, “You are loved.“
After expressing sincere delight in her anxious daughter, Kari was able to confidently offer limited choices to Abby about her bedtime routine, which met Abby’s need for healthy power. Kari’s peaceful confidence helped Abby feel secure. Together they settled on a regular bedtime routine and Kari reported that:
Through this approach Abby has stopped demanding kisses in a certain way or having her blanket perfectly arranged. I kiss her goodnight on the forehead and tell her I love her as I leave and that’s that. On the rare occasions when she gets anxious I will then pick her up and just hug and hold her for a minute, whispering to her, “You are loved.” “You are safe.” “You are my delight.” She almost melts into me when she hears those words. It reassures her and I can explain that she doesn’t need to control the situation, and that we can work together to solve our challenges. We are in a much better place and bedtime remains full of love.
Putting these steps in place when kids struggle with being demanding helps them feel understood and have some ownership for how things unfold. This reduces the anxiety and discouragement that can trigger more demands.
When your kids get demanding, try one or more of the principles above. See what you learn and share your story or questions with us. We love hearing from you!
Want to learn more about these concepts? Download our one-hour recording of a Discipline That Connects workshop.