How to Help Your Child Meet Their Needs

“The fact is that people are good. Give people affection and security, and they will give affection and be secure in their feelings and their behavior.”

 – Abraham Maslow, American psychologist and professor

We can broadly define “behaviors” as “actions to meet our needs.” Behaviors occur in the form of physical actions, thoughts, speech, or other means. Your child might be utilizing maladaptive and challenging behaviors to meet their needs. As Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey states during the “Beyond Risk and Back” episode “It’s the NEED—The Secret Language of Teen Behavior,” “everything is an expression of need.” Everything that your child does is a means of obtaining or expressing their needs, wants, or desires. Your child’s needs can range from the necessities, like food and shelter, to higher needs, like their sense of belonging and purpose. When you look for the need, you can better understand the motivation behind your child’s behaviors.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One of the most widely utilized models to explain human beings’ needs is Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” American psychologist Abraham Maslow developed this hierarchy based upon observations and studies as a leader of the “humanistic” school of psychology, focused more on human motivation than abnormalities and defects. Psychology Today’s Neel Burton, M.D. describes the hierarchy in his article “Our Hierarchy of Needs.” Beginning with basic needs (1) and moving to needs for maximum human potential (5), Maslow’s hierarchy is as follows:

  1.   Physiological
    • These are the essentials: food, water, clothing, shelter, and warmth.
    • These needs are what we need to survive at the most basic level.
  2. Safety and Security
    • Our need to feel free from bodily and psychological harm.
    • We can foster a safe home environment for our kids to feel secure.
    • When this need is not met, our kids might feel insecure or feel “on-guard.”
  3. Social
    • Social needs describe our need to love and to be loved.
    • These are our needs to belong and feel like part of a “tribe.”
    • These needs begin fulfillment in the home, as your kids belong to a family system in which they are loved and appreciated.
  4. Ego
    • “Ego” describes our need for self-esteem, recognition, and power.
    • When ego needs are met, and the other, more basic needs, our kids develop healthy egos and confidence.
  5. Self-Actualization
    • Self-actualization is the peak of human potential.
    • Maslow and other humanistic psychologists were interested in understanding how individuals reached their peak achievements.
    • These needs describe things like creativity, fulfilling life’s purpose, and personal development.

Fulfilling Needs and Behaviors

When you look at these needs, you might see the connection between one’s needs and behavior. For example, if a starving person steals food from a store, they disobey the laws of society in order to survive and fulfill a basic need. When necessary physical and safety needs are not met, the higher-order needs are less important. This can explain why a hungry person would steal food despite the consequences of being judged by society. Your kid might be using a maladaptive behavior to fulfill their needs. As a parent, when you look for the need driving the action, you can better help guide your child to make better choices. 

“Knee-Jerk” Reactions to Teen Behaviors

Kids might be engaging in activities that are disruptive or harmful to meet their needs. You might have a “knee-jerk” reaction to their behaviors. Start to look for the need to become less reactive in your response to these maladaptive behaviors. When you react quickly, you might be yelling or punishing your child. While these reactions may work “in the moment” to bring a sense of calm to the household, they are not conducive to developing the skills that your child needs to fulfill their needs. 

Internal and External

A person’s needs can occur as both internal and external behaviors. A person may fantasize about being powerful and commanding when they lack the skills to assert themselves in real life. These thoughts and fantasies point to the need to obtain self-esteem and power. Thoughts can be a way of fulfilling needs as much as outright behaviors. Your child might be withdrawn or depressed. These are less overt behaviors; however, depression might be expressing the need for safety, as your child hides away from the rest of the world. When your kid suffers from problematic behaviors or issues—like anxiety, depression, promiscuity, cutting, or addiction—consider what need is missed. When you look for the needs, you can change your perspective on your child’s maladaptive behaviors and guide them to solutions for a healthy and happy life.

During the podcast “It’s the NEED—The Secret Language of Human Behavior,” Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey and Alexa Argianas discuss human needs even further. They describe development needs in addition to Maslow’s Hierarchy. The five development needs described by Huey and Argianas are as follows: safety, power, connection, freedom, and worth. You may be struggling to understand why your teen does extreme things. You might get into power struggles to control your household and maintain the peace. To better understand your teen’s motivation, look for the needs behind their behavior. You can find better solutions for their issues when you can take a minute to understand their perspective. The teenage mind is still looking for guidance to fulfill needs. As a parent, you can help guide your kid to make better decisions and more helpful choices. For more informative podcasts, check out the rest of the “Beyond Risk and Back” series. If you need to reach out for more help, call Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center at (303) 443-3343.

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