Understanding the 5 Needs That Drive Behaviors

When kids engage in problematic behaviors, we might focus our attention solely on ending the behavior itself. We use punishment, yelling, and other means, hoping to get them to stop. Yet, we might find that no matter how much discipline we impose or how strict we are in “laying down the law,” our kids only get better at hiding their behaviors from us. 

Understanding how to prevent or manage problematic behaviors means that we need to discover the root cause of the behavior. Knowing why a behavior occurs will give us more options at behavioral management than attempting to punish our kids into compliance. For example, we might feel that we need to give our kids consequences by yelling at them or other forms of punishment. However, we might be better off taking proactive approaches to replace maladaptive behaviors with healthy habits and actions.

Why Do Kids Engage in Bad Behaviors?

As parents, we do everything to put our kids on the right path. We do what we can to give them all they need, and we might feel confused or even betrayed when kids engage in destructive behaviors. After all that we sacrifice for our kids, when they are continually getting drunk, stealing our car, calling child services on us, or engaging in other challenging behaviors, we might feel that punishment is warranted, if not deserved. While consequences for bad behaviors will help teach our kids, we might need to take a step back and understand where these issues are coming from before deciding how to deal with them.

Overall, all behavior, good or bad, is a means to fulfill a need. The reason that punishment alone does not always work to stop bad behavior is punishment rarely (if ever) teaches a child to satisfy the need driving their behavior. The need will continue to exist, even if the behavior disappears because a child is restricted to their room or fears us yelling at them. Never learning how to fulfill needs properly can lead to a recurrence of bad behaviors or adopting other maladaptive behaviors. In many cases, the behaviors will only escalate in severity as the need goes unmet.

The 5 Needs Driving Teen Behavior

We can categorize most human behavior as an attempt to fulfill five needs:

1. Safety

2. Worth

3. Freedom

4. Connection

5. Power

When we look to the need that the behavior fulfills, we can start to understand where our kids are coming from. Finding the need also gives us more options to help our kids and prevent them from engaging in bad behaviors.

Understanding the 5 Needs

To identify the need, we need to understand what each need means:

1. Safety needs are essentially our most basic needs. We all need to feel safe and secure. We can fulfill these needs through having a warm living space, nourishing meals, a place to sleep, knowing that others have our backs, etc. When these needs are not met, a child might exhibit anxiety and avoid going outside of their comfort zones. They might use substances to numb their overall anxiety regarding a lack of feeling safe. 

2. Worth refers to how we feel we contribute to others and the world at large. We all strive to be confident and excel in our areas of interest. What we contribute to the world and our families continues to build our self-esteem. Our kids need to know that we love them unconditionally to build the foundation of self-esteem necessary to take risks and discover their worth in the world.

3. Freedom is a need for all of us. We all want to feel that we are making important decisions in our lives without control from others. The motivation that comes from within is true freedom, and kids that are constantly told what to do might rebel to fulfill this need. Parents can help satisfy this need by involving their children in some of the decision-making processes in the home. Also, allowing kids to be themselves can help them healthily express their freedom.

4. Finding connection is essential for all people. All people need to belong within a group, family, or other community. Unfortunately, some kids might have no outlet to feel like they belong to a community and might engage in harmful behaviors to fit in with others. Kids without a healthy outlet or means to connect with others might succumb to peer pressure to find friends. By helping our kids pursue interests through prosocial activities, we can help our kids find connections with others.

5. Power is a need that is especially exhibited by teenagers, as they want to run their own lives. Power is essentially about having control over one’s circumstances or environment. Small kids might express this need by throwing a tantrum to control others. Teens might engage in screaming matches or other power struggles with parents to exert power. When kids are using maladaptive behaviors to wield power, we can teach them healthy ways to control their environment and dictate the path of their lives.

All behaviors are an attempt to fulfill a basic need. We can classify most human behavior as a way to satisfy these five needs: safety, worth, freedom, connection, and power. As kids grow up, they will use whatever is at their disposal to fulfill these needs. When kids engage in maladaptive or problematic behaviors, parents often focus on the behavior itself. We try punishment, lectures, yelling, and other means of discipline to control their behaviors. However, if the need driving the behavior continues to go unfulfilled, the child might never learn how to get what they need properly. They might continue utilizing maladaptive behaviors, or existing behaviors might escalate in severity. Understanding the root cause of the behavior can help us teach our kids better means of meeting their needs and can foster greater autonomy. Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Center is here for you if your child struggles with addiction, promiscuity, cutting, depression, anxiety, or other challenges. Call us today at (303) 443-3343.

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