Your Child’s Core Emotional Needs, Part One: Connection

I love explaining behavior by comparing it to an iceberg. From land, we can only see about 10% of an iceberg. The other 90% of it lies beneath the water's surface.



Your child’s behavior is a lot like that 10% of the iceberg that you can see. Since kids aren't usually adept at verbally expressing their thoughts and feelings, they tend to act them out through their behavior instead. And when we only respond to their behavior, we ignore the 90% of “stuff” that lies beneath the surface causing it.


In the late 1970’s, a psychology professor and a grad student at the University of Rochester teamed up to research intrinsic motivation. They wanted to know why someone might be motivated to clean up his room, for example, and not just because he was promised candy if he did (reward), or a spanking if he didn’t (punishment).


Together, they came up with what they called “self-determination theory,” which states that beyond our basic needs for survival like shelter, food, and water, all humans have three innate psychological needs.


When these three needs are being met in positive ways, kids will be happy, motivated, and cooperative. When they aren’t being met in positive ways, they'll act out (usually in ways we regard as negative) in an attempt to meet them.


Over the next three posts, I’ll explain each of these core needs, and share strategies for how to help your child get them met.


The first need: Connection

We all crave connection.  It’s in our DNA.  And the most important connection for your child is his connection with you.


One of my favorite fellow social workers and authors, Dr. Brene Brown, defines connection as “the energy that is created between people when they feel seen,  heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment.”


The more your child feels connected to you, the less he’ll need to act out in order to get your attention. And the more strongly your child feels connected, the more likely he is to cooperate.


Many parents confuse being “connected” with spending time with their kids.  They’ll say, “I’m with them 24 hours a day!” But you can be with your kids 24 hours a day and still be disconnected from them.


Being “connected” means spending quality, uninterrupted time really getting to know and understand each child as a separate person.


It means looking your child in the eye when he talks to you and putting your phone and computer out of sight so you can be present.


It means accepting your child's opinions even when you disagree and listening without judging or trying to fix anything. As Dr. Stephen Covey said, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”


When your child comes to you to talk about how a friend excluded her from a group at school, rather than jumping in with, “Well, I never liked that group anyway,” you empathize with her about how hard it can be to feel left out. You see things from her perspective and let her know you GET her.


These types of interactions help kids feel truly connected.


how to tell when your child needs connection

You'll know your child needs more connection with you when he uses negative attention-seeking behavior and may be whiny, clingy, or needy. You can also tell by tuning into your own emotions. Very often, you'll feel irritated or annoyed by his behavior. In other words, the times you feel the least inspired to connect are the times he's likely to need it the most.


The good news is that you can do some planning and connecting upfront to keep your child's “attention tank” full. When it's on empty, he's going to look for any opportunity to get it filled up again — like at bedtime or the minute you pick up the phone to call a friend 😉


how to foster connection

To help fulfill your child’s need for connection, start by paying attention to transition times. When they first wake up in the morning, when you reunite after school, when you get home from work, and before bedtime. These are times when children need to feel connected because the bond between you has been temporarily severed – or in the case of bedtime, they’re about to be without you for a long stretch of time.


You want to make sure that before you start telling them what to do, discussing the schedule for the day, or asking them about their homework, that you take a moment to connect. Say hello. Hug. Really see and listen to them.


I also recommend spending at least ten minutes of uninterrupted time with each child every day doing an activity of their choice (within reason, of course).


If you can spend more than ten minutes — even better, but you can start with just ten. Tell your child that every day, you’re going to have special time — just the two of you — to do an activity of his choosing. Set a timer if you need to.



Try to choose something that’s interactive, rather than just watching TV or playing a video game. Play board games, do arts and crafts, play with toys, or read a story while snuggling. Many parents choose to have special time right before bedtime, especially when they have more than one child.


Once your child feels positive attention coming from you on a regular basis and he knows that he gets “special time with Mommy” every day, he won’t feel as much of a need to get your attention in other ways because his attention tank will be full.


And because teens become increasingly independent and connected to their peers, it’s even more important that their connection with you remains intact and strong. Obviously, you won't refer to your time together as “special Mommy time,” but you can still find opportunities to give teens your undivided attention and do things together that they love to do. It could be going to get your nails done, playing basketball, baking cookies, going bowling, etc.



These moments of connection help kids feel good about themselves and about their relationship with you. And when kids feel better, they behave better.


How can you fulfill your child’s need for more meaningful connection? Leave a comment below and let me know. 


Keep an eye on your inbox next week for a post about the second psychological need we all have: Autonomy. And if you're not subscribed to the blog yet, make sure you get on the list so you don't miss it!

  • Sydney

    Such a great reminder. Along with my commitment to walking daily I am going to add this to my daily commitments to my kids. Please hold me accountable to this by checking in on my weekly progress. 🙂

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