Understanding a Child’s Needs: Part 2

Posted: October 27, 2010 in needs

We’ve all seen it. Mom is in the line at the grocery store with her kid at her side. The kid sees a glorious, shining bag of M&M’s on the shelf and immediately grabs it in hopes of a delicious pre-dinner snack. Mom denies him of his deepest desire at that moment and ignites a series of cries, rants, speeches about unfairness, etc. The child does everything he can to control the outcome of the situation, but to no avail. The M&M’s remain in their proper place on the shelf.

Two weeks ago we talked about understanding the needs of a child. There are five general needs every child has: structure, nurture, challenge, engagement, and playfulness. But no matter how great of a parent or youth worker you are, there will always be a need or two that go unmet. When a need goes unmet, fear begins to creep in, and the child employs control strategies to compensate. It’s not too much unlike the situation in the grocery store. Although the child didn’t need the M&M’s, he felt that he needed them, and when he couldn’t have them, he employed his own control strategies to compensate.

This obviously affects the middle school student frequently as changes in his or her body start to create conflict with his or her environment. Many parents and youth workers don’t know how to meet the unique needs of a 6th-8th grade student, and as a result, those students try to control their environment with one of these strategies to reduce their fear and anxiety.

As presented by Kevin Rohrer, here are the four control strategies a child could employ when a need goes unmet:

First, there is aggressive control. One word to describe this strategy is fight. The kid will try to create predictable outcomes by leading his own life instead of the parents leading. This could result in temper tantrums or outbursts after being told “no.” Kevin noted that these kids could struggle to make or keep friends because he or she is too bossy.

Second, there is withdrawn control. One word to describe this strategy is flight. With this strategy, the child “attempts to reduce fear/anxiety by refusing to engage in anything he/she cannot predict an outcome for.” This child might avoid unknown situations, taking healthy risks, affection, and attempts to make friends. She might spend too much time alone as well.

Third, there is perfectionist control. One word to describe this strategy is performance. A child who employs this strategy will try to make things perfect or “just right.” Kevin said, “The child may experience extreme reactions to the failures, mistakes, accidents, and disappointments of self and/or others,” and they may struggle with lying.

Fourth, there is attention-needy control. One word to describe this strategy is approval. The child will attempt to control how others relate to him or her. This could be the “class clown” or the one who struggles with really clingy or needy behavior.

What control strategy did you use the most as a child? There might still be glimpses of it in your life now. The reason I ask this is because you can better understand your child or the students with whom you have relationship because of similar responses. I can look back and see very clearly that I employed the perfectionist control strategy throughout my teenage years. I wanted to make sure that nobody was disappointed in me, so I tried my hardest in every arena of life – academics, sports, music, etc. But when I fell short of being perfect, I’d try to fake it so people would still like me. This is hard to admit, but it’s important to understand so I can more effectively recognize these control strategies in my students.

The important thing to remember here is that there is GRACE for youth workers, parents, and students alike. We may guilt ourselves into thinking we’re terrible leaders because we see a control strategy being employed by our students as a result of their needs going unmet. But please remember, there are NO perfect parents or youth workers. There will be needs that go unmet. Read the entire Bible and you’ll see example after example of children whose needs go unmet by their parents all the time. Think of Joseph and the abandonment he must have felt after being sold into slavery by his brothers. Think of Absalom and the aggressive control he employed when some kind of needs when unmet by his father David.

The key here is understanding what those control strategies are, and when we see them, figuring out what need might be going unmet. The only way this will be possible is if adults engage in relationship with the child and know them deeply. This is why our middle school ministry will never be an entertainment-focused program that is all about the big show every week. I’d rather focus on the relationships between students and leaders so that our kids can be known and loved.

 Have you seen any control strategies being employed by the teenagers in your influence? How have you handled them?

  1. Leona Strait says:

    This information about the control strategies is such good information! I also used a perfectionist control strategy as a teenager….and if I’m being honest, still do sometimes. These strategies really resonate with what I have seen with many middle schoolers. It sure gives me a more helpful context from which to interpret their behavior. Thanks, David!

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