Behavior Due to an Emotional Need

How do I know if my child’s behavior may be due to an emotional need?

All children have fundamental emotional needs for protection, safety, consistency, security, and trusting relationships. When these needs are not met, children often miss out on critical components of their emotional development. And until the need is met within the context of a caring, nurturing relationship, the child will make attempts to meet the need on her own.

Children are driven to have their emotional needs met. When adults can’t meet these needs, children’s “solutions” are often displayed as troubling or extreme behaviors. These behaviors do not often result in the child getting his needs met, yet they will continue until the need is understood and met.

A child’s behavior may be due to an emotional need if all of the following are present:

  • The behavior is inappropriate for a child’s age. When children are expressing behaviors that are significantly inappropriate for their age, it may be important to pay attention. These are examples of behaviors that may seem inappropriate for the child’s age: A five-year-old who is biting when angry, or a seven-month-old who shows no distress or awareness when with strangers.
  • The behavior has a “driven” quality to it. It may feel as though the child has to do it or cannot stop himself. In addition, there may be intensity to the behavior that is noticeable.
  • The child has a limited way of responding to his world. You may notice that the behavior is displayed everywhere, regardless of the situation or environment. For example, a four-year-old might tantrum every time she has to leave any environment, regardless of who she is with or where she is.
  • The behavior continues to happen, even when channeled or stopped.
  • Your usual ways of handling similar behaviors do not seem to help.

What is my child communicating? How can understanding this help me know how to respond?

A child who is expressing behaviors due to an emotional need is communicating that he needs your help. This child is letting you know that, until his needs are met in a different way, he is going to continue to engage in the behavior because it is all he knows how to do. You can support a child like this:

  • Try to identify the NEED that underlies the behavior. Instead of focusing on the behavior, identify and respond to your child’s need for security, consistency, and trust. This will help the child feel understood and safe. Your attempts to help your child will also be more successful if you can address the need that is underneath the behavior.
  • Do something. It sounds simple, but it is important to remember that these behaviors are often a child’s desperate call for attention or assistance. The behaviors will not pass. They may actually become more challenging.
  • Be ready to actively respond to your child’s needs. This is a time for giving rather than withholding, for support rather than punishment, for action rather than words. This will provide your child with valuable support and reassurance.
  • Stop the behavior, if you need to, especially if the behavior hurts the child or others. When you stop the behavior, however, recognize that it is a “pause,” rather than an “ending.” The behavior will continue until the needs are met in a consistent and responsive manner.
  • Be patient, supportive, and thoughtful in these circumstances. Remember that your child cannot control or stop the behavior.

Seek support and assistance when needed for your child, your family, and yourself. Reaching out to trusted mental health professionals, your pediatrician, and your child’s teachers can offer a source of support and provide much needed help. It can help your family to feel less alone during a challenging time


Why Is This Happening? What Questions Can I Ask? What Is My Child Trying to Communicate? Steps/ Strategies for Interventions
What are unmet emotional needs?
  • Unmet emotional needs are often the result of the child having missed out on something that is or was developmentally and emotionally important, such as security, safety, or trusting relationships.
  • Rather than decreasing over time, these needs tend to persist and intensify.
  • The child will often search for ways to meet these needs on his or her own. The behaviors that develop are the child’s attempts to meet the need on his or her own.
There is an unmet emotional need when all the following clues are present, not just one or two:

  • Is this behavior inappropriate –the child is not “acting her age”?
  • Does this behavior have a driven quality to it? Does it feel as though your child has to do it? Is there an intensity to the behavior that is noticeable?
  • Does your child appear to have a limited number of responses, using the same behaviors in most settings?
  • Does the behavior, even when channeled or stopped, keep popping up?
  • Are your usual ways of handling similar behaviors not helping?
“I need help. Until this is resolved, I am going to continue doing this because I cannot think of anything else to do to meet this need.”
  1. Remember, this child needs help. This is a desperate call for your assistance and attention. This behavior will not pass; it will likely get worse.
  2. Respond to your child’s need actively. Once you’ve determined the need, try to respond through deeds, not words.
  3. Meet the needs with quiet firmness and patience as much as possible.
  4. Stop the behavior, if necessary, for example, when your child is hurting self or others. This is not the end; it is a pause in its occurrence.
  5. Get additional support for yourself, your child, and your family.

Remember that your child cannot stop or control the behavior.

Links & Resources » Behavior / Discipline

The framework for understanding your child’s behaviors is based upon an adaptation of James Hymes’ Understanding Your Child by Kadija Johnston, LCSW, Director of the UCSF Infant Parent Program, and is used with her permission.