“GET ME SOME FOOD!” my 4-year-old yells from the lounge room like it’s the 15th time she’s asked for something and I’m purposely ignoring her. I’m not. It’s the first I’ve heard of her wanting food.
Her tone instantly has me on the defensive. The thoughts in my head are not productive.
People don’t react well to demands and control, do they? You can probably relate.
Children can be demanding, especially in the younger years, and there’s some typical ways adults usually respond.
They might say things like: ‘Don’t talk to me like that!’, ‘It’s rude to yell’, ‘Use your manners or I’m not getting you anything!’ We try to shut down the behaviour, teach them a lesson, and threaten or punish them into speaking more respectfully to us. It doesn’t make much sense when you think about it, right? We’re trying to get them to be respectful by speaking to them rudely in reply? Not going to happen.
So! What can you do? Ultimately it’s not that fun to be yelled at and have things demanded of you, but our children are just learning how express their needs and we need to help them with that, not punish them for it.
Here are some more helpful and respectful solutions for dealing with ‘demands’.
How to deal with a child who ‘demands’
1. Notice what they’re saying
‘Oh, it’s sounds like you’re hungry!’
A person demanding something of you is expressing a need. What does someone yelling their needs at you want? Acknowledgement. One simple thing you can do is just express that you hear them, and identify their need for them. ‘Get me food!’ means ‘I am hungry’. ‘Go away’ means ‘I need some space’. ‘Pick me up’ might mean ‘I need a cuddle’ or ‘I’m feeling unsafe’. When you repeat the underlying need back to them you help them learn to do this for themselves and express their needs in a more appropriate way in future.
2. Assume positive intent
‘You must be feeling super hungry to yell so loudly!’
When we hear a demand we often jump to conclusions. We might be thinking children are rude, entitled, and spoilt. But, how we view children is how they come to view themselves. If you react to your judgement that your child is rude, they will notice that, and may eventually come to think of themselves as rude, continuing to act in ways that align with that judgement. It becomes a self-fullfilling prophecy.
Instead, always assume positive intent. When you say something like “I didn’t expect you to yell so loudly. It startled me. You must have wanted me to know you were very hungry”, in reponse to a child who has yelled a demand for food, you show them that you understand, that you know they weren’t being purposefully rude, and at the same time help them become more aware of their actions.
3. Give them the information they need
‘There are some bananas and apples in the fruit bowl on the bench’
Sometimes demands come simply from lack of information. ‘I feel hungry but I don’t know how to fix it, someone has to help me!’
Often my children want or need me to do things for them, but lots of times they simply need more information before they know what to do next. They are capable and confident and love being able to do things for themselves. It’s my job to support that. And honestly, it’s just not practical, helpful, or enjoyable for me to do every little thing for them. We are a team here.
After acknowledging their needs, if they are able to help themselves, a simple (nonjudgmental and non-accusatory) statement can help them figure out what to do next.
4. Help them solve their own problems
‘What could you do?’
‘Do you have any ideas?’
‘How can I help?’
Sometimes I’ve done all of the above and I still hear a demand. Maybe that means I was wrong about the underlying need, what they really need is some empathy before they are calm enough to know what they want, or they just really want something to eat right this instant because they can’t possibly think clearly when they are this hungry! That’s ok! Meet the need, empathise, talk, and problem solve when everyone is feeling calm and able. Meeting a demand does not mean you are ‘giving in’, it means you are there for your child even when they are a their most challenging. Your love is unconditional. You treat them as you would want to be treated and that is so very powerful. With continual love and positive regard they will learn how it looks and feels to be treated kindly. Have faith, and try again next time.
A few more things to remember…
Don’t take it personally: Demands are not about you. They don’t mean you have failed, they don’t mean your child is rude and ungrateful. Everything is ok! Your child is just feeling overwhelmed and learning how to communicate their needs. You can deal with this!
Take a breath before you react: Demands are hard to hear, I know. Take a breath and get your composure back before you respond.
You are a supporter, not a judge: Remember your goals. You are not here to judge and punish and force your child to comply. You are here to support them as they navigate the world and work all this complicated social stuff out. They are capable and you are the perfect guide.
You teach the best lesson by modelling: You may be able to force a child to stop being demanding through fear, but what are you really teaching them?
“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” ― W.E.B. Du Bois
Don’t be demanding: Ah yeah, as adults we’re going to have to stop being demanding too. We can’t hold children to a higher standard than we do ourselves, can we?
A demand is not an emergency, something to punish, a spoilt child, or a failed parent. It’s a call for help, an opportunity for connection, a child who is learning, a need that is expressed. We can deal with that!