Loving and Bonding With Our Children: High-Needs Children

admin April 19, 2011

Image by Elizabeth/Table4five

Welcome!  If you’re new, you may want to check out the earlier posts in this series: Loving and Bonding with Our Children; Love is a CHOICE, Not a Feeling; Is it Okay To Love Children “Unequally?”; Difficult Phases.

High-Needs Children.  The term was first coined by Bill and Martha Sears, after their fifth child had “higher needs” than their first four.  If you have one…you know.  If you don’t…you have no idea what it’s like.  (I’ve had people who don’t have one, upon hearing some of the things that go on at my house, just stare at me and then say, a bit judgmentally, “My children would never do that…why weren’t you watching them?!”)

But high-needs children are just that: they have high needs!  Parents literally cannot turn their backs on these children for even five seconds.  They can get into any amount of trouble in any length of time.  They think of things most kids just don’t.  They challenge you at every turn.

Your child might be high-needs if…

  • She’s scaled the pantry to get that candy you hid on the top shelf
  • He’s dumped an entire bathtub of water onto the floor in the time it took you to get a towel
  • She’s emptied an entire roll of toilet paper into the toilet…in the time it took you to put a new shirt on
  • By the time you realize it’s quiet, it’s already too late — something’s happened
  • You turn away at the grocery store to get something off the shelf…and when you turn back five seconds later, your child has scaled the cart and is almost at the ground, about to run away
  • You’ve ever found your children riding the ceiling fan, or lowering each other down the laundry chute
  • You cannot hide anything from your children; they will find it
  • No shelf is too high to get to
  • Your child is prone to anger fits or tantrums when thwarted in these pursuits
  • Your child refuses just to refuse…even to her own detriment
  • You spend half your time reasoning, cajoling, threatening…a child who couldn’t care less
  • You end the day exhausted from trying to watch every second (and get the chores done)

Okay, not all these things happen in my house.  But a lot do, or have.  And I know someone who has actually had all of these things happen.

These children are exhausting.

I went out to lunch with a friend one day.  She has two kids, ages almost 5 and 1.  Both of her children sat nicely in their seats the whole time.  They did not argue or fight or try to get up.  My daughter sat and didn’t argue…until lunch was over, then she was trying to get up and run.  My son wouldn’t stop getting out of his seat the entire time and trying to get away and get into everything.  Nothing was safe — no one’s water, the sugar packets, the menus…and it didn’t matter that I’d brought books and toys for him!  (He’s getting better now.  But he still doesn’t like to sit still.)  I couldn’t believe my friend’s children just sat nicely!  (She assured me she understood…her older daughter was somewhat like that too, she was just old enough to know better by then.)

Bonding with and loving (or at least liking) these children can be hard, too.  Somedays you just want to scream at them and chuck them out the window!  “You will eat your dinner or else!  That is what there is tonight, so if you don’t want to eat it, you can go to bed right now!”  Oh, how many times have I said some variation of that….

Although these children can be hard, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • They’re not doing it to drive you crazy (most of the time)
  • They’ll be extremely strong adults, not likely to cave to peer pressure (I love to remember this one…)
  • If they don’t get your attention positively…they will seek it negatively (so try to just give them positive attention!)
  • They will probably also be responsible for your proudest moments (not just your most frustrated)

I’ve learned a really important lesson about my daughter, who is definitely a high-needs child.  Although positive attention will not stop her from negative behavior entirely (I mean, she still has a mind of her own…!), it will greatly minimize it.  That’s not the most important lesson, but it’s one I’m constantly reminded of.

The really important lesson is that because of who she is and her needs, I simply relate to her differently.  I am way more likely to include her in chores and helping me (and this was true even when she was younger).  I am always way more likely to talk to her, ask her to tell me stories, and listen to her.  That is how I relate to her.  That is how she likes to be related to.  She will be much calmer and more interested if she can be involved in what I am doing and/or talk to me.  She fights in the car to be the only one talking!  She will tell my husband to be quiet because she wants to “talk to Mommy.”  That is where she seeks attention, so that is where I give her attention.  There is nothing wrong with this.

For a long time I felt that there was, because I don’t relate to her as well in a physical, snuggly way. I thought I must love her less because of this. But she’ll scream and push me away half the time (and does the same to everyone else).  She’ll turn her back to me and refuse to talk to me…then scream if I try to walk away without giving her kisses.  It can be very frustrating, for both of us!  So we don’t relate well in this way.  I strongly enjoy hearing what’s on her mind, or doing activities with her.  I don’t enjoy the “physical” aspects as much (but neither does she).  She likes to ask for “five kisses” before bed.  So I give her five kisses.  One night recently she was being cute so I gave her another kiss.  She said, “No more kisses!  I’m wiping that off.”  Even as a newborn she’d fuss and squirm away if I tried to snuggle her too long.  Yup…that’s how she is!

My advice, from what little I know (yes, my oldest is only 3) is to relate to your child in the way s/he needs, and do not feel guilty about it.  High-needs children have their own definite ways that they want to relate to others and they’re not likely to be very flexible about it.  Don’t fight them, just go with it.  If it’s easier for me to talk to my daughter or do activities with her, I’ll do that.  We’ll still have a great relationship with lots of open communication! 

And every child is different.  My son is higher needs, too, but in a different way.  He is a snuggly kid who cares more what others say to him.  His personality’s just now really emerging though so we’ll see how he is after awhile!  (I’ve recently noted a tendency in him to scream and fight as hard as he can…if he feels strongly about something.  But he never fights me just for the sake of fighting.  If he sees “logic” he just accepts it.  I’m loving this aspect of his personality!)  We don’t talk that much though, and I especially don’t like to include him in activities, at least not yet.  That’s not really how we relate.

So, to sum all that up….

  • Meet your child’s needs as best you can
  • Relate to your child the way s/he needs you to, not the way you “think you should”
  • Do not feel guilty for treating your children differently, according to their needs
  • Take a break sometimes, so you don’t get burned out!!

On that last point, I like to take my kids outside sometimes.  They like to rip things up and make messes.  Outside, they rip up my weeds and put them in buckets or the garden.  Which is perfectly fine by me!  Gets rid of the weeds and I don’t have to clean up the mess.  We all get what we want.  Plus we all get a little sun. 🙂

Do you have a high-needs kid?  Have you struggled?  How do you handle it?

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  1. Great post. I have a 3 year old 'spirited' son, and I really relate to so much of what you describe. He pushes me to my absolute limits, and I have needed to read a lot and rely a lot on cheerleading from friends both online and IRL to keep my patience with him. It is even harder when other people comment or complain about his behaviour, like extended family members, preschool teachers or caregivers. On the one hand, I swell up like a mama bear inside when people criticize MY son, but on the other hand, I know I have been there, too, just as aggravated with him.

    On the positive side, he has given me some amazing moments, too. Just before lights out at bedtime one night, he said, "Mommy? You're my favourite friend." Heart melts. Maybe he is not so bad, after all.

    We all need moments like that to cling to, when we have a child who is… more.


  2. Boy, do I get this post. Dr. Sears was a lifesaver for me when I had my high needs baby. At 8, she's definitely still high needs, but it's so much different. As a baby, she would not let me put her down for one second without crying. She wouldn't even go to her own father without screaming. It was physically & emotionally exhausting. And then I had to hear how I was spoiling her by holding her too much. I can't tell you how many baby "experts" took her from me confident that they could comfort her, only to return in defeat, handing me my screaming child. It was one of the most difficult times of my life. Ever. It's so horrible to feel angry & frustrated at a baby that you love so much, and to have everyone telling you you're wrong–even the baby's father–and yet also know in your heart & in you're gut that you're doing the right thing by meeting her needs, no matter how excessive they seem. Definitely give youself breaks, even if the child screams the whole time. Find a caretaker you trust & who isn't afraid of entertain a screaming baby for at least an hour. Go where you can't hear the screaming. Find a support group with other moms of high needs kids where you can openly & honestly commisserate & not be judged. Parents of "easy" babies cannot empathize in the way you need with a HN child. And the mantra that really got me through was "this cannot & will not last forever". Like all stages, it passed, we all survived, and my daughter is a lovely person. Still very spirited & strong-willed, and I still get sideways glances about how I raise both my children, but we're both definitely in a better place. I think the best lesson for me ultimately was to trust my gut about my children, since I know them better than any expert.


  3. I can sooo relate to this. I had a high needs baby born with special needs. FINALLY, I found Dr. Sears' book when he was 1 and realized someone else understood. My friend who has twins finally told me my baby was harder than her twins together. He cried ALL the time. nursed ALL the time, never never let me put him down. My husband was and still is frustrated that he never wants him….always mommy. Which now my little boy is 5, still very high need, but soooo sweet, especially to me. He is very well behaved, just very needy. God forbid his train track fall apart or lego structure fall! And I'm still trying to figure out what to do in Church to help him make it through a service calmly. It's a work in progress. But the advice I have is DON'T let anyone diagnose your child with ADHD, it is a miss diagnosis. Sensory perception disorder is more on target. Good luck to ya!


  4. Wow!!! My guy is 6 months,and its already been a long road. Thankfully as I nurse him to slept*every single night* I have a phone worth internet and would just Google and read and read, eventually I found Dr.Sears but it was attachment parenting that got me hooked,only just lately did I connect all the dots that led me to his Fussy Baby book. Months of sleepless baby brains I guess…
    The first chapter changed my life, well I guess it more aligned with it.
    Right before that point I was so desperate and annoyed with “everyone else’s”
    advice, even his loving father’s. That was my snapping point, so exhausted and delirious and needing just a little relief in the middle of the night his father actually ignored my plea for help, turned over and went back to sleep. Then had the nerve to tell me about MALE friends that let their’s CIO, and that’s what we should do…I admit I was desperate and tried the
    PU/PD method ( which worked the first night) then on the second after 2.5 he’s, I put my foot down, have not/will never do that again, and stepped outside my own perspective and “feel sorry for myself place” and just accepted my beautiful boy for who HE IS!
    After that, things just started falling into place, and I found D.S’s book.
    I know I have a long long road ahead, but I am armed with 4 types of slings(he loves them all), my mantra book (Dr.S,) love that can outlast eternity, and JUST now the knowledge that I’m not alone in this!
    Thank you for your blog, and all the responses.
    Much Love!
    And for the record, ever since I put my foot down on any other way then parenting then where my gut leads,his dad is more and more on board,sees the results so far(HUGE) and is supporting and helping any way he can.


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I’m Kate, mama to 5 and wife to Ben.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  I’m also a big fan of “fancy” drinks (anything but plain water counts as ‘fancy’ in my world!) and I can’t stop myself from DIY-ing everything.  I sure hope you’ll stick around so I can get to know you better!

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