Back to the Basics in Parenting

As parents, we are detectives for our kids, constantly trying to figure out what is going on or what they need. I have a sweet little baby at home and as we all know, babies cry to communicate their needs. When he starts to cry, my brain starts to go to “detective mode” running through various questions to figure out what he needs: Is he hungry? Does he need a diaper change? Is he tired? Is he too hot or cold? Do we need to get outside on a walk or car ride? Or have I run through the list, and he just needs to be close to his mom right now? 

For babies, it is natural for us to mentally run through the list of basic needs that our baby might be crying for since they aren’t able to communicate their needs with words. We continue to use this “detective mode” with our kids throughout the age span, but it gets easier to brush over the basic needs questions as they get older. This happens as kids get older because they begin to use their words to communicate what they need and/or start to independently get their basic needs met. But, at some point, our kiddos (and even us as adults), forget to meet these basic needs or communicate what we need, which can lead to dysregulation. When our kids are dysregulated and begin to get upset or throw a tantrum, our problem-solving brains begin to look at the behavior currently going on. Detective mode might look more like, “Did something happen at school today?” or “Why is this making you upset? You usually like playing this game.” Our brains focus on the “in the moment” problem and we end up in this confusing state with our kids trying to figure out why they are having a hard time or why they are unexpectedly upset for what might appear like no reason.

When our kids are dysregulated and we are having a hard time understanding what’s going on, it can lead us to being dysregulated ourselves (i.e., frustrated about trying to figure out what is going on), and that’s not a fun time for anyone! What would happen if we paused for a minute and took a step back? When was the last time our child ate a snack? Could he use a sip of water? Did he not sleep well last night? Has he been sitting inside all day? The basics have such a huge impact on our kids and our own emotion and behavior regulation skills that starting there in our parental detective journey might save a lot of time and a lot of tears. Sometimes seeing the need behind the behavior is looking at the basic needs first, bringing everyone back to a state of calm, and then problem-solving the “in the moment” issue together once the basic needs are met. Here are some examples of basic needs that are sometimes forgotten which can lead to dysregulation:

  • Nutrition. Have you heard of “hangry” before? We’ve all been there. Our brains have a difficult time thinking straight without proper nutrition or if our blood glucose levels get too low. Regular healthy snacks and adequate nutrition can help provide optimal functioning of the brain. Research shows us that when these nutrition needs are met, children have better self-control, attention, frustration management, and improved mood. Focusing on nutrition and snacks can help our brains think clearly and be more alert. Try offering fun healthy snacks every 2-3 hours for your kids to enjoy!
  • Hydration.  Have you ever felt upset or anxious about something and just needed to take a drink of water and a deep breath? It can be a game changer! Research shows us that adequate hydration is necessary for optimal functioning of the brain. Hydration can help improve mental performance. Being properly hydrated helps with memory, improves mood, and attention in our children. Let your kids pick a fun water bottle they will enjoy drinking out of and make sure to keep water nearby throughout the day!
  • Sleep. We know this is an important one! Have you ever tried to focus while in a meeting after a night of too little sleep? Or have you gotten emotional over something small and realized maybe you need a nap? Sleep can affect self-regulation skills, attention, behavior, and overall mental health. Our brains need time to rest!  Checking in on what sleep schedule works best for your kiddo and ensuring they are reaching the recommended hours of sleep per day for their age is so important. Make a fun evening/bedtime routine with your kids to help get them in a good mindset for sleep.
  • Physical activity/Outdoor play. Getting our bodies moving and expending some energy is another important basic need we often forget. Now that the weather is warming up, getting outside for some fresh air and Vitamin D can help our overall mood and reduce stress levels. Also, play is important in growing social/emotional skills and meeting sensory needs. Come up with some fun activities to do as a family! Yoga, walks, or fun relay races build connections and meet physical activity needs. 

When our basic needs are met, our brains are able to think more clearly and access the problem solving portions of our brain, so that our kiddos are able to communicate their needs, access their coping skills, and apply logic to different situations. So next time you or your kiddo are having a tough time, I encourage you to pause and consider whether these basic needs have been met.  You can even try to add some of these things proactively instead of reactively. Keep being the detective for your kiddo. Keep being curious with your kiddo. Let’s get back to the basics!

Michelle Molina, LCSW

Licensed Clinical Social Worker