Latest update: May 26th, 2013
11-year old Avi was just awarded a trip to visit his cousins in Detroit – because he didn’t get into trouble in school or fight with his siblings for one week. The prize his parents originally had in mind was a new speed bike, but when that failed to motivate him sufficiently, they searched for a more appealing incentive.
In the process, they passed over gameboys, roller blades, a palm pilot, a computer and a camcorder. That’s because Avi had already won those.
He acquired each one of those through a combination of cajoling, arguing and bargaining. After each surrender, his father looked at his mother and said in bewilderment, “When I was a boy, I felt lucky to have a shirt on my back and shoes without holes. What are we running here, a home or a department store?”
And his mother would respond, “Today’s world is different. Would you rather he run around with that wild bunch of kids and get into all kinds of trouble?”
Avi’s energy level had always overwhelmed his parents. From the time he was five or six he needed a high level of stimulation in order to keep his behavior within bounds, already beyond the norm. Although his parents tried to keep one step ahead of him by supplying him with toys, entertainment and outlets for recreation, it began to seem as if nothing would ever satisfy him.
His teachers reported that Avi was often at the center of quarrels between students. “He seems to enjoy provoking altercation, just for the excitement of it,” wrote his fourth grade English teacher in an end-of-the-year assessment.
His scholastic performance was uneven. When the subject matter was dramatic enough to hold his attention, Avi could do above average work. More often than not, however, Avi lapsed into daydreaming, staring out the window or focusing on irrelevant things around him. He fiddled with his pencils and other items in his desk, passed notes, made irrelevant comments and silly jokes, and disturbed his classmates in a variety of ways.
“When Avi is absent, it’s a different kind of day,” his fifth grade teacher told the principal. “The atmosphere is calmer and we get much more accomplished. We really have to get to the bottom of his problems.”
Things came to a head after a parent-teachers conference where Avi’s parents were floored by the teacher’s suggestion that they, his parents, might be exacerbating Avi’s problems, rather than helping him to get a handle on them.
“Avi seems to be collecting more prizes in a month than most kids do in a year,” the teacher told Avi’s parents. “He brings these things to school and frankly, I wonder whether they might be contributing to his difficulties in class.”
“Do you mean he plays with them in the middle of class?”
“No, I don’t allow them to be anywhere near him during class. My point is that because he has already been given so many dazzling prizes, it’s almost impossible for me, as his teacher, to come up with any kind of incentive that would work with him. Can I ask what he is doing to earn all these fabulous rewards?”
“They’re basically for good behavior at home,” Avi’s mother said. “He gets so rambunctious,” his father explained, “you know, teasing his siblings, stirring thing up—things were always in an uproar.”
“But aren’t you overdoing it? These big, expensive prizes may buy you some peace at home, but it seems it’s backfiring at school. Here he has a great deal of trouble with self-control, with waiting his turn, not calling out, not interrupting. He needs an extra high level of stimulation to keep him going at the most ordinary task.”
Avi’s mother went on the defensive. “You must think we’re just buying him off, taking the easy way out. That’s not fair! We work with him constantly. But he’s always needed more than—more than we could give him.”
Her husband suddenly turned to her.
“Miriam, let’s face it. He’s got us wrapped around his finger. He’s getting lavishly rewarded for behavior that’s not even especially good, just good enough. And each time, the prize has to be bigger and better while he delivers less and less.”
He turned back to the teacher wearily, holding up his hand to forestall his wife’s objections.
“I don’t know about my wife but I’m at my wit’s end. What do you suggest we do?
The Insatiable Child
If the above scenario has a familiar ring to it, it’s because all of us have, at one time or another, met the child who incessantly craves excitement, new possessions and intense experiences of all kinds—the child who seems insatiable. Such a child, in order to stay focused and content, must constantly experience a rich payback in intellectual or emotional gratification.
Psychologists have identified two forms of insatiability—material and experiential—that greatly interfere with attention control. Children with experiential insatiability are extremely hard to satisfy. School-related routines such as processing information and producing written work do not quell their appetites for intense experiences. In their frustration, at what feels to them like stultifying boredom, they are likely to pick fights and generate noise and commotion. They may become serious behavior problems.
Avi showed symptoms of both material and experiential insatiability. And he had maneuvered himself into a position at home where he had his parents feeding his insatiability in their mistaken notion that they were working at controlling it.
Some children who crave excitement satisfy these needs in constructive ways: bicycle riding, swimming, rollerblading, skateboarding, or developing and pursuing a hobby or passionate interest. For Avi, athletic activity or hobbies were not enough. He needed things, the flashier the better.
Children with insatiable needs long for material gratification so intensely, they seem unable to delay gratification. They can wear their parents down with their incessant—and insistent—needs. They often have trouble taking turns, sharing with others and waiting in line—behavior that often triggers animosity from classmates and siblings.
Insatiability during childhood, if channeled properly, can develop into healthy ambition and goal-oriented activity in adult life. However, it also carries a potentially dangerous side effect, one that could culminate in substance abuse, reckless driving, impulsivity, and risk taking. In some adults, it manifests in marital instability and problems feeling comfortable and satisfied in a career.
Home Is Not A Democracy
Many children who manifest insatiability and are very articulate become extremely argumentative at home. Often by an early age they can outdebate their parents as they present their arguments for getting their way. Impressed with their own eloquence, they believe that scoring points in an argument entitles them to whatever it is they are lobbying for.
Experts in family dynamics say that allowing a child to flex his intellectual muscles and debating skills in arguments with his parents is inevitably destructive.
It is important to get the message across to children as early in life as possible that the home is not a democracy, and that parents are the decision-makers.
Parents should be alert, say education specialists, to the dangers of overindulging insatiable children with material possessions. The inclination to provide excessively stimulating daily experiences to children with insatiable tendencies should be consciously reined in.
“Parents should avoid a constant succession of planned recreational activities, shopping trips, and super stimulating electronic games,” says author and psychologist Dr. Mel Levine in his book on attention dysfunction, Educational Care.
He goes on to say that parents who fall into this pattern will soon be paying a king’s ransom for a few moments of peace and quiet in the house. Ultimately, the stakes will be raised even higher as the insatiable child learns he can hold his parents hostage with bad behavior until he wheedles out of them just about everything he wants.
Far from curbing incessant demands, says Dr. Levine, “the constant feeding of an insatiable appetite merely increases the level of a child’s insatiability.”
Children who are highly insatiable may require careful, ongoing counseling to help them bring them under control.
One technique that has proven effective is practicing conscious delay and substitution processes. This teaches a child to postpone gratification and substitute something else when he or she cannot attain a goal. One method of delay is to reward the child with what he desires only after he has remained focused on some other necessary activity.
Another method is to designate specific times during the day during which children can talk about things they want to have or do, and to some degree have their needs met. These children should be drawn into mature discussion about other possibilities that will be nearly as satisfying as the object of their intense desire.
Taking The Reins
In Avi’s case, when limits were first set to his prize winning, intense reactivity set in. His negative behavior plunged to new depths, as he tried the old methods of manipulation and found they no longer worked. Avi’s parents received counseling to learn how to enforce limits while practicing delay and substitution techniques. They rode out Avi’s angry outbursts and his attempts to destabilize the atmosphere at home, and raised the bar for earning rewards for good behavior.
Gradually, Avi’s acting out lessened as he came to terms with the “new management” and his behavior began to turn the corner.
Over time and with guidance, Avi’s parents learned to recognize and resist the manipulation behind their son’s habitual wheedling, and insistent bargaining for things he wanted. They learned to cut short arguments and debates and to stand firm behind their decisions.
Today, almost a year later, Avi’s insatiability—and its fallout on his ability to focus his attention and process information in school—has not been “cured,” but it has been reduced and brought under control.
For Avi, learning about his condition—both its risks and its potential healthy advantages for his future—brought about a very positive consequence: It challenged him to harness his considerable will power to prove that rather than remain a pawn to a condition that so limited him, he was taking control of it. That inner motivation proved the most effective tool of all.
Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld founded and directs SOS, an educational program, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given workshops and set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437.Rifka Schonfeld
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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