“It is not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful.” – Ann Landers
Nine-year old David was just awarded a vacation trip to his cousins who live in Miami; he did not get into trouble in school or fighting 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, an iPad, a laptop, and a go-pro. That’s because David had already won those.
He had won each 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?”
David’s energy level had always overwhelmed his parents. From the time he was five or six, he needed a level of stimulation to keep his behavior within bounds that seemed far 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 they could never give him enough to satisfy him.
His teachers reported that David 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, David could do above average work. More often than not, however, David lapsed into daydreaming, staring out the window or focusing on irrelevant trivia around him. His 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 David 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 David’s parents were floored by the teacher’s suggestion that they, his parents, might be exacerbating David’s problems, rather than helping him get a handle on them.
David’s teacher explained that the more presents David got for curbing inappropriate behavior, the more he understood that his inappropriate behavior was a benefit to him. If wanted something, all he had to do was act up, get caught, and then promise to be better if he could get x, y, or z. In their attempt to get David to be in control of his behavior through positive reinforcement, they were positively reinforcing his negative behavior.
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.
Insatiability in children is often a variation of attention dysfunction, one of whose classroom symptoms is weak processing or attention control, a condition we discussed in a previous article.
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 fights and generate noise and commotion. They may become serious behavior problems.
David 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, including bicycle riding, swimming, rollerblading, skateboarding, or developing and pursuing a hobby or passionate interest. For David, athletic activity or hobbies were not enough. He needed things, the flashier the better. But like many children with material insatiability, no sooner did he acquire the object of his desires than he longed for something else.
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 to score 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 his 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 important 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 their insatiability under control.
One technique that has proven effective is practicing conscious delay and substitution processes. This teaches a child to postpone gratification and practice substituting 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 David’s case, when limits were first set to his prize binging, 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. David’s parents received counseling in how to enforce limits while practicing delay and substitution techniques. They rode out David’s angry outbursts and his attempts to destabilize the atmosphere at home, and raised the bar for earning rewards for good behavior.
Gradually, David’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, David’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 parental decisions.
Today, years later, David’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 David, 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.