Gratifying Kids' Wishes: When Enough is Not Enough

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Some parents find themselves faced with the dilemma of how much they should gratify their child’s wishes and where they should draw the line. Their child may create long wish lists and their parents, in an effort to avoid disappointing their child, may shower him or her with an abundance of gifts, only to find that these efforts simply weren’t enough to quell their child’s wishes for more.

Understanding Behavior

Seeking — or not seeking — external gratification is a behavior. The key to understanding why a child behaves or acts a certain way is to think of his behavior as a response to, or expression of, an emotional state. Behaviors are external clues about a child’s internal state of mind.

A child who is generally content and settled emotionally (i.e., not overly anxious, distressed or depressed) will likely also be content and satisfied with external elements of her world (comfortably entertains herself, feels flexible enough to go with the flow, accepts what is served at mealtimes, or feels OK about receiving some, but not all, of the items she wished for).

As with all behaviors, parents should first distinguish whether a particular behavior is unusual or ongoing. Seeking external gratification comes in many forms: needing more attention, resisting being alone, resisting family routines or activities, being “picky” about food or not feeling satisfied with possessions. A child who seeks external gratification may be reacting to a significant change, such as the arrival of a new sibling or start of a new school year.

Discovering Their Inner World

Seeking external gratification or remedies may be indicative of an uncomfortable feeling a child is experiencing and trying to get rid of or distract himself from. If this behavior is common, parents may be able to pinpoint the trigger and gently bring this behavior to their child’s attention.

For example, a parent could say, “Nothing seems to feel right or good enough lately. Things have been feeling a little different since [the change]. I’ll keep this in mind and give you some extra help.”

When the trigger is unknown, a parent can say, “You’ve been needing more [such and such] lately and I’m not sure why that is. I can get this for you, and it may help for a little while, but it won’t fix the problem on the inside.” Comments like these can open doors to further communication and lead to discussions that help a child recognize that he is using external gratification to alleviate internal discomfort.

Outside Vs. Inside Fixes

An “outside fix” is an attempt to alleviate discomfort with something external (such as a reward or toy). An “inside fix” addresses the problem internally and brings a child’s attention to her inner world, helping her recognize how her state of mind drives her needs and wishes. Ideally, a healthy blend of both outside and inside fixes can help by providing additional nurturing and support while exploring the reasons why such help is needed.

Signs That a Child Needs Help

Some children persistently seek external gratification in various forms. If this behavior is persistent (not triggered by some stressor or event in an apparent way) and seems to consistently interfere with his ability to comfortably move through a typical day, consider seeking more specialized help and support in exploring and working through his internal difficulties. Find more information about how and when to seek help at

The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit to learn more.

Categories: Development, Early Education, Education, Health and Development, Preschool Development, Preschoolers, School Kids, SK Development, Tweens and Teens