Mental Health Mondays:
Seeking External Gratification
by Jennifer Reid, M.A.
by Jennifer Reid, M.A.
Early School Director/In-School Therapeutic Services Coordinator
Lucy Daniels Center
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 at enough being enough. Some children create long lists of must-have items, have many if not all of those wishes fulfilled, yet are still left feeling let down or disappointed in some way. Parents may attempt to avoid these disappointments and upsets by showering their child with an abundance of gifts and giving in to their requests, only to find that at the end of the day, their efforts simply weren’t enough to quell their child’s wish for more. Why is it that some children always seem to be seeking more while others can be content with what they have?
The seeking – or not seeking – of external gratification is a behavior. The key to understanding why a child behaves or acts a certain way is to think of their behaviors as responses to, or expressions of, emotional states. Behaviors can be understood as external clues about a child’s internal states 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 (e.g., comfortably entertaining herself and playing on her own, feeling flexible enough to go with the flow of the family’s plans, accepting what is served at mealtimes, or feeling okay with receiving some but not all of the items she wished for).
Noticing the Moments When a Child Seeks More
As with all behaviors, we suggest that parents first distinguish whether a particular behavior is one that is out of the ordinary or one that is ongoing and persistent. Seeking external gratification comes in many forms, including, but not limited to, needing more attention or resisting being alone (not feeling comfortable on one’s own), being resistant to going along with the family’s routines or activities, being especially “picky” about or unsatisfied with food, or not feeling satisfied with the possessions one has. Is a child’s seeking of external gratification symptomatic of a recent event (e.g., could it be a reaction to something such as the arrival a new sibling, the impact of the pandemic, or another significant change?) or does it seem to be persistent?
Bringing a Child’s Attention to their Inner World
The seeking of external gratification – or external remedies – may be a sign that there is an uncomfortable or bad feeling a child is experiencing that he is trying to cover, get rid of, or distract himself from. In cases in which this type of behavior is an uncommon occurrence, parents may be able to pinpoint the particular trigger and gently bring their child’s seeking of an external remedy to their attention. For instance, a parent could say, “Nothing seems to feel right or good enough lately. Things have been feeling a little different since [the change]. I will keep this in mind and give you some extra help.” When the trigger is unknown, a parent can comment accordingly, “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 that is bothering you.” These types of comments can open doors to further communication, potentially leading to discussions that help a child recognize that his use of external gratification is an attempt to alleviate some internal discomfort.
Outside Fixes 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 inside problem and brings a child’s attention to her inner world, helping her recognize how her internal states of mind drive her needs and wishes. Ideally, help for a child’s internal discomforts consists of a healthy blend of both outside and inside fixes, for instance providing some additional nurturing and support while gently talking about the reasons why such help is needed.
Signs That a Child May Need Help
Some children persistently seek external gratification in various forms. If a child’s seeking of external gratification is persistent (not triggered by some stressor or event in their life in an apparent way) and seems to consistently interfere with his ability to comfortably move through the ups and downs of a typical day, more specialized help and support in exploring and working through the child’s internal difficulties may be needed.
Lucy Daniels Center Farley-Manning Family Guidance Service (FGS) provides onsite and telehealth therapy for children ages birth – 12 and families at the Lucy Daniels Center. Currently, we are operating remotely due to Covid-19 and instead are taking referrals for telehealth services only.