What Kids Need Most at Every Age and Every Stage

Article by William Seery, M.Div., M.S., L.M.F.T.

During my last thirty years in clinical practice as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, I have learned valuable things about people. For instance, the number of principles involved in determining success and failure are fewer than the countless benefits – or problems they can produce. For instance, simply being positive in a marriage can set the pace for solving a multitude of problems together; simply being negative can guarantee an argument for every topic and all the negative effects of making independent decisions.

The same is true with raising children.  I have noticed five “indispensable” principles that profoundly influence emotional development in children at every age and stage. While methods for applying the principles vary for different ages, their steady application results in healthy development and strong character. Conversely, when any of the five principles are absent or blocked in the course of a child’s development, the effects are negative.

The Five Indispensable principles operate together in an interactive way. If one or more of them is lacking in a home, not only do parents have a harder time implementing the others but seriously destructive patterns tend to form in the family and in the child’s life. However, with the approach I am suggesting and have been using, many of these negative patterns can be identified and steps taken to begin change. Of course, this benefit carries over to society at large.

I see these five principles constantly surface as most indispensable for understanding even complex developmental and parenting problems. They also provide the key to many solutions. What are the five principles and what makes them so indispensable?

Indispensable Number One:


Love is the beginning of relationship. Even before we learn language, we thrive on expressions of love and affection. Later in our growth when words make more sense, assurances of love build confidence. Frequent and clear expressions of love and assurance in the language of the child form the core fabric of emotional maturity. Never underestimate the power and continual need for expressions of love and assurance. It is the life line for staying connected. When expressions of love and assurance go away, kids disconnect and become at risk for many negative things. Love is truly Indispensable!

Parents carry enormous amounts of love, even though at times we may not be “feelin” it. The real trick is delivering love to the child, especially during times when they don’t seem to deserve it! There are many ways to do this. Often, parents fear this would be excessive or syrupy or that it would give the impression that they would be showing approval for disobedient or offensive behavior. This might be true if we were talking about the “One Indispensable” method rather than the Five. But it is not. There is no need to hesitate to make loving expressions a major part of everyday communication because the other four Indispensables bring it into balance.

Now, what if our kids got only expressions of love from us? That would not be good. No, no. They would “understand” that they are valued and loved but not for long. It would not be enough to build self-control and maturity. For that, we need to add the second Indispensable.

Indispensable Number Two:


Love, assurance and peace are import, but to get emotional growth and self-control, this serenity has to be periodically interrupted in a productive way. A “brief dip” is any short episode of unavoidable discomfort that happens in a context where there are reasonable expressions of love and assurance. When a young person has a pretty steady source of expressions of love and assurance, this is when “brief dips” work best to stimulate emotional growth and strengthen self-control. The term “Brief Dip” refers to small, time limited, brief grief episodes that result in emotional strengthening and maturity, a notch at a time. These are not “lessons” learned but experiences.

Most often, the discomfort we are talking about here is emotional, like being disappointed about something like losing a privilege or a girlfriend, but it can be something physical too, like a stubbed toe. In other words, a “dip” could be a discipline from a parent but it can also be an unpleasant experience from somewhere else like at school with peers. It is an experience that cannot be avoided or medicated. It is very  important also that as adults, we let them go though these dips without shaming or over-teaching.

Without these strengthening episodes of normal discomfort, children are profoundly more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and other self-management issues. I believe as a society, we are unintentionally sending our children into the world with problems that could have been prevented by applying this understanding. There are countless ways that kids skip the dip experiences because they are able to opt out of them on-demand. Normally we think of mood changing substances which lead to addiction as the main enemy of a child’s future. But what about the instant and continual mood changing effect of just about any electronic device any moment of the day? We are beginning to realize that hours and hours of daily time taking refuge in a screen instead of experiencing the ups and downs of daily emotional life is depriving kids of self-control, self-confidence and other aspects of emotional maturity. I really am glad for all the great benefits of technology, even as I “write” these words. They are indeed here to stay. But one way to mitigate the serious dangers I am describing and safeguard your child’s development is to think in terms of Brief Dips and the other four Indispensables.

It is important to note that a brief dip is not the same as a lecture or screaming or shaming, slapping, long indefinite consequences or trauma of any kind. The more frequently kids go all the way through each real “brief dips” the more they become emotionally stronger rather than more callous. The same principle applies to grown-ups! By the way, most people don’t volunteer for brief dips, so don’t expect to be able to talk or reason your kids into it. A parent has to control the options rather than the child. The option the child does not like is what creates the dip experience. It does not have to come with a lesson.

Expressions of love and brief dips, the first two Indispensables, are the two components of a model for emotional growth which I rely on a great deal.  The other three Indispensables help insure that this model gets applied in the home.

 Indispensable Number Three:


Kids do best when their home life includes a balance of nurturing and structure. In the best-case scenario, this is supplied by two unified parents working together to bring both aspects to the table. This unified relationship can be powerful in stimulating the growth of a young person. And while it is more difficult when there is only one parent, or one at a time as when there are two households, it can still be done.

Nurture is in a home when there is a general ease of acceptance, sense of freedom to be real, respect and warmth from parents and others. Structure can take the form of daily routine, rules and expectations which are enforced. In a home situation where there are two parents, I’ve found that most often, one parent is naturally better at nurturing and the other is better at organizing and imposing limits and consequences, i.e. structuring. If both parents learn from each other instead of fighting about which one is right, kids tend to be secure and they grow emotionally. Two parents with different temperaments working in a unified way can be most effective. There is more to say about how to pull this off but it is possible, especially if both parents can buy into all five of the Five Indispensables and get them activated. The principles apply also for single parents but application is somewhat different. For instance, for more leverage, a single parent must try to build supportive friendships while at the same time looking for fresh ways to improve the nurture and structure aspects of the home.

Indispensable Number Four:


It’s natural and common for adults to think that the only way kids change is by understanding something clearly so that they “really get it.” However, when they don’t obey or change it’s also natural for us to try harder to explain more, repeat ourselves, get louder, be more critical, engage in more debates and eventually end up using our voices in a really counterproductive way! Yet the situation gets worse and before long language becomes toxic in the home.

On the other hand, as parents we can be much more effective in the use of language when we simply speak for ourselves, say what we want respectfully, and also be clear about what we will do if we don’t get what we want.  This is much less frustrating for everyone and much more effective. Do you ever hear yourself whine and gripe to your kids about how they whine and gripe? Where they got that habit is such a mystery! Examples of language pollution include lecturing and guilt tripping on every topic or correcting every idea or attitude that isn’t quite right, arguing and debating endlessly over every resistance, manipulation and screaming. These habits of interaction erode expressions of love and assurance and they make life one big long very ineffective “dip.”

Making changes in how we speak to immature people is often difficult because they can be offensive and we can develop negative habits over time. Fortunately though, change is quite possible because it usually boils down to a few basic issues of expression which can be addressed.

Indispensable Number Five:


Nearly everyone can be negatively “hooked” or triggered or bothered emotionally by something so that they react in ways that don’t help the situation. Some of us are aware of our emotional “hooks” or issues but others of us have no clue. Your kids are aware though. Given enough time, kids will usually discover just what it is that hooks the adults emotionally. As parents (and spouses too,) we function best if we know our issues and if we are each growing personally. This is because in situations we become much more in control of what we do about how we feel. Without this fifth Indispensable we become fair game for all kinds of drama. It is because kids learn that one of the quickest ways to keep from going through a brief dip of their own is to have drama with you.  Once we get reeled in, our efforts and desire to be effective parents are frustrated.


These are the five Indispensable principles. They may sound simply like good common sense principles everybody knows already. But, they are more than that. It is fascinating how much these five interact and how together they can generate such strength and maturity when in balance yet such complex symptoms when they are not.  It is also encouraging to know that strategic solutions can be forged from the Five Indispensables. There is much more to be said about how this works but hopefully this will point you toward a constructive approach that saves you valuable time and energy as you invest in the life of a young person.

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