We love our children.

Of course we do!

But while it’s easy to feel an instant wash of love for a snuggly newborn, it’s hard to feel that love when your child is howling in the middle of the night. When they hurl a yogurt-covered spoon in your face. When they wail and cling to your legs at preschool drop-off while every other kid is just fine.

It’s especially difficult when your child is wired differently than you. While I occasionally get frustrated with my uber-conscientious oldest son, I understand where he’s coming from when he wants to plan every minute of the day. But my almost-three-year-old youngest is a total wild card as far as I’m concerned. He’s forceful, quixotic, has a hunger for new experiences—and his response to discipline is “BRING IT!”

Though I love my youngest very much, sometimes I’m at a loss for how to love him. That’s why this quote resonates so much with me.

“Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.” –Thich Nhat Hanh

I don’t agree entirely; I believe you can always choose to act with love, even if you don’t understand. But without understanding, love will always be a difficult, uphill road.

Understanding what motivates your child requires time and energy, but it’s good work. One of the best tools I’ve discovered is the Enneagram—a personality model that describes nine different types, and looks at what’s really driving each one. It’s important to hold these types loosely as a child’s temperament is still changing, but it’s helpful to look at two or three that might describe your little ones.

Type 1 – Perfectionist

Desire: to be considered good by doing things right and correctly
Fear: being bad, evil, wrong, and punished
Young “Ones” tend to be self-motivated to be perfect and get things right. They fear punishment, and may have a “know-it-all” attitude, correcting other siblings or even you.

Type 2 – Helper

Desire: to be liked, wanted, and loved
Fear: being unwanted and unloved
Young “Twos” are quick to see others’ needs and help out. They care deeply about being liked by other kids, adults, and teachers, and can get their feelings hurt very easily.

Type 3 – Achiever

Desire: to appear successful and admirable
Fear: being a failure, second place, incompetent, exposed
Young”Threes” tend to be competitive and care about being successful in everything they do. They care about appearances and can socially adapt to any situation.

Type 4 – Individualist

Desire: to be unique, authentic, and express their feelings
Fear: being plain, emotionally cut off, defective, and flawed
Young “Fours” have a deep need to be unique and find beauty in the world. They may seem to live in a state of melancholy or get overwhelmed by their emotions, feeling “different” from others or misunderstood.

Type 5 – Thinker

Desire: to be curious and understand everything
Fear: being depleted, invaded, intruded on or obligated, and drained relationally
Young “Fives” enjoy alone time and like to engage in their own interests, often asking deep, searching questions. They tend to stand back and observe, and avoid the spotlight. They may often seem lost in their thoughts.

Type 6 – Guardian

Desire: to be safe, secure, and supported
Fear: fear itself, chaos, lack of support or guidance, blame, uncertainty, getting in trouble
Young “Sixes” tend to be very loyal to their friends and desire security. They may often think of worst case scenarios, and may seem hard to understand because they can change quickly, i.e. from fearful to courageous or careless to careful.

Type 7 – Optimist

Desire: to be happy, enjoy new experiences, have fun
Fear: having to deal with unpleasant feelings, being deprived, limited, bored, missing out
Little Sevens may seem to be happy most of the time, make friends easily, and enjoy being the center of attention. They are likely to be restless, seeking new experiences and fearing boredom. They resist discipline more than most.

Type 8 – Challenger

Desire: to be strong, energetic, in control, and protect oneself
Fear: being challenged, controlled, harmed, at the mercy of injustice
Little Eights are self-assured and may use aggressive energy to keep others from
controlling them. They don’t back down if someone else starts a conflict and have lots of energy to achieve what they want to do. They will tackle injustice and have tender hearts they may have trouble showing.

Type 9 – Peacemaker

Desire: to avoid conflict so they can have stability and peace of mind
Fear: being in conflict, overlooked, shut out, in discordant relationship
Little Nines tend to go along to get along and avoid conflict. If they become overwhelmed, they may “check out,” but will seek comfort by staying close to you. They tend to have a calm, peaceful energy and get distracted easily.

Any of these sound like (a young) someone you know?

This week, take a few minutes to talk with God about the unique desires that may be motivating your child—and how you can help by directly addressing the things they fear. Maybe your Little (maybe) One needs to hear that you will still love him, even if he makes a giant mistake. Or maybe your Little (maybe) Six needs to be reminded that God is always with her, no matter what she fears in the moment.

It may also be helpful for you to spend time discovering your own Enneagram type. After all, God created you to be the precise parent that your incredibly unique child needs. Trust Him to help you understand your child as a part of His deep love for you both.

(Enneagram content adapted from The Enneagram of Parenting by Elizabeth Wagele.)