Understanding our children’s emotional needs and how we can meet them is the first step in supporting their confidence and self-esteem.
Want to know the secret to raising a child who’s confident, secure, and has strong self-esteem?
Meet their emotional needs.
While that statement sounds over-simplified, it’s true. When we, as parents, help meet the emotional needs of our children, we’re building a foundation that allows our kids to thrive.
Kids whose emotional needs are met are shown to have stronger relationships, do better academically, and are more resilient throughout their lives.
And not only does meeting our kids’ emotional needs help them, it helps us too.
Because when kids’ needs are met, parenting is simply easier. We discover we have fewer power struggles and fights with our children, and our communication with them improves.
So what are the emotional needs of a child that are essential for this kind of growth? And what does it mean to meet them?
Here are seven essential emotional needs that every child needs fulfilled:
It won’t come as a surprise that children need unconditional love. And most parents feel boundless love and affection for their kids.
But it’s important to really consider the meaning of the word “unconditional.” If we truly express love to our kids unconditionally, then our love and affection cannot be bound by anything our child does, says, or feels.
For example, even if our child hits their brother, screams at us, and throws a tantrum, we cannot withdraw our affection from them as a punishment. This could lead our child to believe our love is conditional on their behavior. While our approval of their actions can certainly be conditional, our love and affection never should be.
We also can’t let our dreams, goals, and ambitions for our children cloud who they desire to be or become. Just because we hope they’ll excel at baseball, for example, doesn’t mean they will or want to. Likewise, if we push them to follow a specific career path – in STEM, business, or law – our children may come to believe our love is contingent on their fulfillment of this goal.
Every loving parent wants their child to feel loved unconditionally. It’s helpful to consider if our actions and what we indirectly and directly communicate to our children truly make them feel loved unconditionally.
One of the most fundamental ways to create connection with our children is through empathy.
When we’re empathetic with our kids, we’re building a bridge to their emotions, letting them know we understand and sympathize with what they’re going through. This fills our children with a sense of security – lets them feel safe expressing their emotions – not only in the current situation, but also with our relationship.
But let’s be honest. It can be challenging to be empathetic when our children are at their worst.
Let’s say your son kicked over a bucket of Legos after being told it’s time to go to bed. His response is aggravating, but it’s also clearly a sign that he’s frustrated with what he’s been asked to do. His inappropriate behavior is the result of his immaturity and inability to express his frustration appropriately.
Our natural instinct, in this case, is to feel annoyance and anger, followed by trying to make our child understand that what he did was wrong. But if we slow down, take a deep breath, and first express empathy for his feelings, it will not only help our son calm down, it will also make him more open to our coaching.
Once he’s calm, we can follow up with an explanation of why his response was inappropriate and help him find better ways to express frustration. We may also find that he’ll be more willing to do what he’s been asked, after we’ve shown empathy for his feelings.
Everyone wants to feel validated – especially kids.
Think of a time when you were chatting with a friend, telling them about the frustrating way your boss treated you at work. She nodded her head “yes” and backed you up by expressing the same astonishment and disgust you were feeling. In that moment, it felt good to have someone validate your frustrations.
Now imagine your child facing a frustrating situation. Maybe your son got in a dispute with a friend at school, or your daughter didn’t get the part in the play she expected. Or maybe your toddler is upset that you need to leave the playground.
In these situations, it helps to acknowledge and validate what your child is feeling. Similar to empathy, validation increases the security our kids feel with both their own emotions and their relationship with us. It lets them know that we understand what they’re feeling and experiencing.
Just a few words can work wonders. Such as: “That must have been frustrating to have Liam get upset with you like that,” or “I know you were having fun playing in the sandbox and didn’t want to leave.”
While providing your child with boundaries isn’t an emotional need in and of itself, kids yearn for boundaries to feel emotionally stable.
In this case, boundaries means guiding kids toward an understanding of right and wrong and helping them understand what is and isn’t safe. It also means following a daily and weekly routine to give kids a sense of consistency and predictability.
Without boundaries, kids can feel emotionally unsettled and insecure. Being a child – young or old – can feel scary when the world appears to be uncertain.
When parents respectfully correct behavior or maintain family rules, they’re creating boundaries for their children. Also, following morning, evening, and even naptime routines creates predictability about the rhythm of the day, lowering kids’ frustration, confusion, and irritability.
Everyone wants to feel accepted for who they are. Imagine how powerful it is for kids to feel completely accepted by the most important adults in their lives – their parents.
Acceptance doesn’t mean ignoring ways we can help our children improve or become the best version of themselves. Children are immature and need adults’ help to navigate the world and learn the proper ways to behave and interact with others.
In this case, acceptance means embracing the reality of who our child is, not who we wish they would be. It also requires understanding the difference between a personality trait – either at this moment in time or forever more – and supporting our kids’ maturing character.
For example, if our four-year-old daughter’s personality is such that she is constantly moving, it would be un-accepting of us to expect her to sit perfectly still at an hour-long concert. Or if our son decides he enjoys drawing more than sports, it would be un-accepting to ignore or diminish this passion.
Similar to unconditional love, it’s helpful to consider if we’re communicating acceptance of our kids’ personality in our actions and speech. The more we lean toward acceptance of our children, the more they will thrive and feel emotionally secure.
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Children, like anyone, have an emotional need to feel heard or listened to. When children don’t feel heard, they act out – either by yelling, screaming, throwing or hitting, or sometimes a child will simply withdraw.
Feeling heard fulfills kids’ emotional need of validation and respect. And when children feel heard, it not only supports a positive self-esteem but makes them more open to hearing what we need to tell them.
Helping children feel heard requires us to actively listen and then reflect back what they’re saying. For young children, it can mean getting down to their level, looking them in the eye, and confirming/validating the thoughts and feelings they’re communicating.
For older kids, it can mean acknowledging their opinions even if we disagree with them. It also means letting them voice frustrations even if we also need to coach them on expressing those frustrations effectively and respectively.
Every human needs to feel that they belong — most importantly, belong within their family.
A sense of belonging has been shown to have an effect on life satisfaction, general well-being, cognitive performance, academic outcomes, and physical health. It provides a person with security and lets them feel good about themselves and who they are.
Kids’ misbehavior can often be traced back to feeling that they don’t belong. Children who seek undue attention, for example, by interrupting, shouting, speaking out unnecessarily, or doing something they’ve been told not to, usually feel that they don’t belong. Mistakenly, they believe that their behavior will help them gain a greater sense of belonging.
Parents can help meet their child’s emotional need of belonging by spending special time with them. This could include reading books together in the evening or letting your child choose an activity you do together for a few minutes each day.
A number of the other ways we meet emotional needs in this list also contribute to a sense of belonging, such as actively listening and validating what your child is telling you. Also, accepting your child for who they are is integral to their sense of belonging.
The emotional need of significance is nearly synonymous with a sense of belonging. But to feel significance, one has to feel that their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs matter.
It’s possible to let our kids feel that they have significance without letting them get away with bad behavior or catering to their every whim. As still maturing humans, children need us to guide them toward appropriate behavior (i.e., have boundaries) and allow them to demonstrate independence.
We can, however, make our children feel that they’re significant by demonstrating to them that we’re listening and considering their opinions and beliefs (through active listening and validation). Showing our kids empathy when they’re distraught or hurt and allowing them to voice opinions contrary to our own are other ways we can help them feel significant.
It’s little things that can make a big difference
Meeting our kids’ emotional needs, and in turn, helping them feel confident and secure, comes down to small shifts in the way we interact with them.
By showing our kids respect, actively listening, and validating their thoughts and opinions, all while coaching them in appropriate behavior, we can lead our children toward a life of confidence, independence, and self-sufficiency.
It means taking advantage of small moments – demonstrating that we’re listening to our kids when they have something to say, respecting their thoughts and opinions, and providing them with boundaries whenever possible – to lead them toward greater emotional security and confidence.
About Kerry Flatley, Certified Parent Educator
I’m the mother of two girls and a certified parent educator. I believe it is possible for parents to have a supportive, loving, and warm relationship with their kids while still raising them to be independent and ultimately self-sufficient. Over the years, I’ve read numerous books and articles that support this belief and put those ideas into practice with my own kids. Read more about me and Self-Sufficient Kids here.