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It is easy for us to identify a child’s physical needs: nutritious food, warm, clean clothes, a roof over their heads, routine bedtimes, medical care when needed.
However, a child’s mental and emotional needs may not be so obvious. Good emotional health helps children to develop socially and learn new skills. In addition, having good friends and receiving reassurance and positive encouragement from adults help children develop self-confidence, high self-esteem, and a healthy emotional outlook on life.
Statistics show that 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24. 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental problem (The Mental Health Foundation) which is why laying solid emotional foundations from birth is so crucial for the wellbeing of next generations.
From birth, children have a strong need for love. Babies are delicate and dependent on those caring for them to survive. This love helps babies feel safe in the world and builds trust in other people. Cuddles and other small actions demonstrate your love and help them feel more secure. It also strengthens the bond between the parent and baby.
In addition to needing love, babies need to feel safe. They depend on adults to keep them safe; they can only let you know how they are feeling through laughing or crying. If they get a quick response to the emotion that they are displaying it can have a positive effect on their emotional development.
This care and attention form the baby’s perception of the world; they realise that their cries are answered with caring and this reinforces a positive image of the people around them.
Babies’ emotional needs include:
This solid foundation of emotions sets babies up for success in all areas of life.
As babies grow into toddlers they are developing physically, cognitively and linguistically; they also begin to develop relationships. It is at this stage that children’s emotional feelings start to have an impact on their daily functioning including their behaviour, for example why do they throw tantrums?
We often label it as “the terrible twos”. Every tantrum a child throws, however petty the reason for the tantrum may be, all they want is to feel understood. Fighting over a toy or crying about not getting a snack can seem insignificant to us. After all, from our point of view, these don’t seem important enough to justify the kind of meltdowns toddlers can have.
But you won’t get through to the child, much less calm them down, unless you first show them that you understand. Try putting yourself in their shoes; this means showing empathy and actually thinking about what they might be feeling. That toy or snack at that moment in time seems the most important thing in the whole world to the toddler.
Talk to them, show that you understand how they are feeling – this doesn’t mean giving in to the demands – explain how they might be able to cope with this difficulty. Validate their feelings; toddlers don’t want to feel brushed aside or misunderstood, they want to feel that they are understood and that the depth of their feelings is understood.
When the tantrum is over, don’t hold a grudge. However annoyed you may feel, don’t let your feelings fester for the rest of the day; the toddler has already got over it, forgive and move on. Making the toddler feel “guilty” for the way you are feeling about how they behaved will have a detrimental effect on their emotional development; it’s their behaviour that is wrong.
In explaining that, let the toddler know that they are still loved and that you forgive mistakes. They will learn that although you dislike certain behaviours, they are loved. At this stage of development toddlers can’t regulate their emotions, they need you to guide them.
Toddlers respond positively to praise. At this time, they are learning, absorbing knowledge and information. They are desperate to show you their new skills and achievements and for you to show your approval and pride. Showing interest in a toddler’s latest finger painting or dance moves, for example, goes a long way to building their self-esteem. Giving them encouragement when things are not going to plan helps develop their thinking skills and perseverance.
However, this is also the stage when toddlers want to be able to “do it themselves” and this can lead to them flinging themselves into unsafe situations. Toddlers need to know that they can explore and try things out but that you will be there to step in if they overstep the safe boundaries. Having the feeling that they are not on their own, that we are setting limits, gives them security and feelings of comfort, even if at times they may push these boundaries. They want to feel you won’t let them come to harm.
Toddlers’ emotional needs include:
- Empathy & understanding
- Safe boundaries.
Young children 4–11
This is the stage when children are experiencing the world outside the home more and more. They start school, and this can be both exciting and unsettling for them. They need support to guide them, praise for their achievements and someone to be there to comfort and encourage them when things go wrong.
Routine helps children to feel safe and flourish. Knowing what to expect makes them feel more secure. At this age they are experiencing big changes, and a structured framework helps them handle these experiences. Setting times for meals, play, school, homework and bed helps children deal with all the differing aspects of their life, and knowing the routine helps to instil a sense of control – they know what to expect.
Control is inherently important to children, not being controlled but feeling they have control over themselves. Providing a sense of autonomy, giving the child choices they can pick from, for example “do you want to wear a t-shirt or jumper today?”, gives the child a feeling of “power” over their lives and enhances their decision-making skills.
They may not always make the most appropriate decision, a t-shirt on a freezing cold day, but they will learn from this in a “safe environment”. Allowing children to make their own choices helps develop problem-solving skills especially when they haven’t made the best choice. How are they going to resolve this? Provide more choices, don’t solve it for them, that way they will learn that things don’t always go to plan first time.
At this age children start to feel anxious particularly if they see grown-ups around them worrying or fretful. A good example of this is when grown-ups react to bad news on the TV. The grown-ups may be feeling stunned by the news, for example so many thousands have died from COVID, but to a child this may be overwhelming.
They may feel that every grown-up they know may be at risk and they are powerless. Talk to them about the topic, help them to feel empowered, not frightened. What can you do as a family to keep those people the child knows safe? In turn this will give them a feeling of safety; they are doing something positive. Simple, positive things that the child can do will instil a sense of power, for example perhaps raising money for the NHS through sponsored silences gives children a positive way to combat things that seem hopeless and nurture a feeling of achievement.
Supporting children in their interests, for example cheering from the sidelines, being interested in ponies or tractors or creepy-crawlies, even if you hate them, encourages children to explore the world and find out what they like and what they don’t. Often these interests are a five-minute wonder, but that should be their choice; however, you never know whether they may turn that messy art project into their life’s work and passion. Your encouragement and support will pave the way to have the confidence to follow their dream.
Children’s personalities are beginning to develop as too is their need to be valued as an individual. Starting to ask their opinion about things like where to go on a family day out, what colour they would like for their bedroom or do they like your new hairstyle shows a child that they are respected and valued. Be mindful what you say to the child; you probably wouldn’t dismiss a friend’s opinion as ridiculous even if it is, so value the child’s opinion, show them they have a safe space to voice it even if you have to disagree with it.
Young children’s emotional needs include:
- Empathy & understanding
- Safe boundaries
- A sense of personal control and choice
Older children and teenagers 12–18
The teenage years are a time of considerable change. It starts with the change from the safety of being on the top rung of their first school to the bottom rung of their new senior school. All those feelings of vulnerability return; they need reassurance and positive affirmation that they can deal with these changes, after all they dealt with them when they started their first school.
Teenagers often look all grown-up, but their emotional development is often behind their physical development. How they respond to situations with good judgement and their awareness of long-term consequences can often be immature – they haven’t had enough experience to rely on. As they start to make their independent way in the world, they need the reassurance that you will always be there for them.
As their hormones kick in there will be a roller-coaster of emotional highs and lows, and you can play an important part in supporting and guiding them to feel good about themselves as they deal with heightened emotions. This unconditional love and support are crucially important; allowing them the freedom to be more independent gives them confidence and builds their self-esteem. Negotiation and compromise help. When a teenager is asserting their independence, you may not approve of something they want to do but by discussing the matter adult to adult, you should be able to reach a consensus agreeable to both parties, neither party loses face and arguments are avoided.
They may make mistakes, make unwise decisions or feel the world is against them, however, knowing that they have someone to turn to who will not be judgemental, who will forgive them when, for example, they drink too much when they promised they wouldn’t, or their behaviour and mood is rebellious, will give them the confidence to face the challenges, find solutions and learn from their mistakes.
All the work that you have put in over the years to ensure that you have built firm emotional foundations will help you to communicate with the teenager as you both understand each other. There will be days when all you get is a grunt in response, when they look at you as if to say “you have no idea, you have never been young, you don’t know how I feel” but you do and sometimes you have to be very creative in finding ways to communicate at times like these. Sometimes you don’t even need to say anything, a small gesture to remind them they are loved goes a long way.
Teenagers’ emotional needs include:
- Empathy & understanding
- Safe boundaries
- A sense of personal control and choice
- Knowing you are always there.
By nurturing a child’s emotional needs will help them grow into a happy, emotionally intelligent, emotionally balanced adult. You have provided them with a solid emotional foundation. They have learned by your example and have grown and developed into a healthy adult who is confident, self-assured and independent but who knows that you will always be there for them when you are needed.