Understanding Children's Emotional Needs

Understanding Children’s Emotional Needs

Picture of Meri Wallace
Meri Wallace

Meri Wallace, LCSW, a parenting expert and child and family therapist for over thirty years, grew up in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Meri completed her Masters degree in Social Work at NYU, specializing in child development. Meri writes a blog for “Psychology Today”, and is the author of “Birth Order Blues” (Henry Holt and Co.) and “Keys to Parenting Your Four Year Old” (Barron's Educational Series.) She has been a columnist for Sesame Street Parents, New York Family Magazine,and Brooklyn Parent and has been a consultant to Children’s Television Workshop. She is frequently interviewed by national publications including Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, and Parents Magazine.

Your loving care helps her to feel safe and trust others

Children come into the world with certain basic emotional needs: the need to feel loved and the need for a positive self-esteem. As a parent, it is your job to be aware of these needs, and communicate with your child in a way that will support your child’s positive growth.

Children have a strong need for love, which begins at birth. The tiny infant feels fragile and is completely dependent upon her caretakers to survive. They feed her, comfort her, and make her feel valued. This loving care helps her to build trust in other people, to love herself, and to feel safe in the world.

As children grow, they continue to need their parent’s love and attention. When your 8-year-old shows you his science project, he will need your positive feedback. If your 11-year-old fails a math quiz, he will need your loving support to know that he is still valuable.

Here are some positive ways you can show your child love:

  • Spending time with your child communicates you care. To a child, time = attention = love. Looking up when she calls, making eye contact when she speaks, and responding to her latest creation or question with interest, show that she is important.
  • Children have a need for affection: smiles, hugs, kisses, and caring words such as, ”I love you.” Your loving touch and words make them feel loved.
  • Children need to know that you accept their feelings, their mistakes and love them unconditionally. For example, telling your child, “I know you spilled the milk, but you didn’t do it on purpose,” or saying, “Crying is OK. You feel sad your friend is moving.”
  • Children feel respected and valued when you acknowledge their opinions, feelings, and desires. For instance, telling him, “I know it’s hard to stop playing with your Legos and take a bath,” communicates that what he is doing is important to you.
  • Praise communicates an appreciation of the child’s efforts, and that the child is valued. For example, telling him, “I’m proud of you for getting such a good grade,” or, “I like the colors you used in your painting,” show approval and enhance his self-esteem.
  • Support calms a child. For example, telling her, “Don’t worry. You’ll do better next time,” encourages her, restores her belief in herself, and helps her to build optimism.

Children need a positive self-esteem. It is in your eyes, your words, your actions, and your smile that your child forms an image of himself. Children desperately want to feel that they are valuable. Giving your child a good feeling about himself, by protecting his self-esteem, is one of your greatest challenges as a parent. The goal in working with this issue is to communicate with him positively, which means choosing your words and actions carefully. Here are some guidelines for positive communication:

  • Avoid criticism, for instance, telling your child, “You’re kicking the ball all wrong.” These words will deflate your child’s self-image.
  • Avoid comparisons. If you say, “Why can’t you be more like your younger brother and get good grades?” your child will feel inadequate.
  • Avoid negative adjectives. If you use words such as sloppy, bad, or lazy, your child will feel she is not valuable.
  • Avoid negative phrases. When a parent says, “What’s wrong with you?” or “How many times have I told you not to …?” these phrases will cause a child to feel flawed.
  • Yelling at your child, or expressing your anger physically, also causes a child to feel devalued and unloved.
  • When you are present with your child in the moment and respond with warmth and appreciation, your child will grow up feeling secure and loved.