What are the Emotional Needs of a Child?

October 19, 2015
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When thinking about the emotional needs of a child, love and affection are the first things that come to mind.

Of course we love our children and we have an instinctive desire to protect them from harm or distress, but what else do they need from us as caregivers? How can we help our children develop strong emotional intelligence and self-awareness?

What you’ll find below is a resource to use as a starting point when considering the emotional needs of the young people in your life.

Girls playing on a swing in the park


Toddlers (aged 1- 3) are just getting started learning about the world around them. It’s an extremely exciting time for physical, cognitive and language development. They understand much more than we think and they develop self-awareness during this period.

The need to be understood

Toddlers understand so much more than they can express, which can be understandably frustrating. Their communication skills can’t keep up with their emotional and physical development, which results in their perception preceding speech production.

Tuning in to what toddlers are trying to express can be difficult, but it will help to put them at ease. Don’t give up on trying to understand and try to avoid interrupting before their sentence is finished. Picture books and baby sign language are options to consider, but the need to be understood can often be fulfilled by active, regular listening and persistence.

Freedom to make mistakes

It is important for toddlers to learn some things on their own. The instinct is to help them up every time they fall and stop them from dropping things before they do it, but letting them learn these things on their own can instill an early level of independence.

Don’t let a child put themselves in danger, but allow them to make mistakes. After all, small mistakes are not a big deal and will help them learn in the long run.

The need for an example

Toddlers watch and listen to everything you do. They are like little scientists, watching and taking in, ready to copy. They can imitate behaviours days after an event, so you may one day see them hold a phone to their ear or pretend to read a book, even if you’re not doing it at that moment. This means that they need a good example and positive behaviours to copy – avoid swearing, smoking or aggression in front of them. If you don’t want your children to do something, you have to stop doing it near them.

Encouragement and praise

Toddlers have inquisitive minds, which can be nurtured with encouragement and reassurance. Most children are driven by a desire for approval and a need to please their guardians, so demonstrating you are happy with them is key to fulfilling this need.

Praising good behaviour is important across all ages, but praising creativity or decision making is a great way of fostering solid thinking skills in toddlers and young children.

Toddler playing with toys in basket


Moving on to the ‘child’ which, in this article, refers to the young person aged between 4 and 11. This is a very important time in a child’s life and marks the start of the school years. When children start school they learn how to live away from their primary caregivers and begin to engage in social networks with other young people. They gain a sense of independence from education and become more able to express their emotions and feelings.

The need to feel included

The modern family includes a wide variety of different home situations. Problems can sometimes occur if the family dynamic changes in any way and children may feel left behind. It’s important that, when parents change their living situations, children still feel included and valued in their own right.

Children can also feel excluded when caregivers are doing an activity together – why would they play alone when they could get involved with what Mum and Dad are doing? The key is boundaries, communication and time. Making time for play may be the best way of soothing the feeling of being left out.

Freedom to solve problems

In a similar way to the freedom to make mistakes, the ability to solve problems on their own without interruption from caregivers is a great way for children to grow in confidence and build their thinking abilities.

It might take the child 20 minutes to figure out how to move the stool to the fridge, but be patient and let them do it.

The sense of independence and achievement they will feel from completing the task alone is great for self-esteem, and they may learn to solve problems without constant assistance. This idea can also be applied to problems with other children, small arguments and creating games. Rather than jumping in to solve the social problem for them, why not (within reason) let them figure it out without intervention.

The need to be shown interest

That drawing is the most important achievement your child has had in the last hour and it’s extremely likely they will want you to look at it.

Showing interest in your child and their achievements on a regular basis is an extension of demonstrating you understand. Everything they have to say is of the utmost importance to them at that very moment of time – even if it’s extremely inconvenient timing for you. The best solution is not necessarily to drop everything you’re doing to listen, but to always follow up afterwards and make time when you can so that you’re able to pay full attention to what the child has to say.

Clear boundaries

Children aren’t born with knowledge of right and wrong, it has to be taught and practised. This is something we often forget when our intelligent child makes a seemingly obvious glaring error. It’s obvious to us as adults, but is it obvious to your child? Shouting that something is wrong is a sure fire way of getting child to become anxious about your reactions, without actually guiding them on what the problem was. Give the child a clear, calm explanation on exactly why walking out into a road made you seem angry, and teach them why they shouldn’t do it again.

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Finally, the teenager. In this article, ‘teen’ refers to young people aged 12-18 as they are considered an adult at age 18, despite not necessarily being fully emotionally mature.

Teenagers are stereotypically notorious for emotional outbursts, grunting and grumbling, being unpredictable and telling you everything is unfair. The teen years, however, can be some of the most difficult for young people because they appear independent and responsible, but their reasoning skills and life experience aren’t always there yet.

The need to assert independence

Teens are young adults and often want to be treated as such, yet it’s difficult to know how to nurture somebody who considers themselves an adult half of the time, and spends the rest rebelling and snoozing in a truly non adult-like fashion. There is no one size fits all solution, but allowing some assertions of independence may help to build self-esteem and minimise outbursts.

Example: You could encourage your teens to assert their independence through managing their own spending money or by organising their own lunches, but intervene and assist when necessary with budgeting or how to scramble an egg.

Freedom to make age appropriate decisions

Teenagers are perfectly capable of deciding what clothes to wear, what music to listen to and what food to eat.

Perhaps they can make the wrong decisions, but guiding them to making better choices is better than taking the choices away. Trying to control every aspect of a young person’s life is the first step to pushing them away.

Creating an environment for respectful communication and discussion about their decisions suits a teen’s needs better than having a go at them to change their choice of clothing.

The need for fairness and trust

Trusting teenagers is pretty scary – they appear old enough but they haven’t mastered the responsibilities that come with adulthood. They can be impressionable and naive which can put them in dangerous situations. It’s a constant balancing act between keeping them safe and allowing them independence.

Example: Allowing an independent outing with set boundaries for coming home is a good start – if the young person gives back by adhering to your advice, they can go out again. This could be the start of a fair, trust-filled relationship between parent and teen.

Freedom of expression

Encouraging freedom of expression on all topics – no matter how cringe-worthy for a parent – is one of the best ways to build a close bond with your child.

Yes it’s embarrassing, but if you know exactly what your teen knows and thinks about STIs, porn or taking ecstasy, you’re in a much better position to give them the information they need to make the right decisions. If sensitive topics such as sex, racism, religion, drugs or alcohol are forbidden topics in the home, then it’s likely your teen will go out and find the information elsewhere anyway.

Group of teenagers at school

All Children & Young People

There are some emotional needs that are relevant for all ages, and often for adults too. These extra points are worth considering for all young people throughout their development.

The need for approval

The vast majority of children – and adults – have an intrinsic need for approval from a very young age. Approval from their parents, friends, teachers, siblings…the feeling of being accepted, praised or commended for your actions is something we all need for fulfilment.

Praising and encouraging your children for great behaviour – including creativity, free thought, problem solving and kindness – gives them the sense of approval they need. If young people need to seek out approval from elsewhere, they may enter into dangerous activities or situations in order to attain it.

The need to be heard

All children, and again all adults, need to feel that what they are saying is being heard. With toddlers, they want to be understood. Children want to be listened to and be allowed to make decisions for themselves. Teenagers want to question the world (and often their parents) and have their opinions to be taken on board by others. Adults want to feel that their contributions are acknowledged, at home, work and in all aspects of life.

The need to be heard is of universal importance in fostering positive relationships. Our opinions drive society and deserve to be listened to. If you listen to your children and what they really have to say, this can improve their confidence in articulating themselves and build self-esteem.

The need for forgiveness

Forgiveness is an innate part of human interaction and without it society would be lost. We hope that, when we are genuinely sorry for our mistakes, we will be forgiven and life will move on.

Children spilling drinks can cry and cry until you show affection and forgiveness – it’s linked to approval from others and desire to please. Teenagers need to be forgiven for their emotional outbursts or perceived selfishness. They need you to constantly forgive and guide in order for them to figure out the world for themselves. Holding grudges against children will create emotional distance and barriers that can be very difficult to overcome.

Children sat reading books

Freedom of choice

Children are able to make choices from a very, very young age and this should be encouraged as much as possible. Of course, 4 year olds shouldn’t be deciding exactly what you have for dinner every night, but here are some examples of what a 4 year old could make a decision on:

      • Which t-shirt would they like to wear out of a selection?
      • Which book would they like to read before bedtime tonight?
      • Which colour toothbrush would they like you to buy in the shop?
      • Would they like to go to the park or stay in the garden this afternoon?
      • Would they like peas or sweetcorn with dinner?

Teenagers will likely make choices with or without your approval, so fostering their freedom of choice from a younger age makes them more comfortable with voicing their opinion. Making everything easy to talk about means they are more likely to talk, and the more you know, the more you can protect them, whilst giving them their own privacy and freedom of expression.

Understanding children’s emotional needs

Our emotional needs are what make us separate from the animal world; we are complex creatures and require positive interactions from other humans to fulfil us.

Making time for the emotional needs of our children is imperative.

The different stages of development in children create new challenges in understanding the emotional needs of a child. Of course, every person – and thus every child – is different, but being open to emotional intelligence can be the start of a mature, highly communicative and positive relationship with your child.

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