Written by Lizette van Huyssteen, Early Childhood Development Expert from The Practica Program.

Few things make us as parents feel as powerless as watching a child avoid challenges or shy away from other children because of a lack of self-confidence – especially when it seems as if no amount of reasoning, praise or patience seems to lift the self-doubt we see in them. 

Fortunately, psychologists say they have an answer. 

No parent is perfect and no household is entirely without problems, but psychologists who specialize in Schema Therapy say all children have five core emotional needs – and parents who put effort into sufficiently meeting these needs tend to raise children who are more content and confident. In fact, their children are also better protected against the development of mental disorders. And this remains the case well into adulthood.1

Here’s a short overview of these needs and how children benefit from having parents that meet them well enough, albeit not perfectly:

  1. The need to develop a secure attachment. 

First and foremost, children have a hard-wired biological drive to form an enduring bond with their parents. Their confidence grows when they experience their parents as being predictable and stable, and when they feel safe, nurtured and accepted in their parents’ company. 

Practically speaking, this means that we as parents need to love our children through our actions, take care of them, comfort them when they need it, be fair and act predictably. They should be able to count on our unswerving loving kindness – even when that requires of us to put their needs above our own feelings and comfort. 

It may help to mention that two of the things that provide stability and security in a household are (1) keeping to a fairly predictable routine and (2) following through when we as parents need to instruct, correct or discipline our children – even when we feel like doing other things or we’re on a mission to get something else done. 

When it comes to making sure that our children benefit from having a secure attachment with us, the basic premise is that all children become more stable, grounded and confident in every area of life when they feel they can count on their parents to remain undisturbed in their commitment to do two things: (1) being kind to them and (2) doing what they believe is best for them.

  1. The need to be heard and validated. 

Our children’s needs and emotions may be immature, but they are real. And we as their parents are on the right path when we can aknowledge their needs and feelings without fear of them overstepping our boundaries. And – even more important – without being dismissive, or punishing them through our words, actions or tone of voice for having certain feelings. 

Fortunately, there’s no need to talk through every feeling, nor to share our own ups and downs as adults with our children to inspire them to do the same. They simply need to get the message that we are wise and experienced enough to handle whatever they’re communicating to us – especially when they’re expressing what they feel, think or want  – albeit verbally or non-verbally. 

If we are able to take a few minutes to listen or watch calmly, and mirror their feelings, thoughts and desires back to them with kindness and respect, we are modelling for them that they too can develop the capacity to manage these emotions.

This is how we teach them to be confident and unafraid of their own feelings – even at times when their emotional experiences may be quite distressing.

  1. The need to develop a sense of autonomy and independence. 

Children need to have some autonomy. In other words, they need to feel a growing sense of competence and develop a sense of identity based on what they have achieved.

It may sound old-fashioned, but experts say the pleasure of doing a job, completing it and getting a reward for it is a very important part of growing up. Life is hurried, but there is much value in coming up with little chores for our children to do.

Being independent naturally also has to do with giving children the freedom to explore, push beyond their boundaries sometimes and maybe experience a little bit of fear and danger every now and then. 

Most importantly, they also need to carry the consequences of their mistakes. When we overprotect our children, we rob them of the opportunities they would otherwise have had to discover their inner strength and their ability to apologize, learn something from the experience, and bounce back. Moreover, by doing so, we set them up for anxiety disorders and a total lack of resilience.

We need to intentionally foster a growing sense of autonomy and independence in our children by allowing them to endure discomfort – so that they can grow the confidence they need to effectively deal with challenges, including failure, hardships and setbacks. 

  1. The need for appropriate boundaries and limit setting. 

Often, as parents in modern times, we can lose sight of the fact that children naturally crave boundaries. They want to live in a world with clear and realistic limits, which require of them to apply self-control. 

Every child wants to fit in and feel useful. And, since they look to us as their parents to act as their moral guides, they feel much more self-confident when they know what they can do to achieve this in our eyes. 

As parents, we have a moral responsibility to teach our children the skills they will need to make wise decisions as adults one day. And, when we as parents neglect to provide appropriate boundaries and limits we’re placing an unfair responsibility on our children to find their own way in the world and learn as they go.2

Children’s confidence grows when their parents are clear about their expectations. What’s more, from the perspective of schema therapy, a parental couple should strive to come across as a united front and go the extra mile to avoid  undermining each other’s authority.

Boundaries and limit setting should be centered around instilling principles and the development of healthy habits. It’s important to bear in mind that there is no benefit in putting our children down, shaming them or making them feel as if they’re being punished harshly. They need to consistently get a clear message that we set boundaries and limits that are in their best interest.

If there aren’t enough boundaries and limit setting children develop unrealistic expectations and an attitude of entitlement. As a result, they get a rude shock when they enter the real world – whether it’s when they get their education or when they start their first job. 

  1. The need for spontaneity and play. 

Many kids today are getting structured play in terms of extra-curricular activities and sports, but little time is set aside for unstructured play. 

This is quite critical because children have a deep emotional need for playing games and having fun with their parents, as well as the type of play where the parent is a curious observer of what the child is doing. Developmental experts refer to this type of play as “free play”. They say many parents instinctively enjoy their children’s spontaneous play by simply watching them and commenting from time to time about what the child is doing, thinking and feeling. And, at times, the parents play along. But, when they do, they don’t criticize, correct or turn the experience in a teaching session. In fact, they allow the child to take the lead.

The spontaneity that is associated with play builds the right hemisphere of the brain where visio-spatial, kinesthetic, non-linguistic skills and creativity are seated. And taking turns, planning, following instructions and practising self-control while playing games and doing crafts together teach children to self-regulate. 

But, most importantly, children experience a deep emotional connection when their parents when their parents find them interesting. And these experiences build their sense of self-worth and self-confidence.

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