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5 tips for meeting the emotional needs of a child, from a child psychologist

Meet emotional needs of kids

Emotional needs refer to feelings or conditions that are necessary to achieve a state of peace, satisfaction, and happiness. Fulfilling these emotional needs in a child is imperative to building confidence and self-worth. The question is, how to meet those needs so the younger generation can thrive? Clinical Child Psychologist Dr. Madeleine Vieira guest posts with five tips for parents to better support children’s core emotional needs.

5 tips for meeting the emotional needs of a child

By Dr. Madeleine Vieira, author of the I’M AFRAID anxiety disorder series for children

Are you a parent and sometimes unsure how to meet the emotional needs of your child? You’re not alone. It’s often easier to provide our little ones with clothes, food, education, and a place to rest their heads than to tend to their feelings. Because let’s be honest, buying your child ice cream is way more straightforward.

I am primarily a Clinical Child Psychologist, besides being an author and podcaster with a special interest in Childhood Anxiety Disorders and Infant Mental Health. Recently I published a series of books designed to help children with anxiety and their parents, the I’M AFRAID series. Being an author wasn’t necessarily something I always aspired. It occurred organically. I’ve always had many requests for therapy from parents of anxiety sufferers and was frustrated I couldn’t help them all due to a lack of availability in my private practice.

One in ten children suffer from an anxiety disorder. About 5 years ago, I came up with the idea to create a therapeutic book series on different anxiety disorders in order to reach children worldwide, well beyond my practice, as well as have it serve as a therapeutic tool to other mental health professionals.

More recently, due to the pandemic, mental health professionals have long waiting lists as they’ve been inundated with therapy requests predominantly for children (as well as adults) who suffer from anxiety or depression. Not everyone has access to the resources they need. In order to help parents better connect with their children and tend to their mental health the way they do their physical health, I developed this list of tips to help meet the emotional needs of children.

Dr. Madeleine Vieira
Meet Dr. Dr. Madeleine Vieira. Photo used with permission by Smith Publicity.

The 5 tips are:

Five tips to help you meet the emotional needs of children in a way that supports their growth.

1. Less fixing, more listening

As parents, we want our children to be well and safe. We are their protectors and caregivers and, as such, like to swoop in and save the day. And by all means, why not? It feels satisfying to solve a problem, give advice, or take some other form of action. It makes us feel empowered and somewhat in control of life’s messiness. No matter how good our intentions are, though, when we’re stuck in this ‘fixing’ mode, we can overlook our child’s need to be seen and heard.

Let’s say your child is upset because their friends didn’t want to play with them. There are all sorts of actions you could take to solve this problem. You could call the friend’s parents and talk to them. You could take your child to the zoo to help them take their mind off their disappointment.

All these action steps are fine. After you validate your child’s experience.

What does that mean exactly? It means listening without judgment. Saying things like “I understand why you feel this way, I would, too” instead of finding a solution to the problem right away.

By acknowledging your child’s feelings, you help them feel connected and supported despite their discomfort. This encourages the development of self-compassion and self-regulation.

I know this might feel uncomfortable at first. Especially when we are so used to making every bad feeling and thing go away as quickly as possible. But helping your child to sit with their emotions, feel them, and work through them, can have huge benefits. Once we have tended to our feelings and accepted them, we are free to move past them.

2. Set loving limits

It’s a misconception that the more we give in to what our children want, the happier they are.

Of course, we want to provide them with the freedom to express themselves and grow into who they want to become. Setting boundaries doesn’t get in the way of that. Quite the contrary.

Among many things, boundaries help your child learn self-discipline and emotional regulation. They also let them know that you care. Setting limits and following through with consequences also teaches your child to trust you and what you’re saying.

I know it’s easy to get caught up in guilt when we are saying “no” repeatedly. After all, we’re not talking about a one-off, am I right? But when you do it in a way that is clear and loving, life becomes a lot easier. Especially when you communicate these boundaries early on and don’t wait till smoke is already coming out of your ears.

Let’s say your child is emotional and starts hitting you or someone else, and you would like them to stop. Start off by mirroring and validating your child’s feelings. You could say, for example, “I see that you’re angry, and that’s okay.”

Next, set the boundary you want to teach your child: “But we do not hit people even when we’re angry.” After that, it’s important to give your child another option on what to do instead when they feel emotional. In that way, you teach them not to suppress their emotions but to express them in a healthy way. You could suggest, for example: “Would you like to punch a pillow or ask for a hug instead?”

You might be surprised how quickly their anger subsides once they feel understood.

3. Praise in the correct way

One emotional need of children is to be appreciated. They love to hear how great they are and how proud we are of them. (I mean, don’t we all?) But the words we choose have a greater impact on our children’s future performance than we think.

Many people like to praise their children for their intelligence or talent. This seems sensible at first glance. But doing so may encourage the child to cultivate a fixed mindset as opposed to a growth mindset in the long run.

What’s that, you’re asking?

Well, if your child has a fixed mindset, they believe that intelligence and talent are innate traits that they have no control over. This makes them less willing to try new things because they’re afraid to fail and look stupid. If they’re not great at something from the get-go, they get frustrated and give up.

But when equipped with a growth mindset, your child knows they can do anything if they work hard enough. This attitude helps them persevere and thrive during challenges. They know that failure is a necessary part of the process and that they can still succeed in the end.

Can you see why we need this way of thinking both inside and outside the classroom?

The great news is that there’s a lot you can do as a parent to encourage a growth mindset in your child. First of all, start believing in them and their potential. Next, don’t compliment them on outcomes or grades but on the effort and work they put in instead. It will motivate them to work harder in the future and to enjoy learning even in the face of difficulties.

4. Don’t do things for your child that they can do themselves

Even though your child is still dependent on your support in many ways, they also have an emotional need for autonomy and independence. And the older they get, the greater this need.

That’s why it’s important to encourage your child to try out new activities and tasks that they realistically can do on their own.

Yes, you may have gotten used to picking up after your child when they were little. But as they mature, it’s important to provide them with chores and opportunities to develop responsibility and new skills.

It doesn’t have to be something exceptional. You could include them in activities you would usually do by yourself, like cooking, for example. The main thing is that they experience themselves as capable and useful in everyday life situations. This builds confidence and self-esteem.

5. Create a safe environment

Another emotional need of a child is to feel safe to express themselves the way they are.

When we think of safety, we quickly jump to the image of a secure place like a home where we are protected from the world’s dangers. But emotional safety isn’t about a physical place. It’s about the freedom to show up as we are without the need to hide any part of ourselves.

To be us, unapologetically, and to be loved in all our forms.

To know that mistakes are not only tolerated, but welcomed.

By providing an emotionally safe space and meeting your child with curiosity rather than judgment, you allow them to grow, mature and thrive.

About Dr. Madeleine Vieira

Doctor Madeleine Vieira is a Clinical Child Psychologist registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and has a special interest in Childhood Anxiety Disorders and Infant Mental Health. Working in private practice, Dr. Vieira offers Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Cognitive Behavioral Play Therapy, Play and Creative Arts Therapy, and Diagnostic Assessments to children. Dr. Vieira’s hobbies include portrait photography, world travels, dancing, and languages.

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