Meeting the emotional needs of children encourages positive emotional and behavioural development. In this blog, we’ll explore exactly what those critical emotional needs of children are, how they impact emotional development in early childhood, and what parents and carers can do to create healthy foundations for children to thrive.
Children are impacted by their parents and carers’ ability to satisfy their emotional needs. This can shape their entire perception of the world and will impact their internal representation of themselves and others, the way they interact with others, and the way they cope with stress.
When parents and carers meet the emotional needs of children, they help create a healthy foundation for them to thrive.
However, if the emotional needs of a child go unmet, they may go on to experience:
- Harsh perception of self
- Emotional numbness of feelings and emptiness
- Difficulty in asking for help and trusting others
- Chronic feelings of guilt and shame
- Difficulty expressing emotions
Emotional needs of children in care
Additional support for foster children is vital - care experienced children have greater emotional needs and more behavioural barriers to overcome than children from conventional families. This is because children in care may have experienced familial abuse, rejection, disruption, and loss. Whatever the reason, they all need support, patience, and empathy to help their emotional development.
When behaviour is rooted in trauma, sensory issues or unmet physical or complex emotional needs; fear, punishment or reward-based techniques are likely to produce only a temporary change. That’s why learning to decode the behaviour, and identifying which needs are driving it can be extremely helpful in creating long term change.
So, let’s look at what these key emotional needs are…
The 6 emotional needs of children
There are 6 emotional basic needs of a child, which when met, provide the foundations of healthy emotional development in early childhood:
Below, we’ll explore each of these different emotional needs, and how you can support the healthy development for children and young people in your care.
Emotional safety is the container that holds the space for children to feel, to be curious and explore, to care and to emerge as their unique selves. As the parent/foster parent, you are often the child’s primary source for connection, so it’s vital that they feel safe in your care.
Of course, safety doesn’t always equate to ensuring no physical harm comes to a child, it’s also about ensuring the emotional safety of a child in your care.
For example, if a child breaks or loses their favourite toy and they are upset, instead of trivialising this upset, give them a safe space to accept and work through their feelings. As adults we might rush to say, “oh well, it doesn’t matter”, and try and move on quickly, but instead it’s important not to minimise what is a big deal for them.
Instead try saying: “I can see you are sad, let’s have a hug and how about playing with something different?” That way within your interaction they have felt validated, and safe to acknowledge and work through their feelings.
For care experienced children and young people, the care system can be a contributing factor to their lack of emotional safety. For example, a child might anticipate placement endings, school changes, household rule changes, fear of being accepted and new environments.
It is when children don’t feel safe that they cannot thrive, and it can have the following impact on their emotional development:
- Lack of trust in others
- Feelings of low importance
- Feeling like their needs don’t matter, may self-neglect their needs as they get older
- Feeling detached and withdrawn
- Lack of confidence
- No resilience and tolerance to stress
- An ability to ask for help
Physical proximity doesn’t mean connection. Love doesn’t mean connection. There are two types of connection: the overall connection within the relationship and moment to moment connection. Connection is established when you are interested and present in the moment.
When a child feels disconnected, they may tune out, ignore you, and display defying behaviours which you as the parent interpret as misbehaviour. Instead of showing frustration at this behaviour, try and re-establish connection by being present and showing interest. This could be uninterrupted tine such as reading to your child, and exploring play therapy together, or taking the time to craft together or try and new activity.
If a child doesn’t have their emotional need for connection met it could cause the following in their later life:
- Low self-worth
- Looking to others for acceptance
- Struggle to communicate in future relationships
- Difficulty in forming new relationships
- Feeling like people are not interested or that nobody cares
- Struggle to ask for help from others when going through difficulties
Accepting a child involves being able to see and acknowledge their uniqueness without feeling the need to change it. This doesn’t mean that we don’t strive to guide them and shape their behaviour, it means we accept and validate their unique personality, and love them for being them.
Fulfilling the need for acceptance does not mean we have to give them what they want all the time, we just instead must accept that they may want it. Take for instance a situation where your child is continually asking for something, and you roll your eyes or simply ignore them. This can cause feelings of rejection where the child doesn’t feel good enough and in turns leads to attention-seeking behaviour that comes from the lack of acceptance.
Significance refers to feeling important, and of value. We all seek to be effective in life and in our relationships, sometimes we fulfil this need ourselves, but sometimes we look to others to reaffirm it to us. The latter is even more likely in care experience children - who are more likely to look to others to reaffirm their level of significance.
When a child does not feel that they matter to their parents/foster family, they can resort to seeking destructive means to fulfil their needs and manage their emotions.
That’s why it’s important to ensure your child feels listened to and loved, and to believe there is someone who will be there for them no matter what and values who they are.
Autonomy refers to feeling empowered to make our own decisions and emerges in young children between 18 months and three years old. Children need to feel in control of their lives, and it is important to provide them with age-appropriate choices without fear of reprisal.
However, it can be tricky to get the balance of giving too much choice to the children in your care vs. not enough. It’s providing a level of freedom that doesn’t equate to no boundaries, instead it’s about finding that space in the middle.
An example of this is giving them a choice of what they would like for breakfast, e.g. toast or cereal? You are still sticking to your boundaries of providing appropriate mealtime choices, but by offering that choice between the two, children can feel they are in control and less likely to refuse eating altogether.
By not ensuring this basic need of a child is met, it could lead to the following:
- Not being able to trust their own judgements
- Inability to make decisions
- A struggle to form their own sense of their own identify
- Undermining of self-reliance
- Putting other’s opinion above their own
- A delay in problem solving abilities
- Feels of being overwhelmed
- Feeling unsure and afraid to make mistakes
It’s often a cultural misconception that children who fear their parents will respect them. It’s easy to confuse the term respect with fear-based obedience in a child towards an authority figure. We might see compliance born out of fear, but that is not respect. Respect is accepting somebody for who they are and their actions, even when you are different to them and may not always agree.
As an example, say you answer your phone and start texting when in the middle of your child sharing something important, this shows a lack of respect for them and in turn could result in the child feeling invisible or worthless.
In meeting all these emotional needs of the children in your care, patience and consistency are key.
For foster children, we can’t erase old trauma or remove all possibility of future trauma, but we can build emotional skills and cognitive buffers and help children form better internal representations of themselves and the world.
It’s important to remember that when you’re a foster parent with FCA, you are never caring for a child alone. You’ll have an entire network of support at your fingertips, around the clock, including a dedicated social worker, support groups, and full training for foster parents.
Whilst our Team Parenting offers a therapeutic fostering approach, with childcare experts who all work together to look after every area of a child’s wellbeing.
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