Understanding the Emotional Needs of a Child by Age
Right from birth our children have certain strong emotional needs. Whether we satisfy those needs as parents or caregivers, can have a big impact on our children.
It can shape their entire perception of the world, how they view themselves, how they interact with others and how they cope with stress.
Here we’ve broken down the emotional needs of a child by age, from birth right up to teenagers. See what the experts have to say about what we should be doing as parents to support them emotionally through these stages.
Emotional Needs of a Baby
(Baby’s First Year)
A newborn baby relies on you for their every need. It’s easy (with a little practice) to learn how to meet their physical needs. But all the care and love you show your baby plays an important role in meeting their emotional needs too.
Your baby has a strong need for love from you as the most important person in their world. All the times you feed your baby, give cuddles and do the myriad of small things to show your love helps them feel more secure.
It also strengthens the bond between you.
Meri Wallace, a child and family therapist explains how vital this loving care is for babies:
(It) helps her to build trust in other people, to love herself, and to feel safe in the world. Meri Wallace
Your baby is new to the world and looks to you to keep her safe.
Someone to Care
She can only tell you how she is feeling through her cries. If you respond promptly to those cries, it can have a positive effect on her emotional development.
This is because babies start to build a perception of the world according to this care and attention. Your baby will see that her cries are tended to consistently and this will reinforce a positive image of the people in her life and how she relates to them.
Over time this affects her relationships with others, her own self image and her idea of the social and emotional world around her.
Someone to Turn To
Research has also shown that these early relationships with caregivers also have an impact on how babies manage stress.
Having a trusted adult to turn to creates an outlet for the stress which prevents it from escalating to ‘toxic’ levels.
When children have to cope with…less intense stress, emotionally secure relationships help children regulate their responses and, once the stress subsides, refocus on exploration and learning.
What we have learned from brain research in the last 30 years is that the “tender loving care” advocated by early childhood educators for many decades is not only the kind way to treat children but a crucial part of early brain development.
The power of a parent’s touch for babies has been well documented.
Skin-to-skin contact after birth is extremely powerful. It helps regulate babies’ temperature, heart rate, and breathing, and helps them cry less.
It helps moms too. When we cuddle our newborn babies we get a hit of the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin.
Oxytocin is thought to give a number of great benefits, both to our body and to our behaviour.
It can help new mothers develop a strong emotional bond with their newborn babies. It can increase breastmilk supply, and can even help the uterus contract after birth so that new moms’ bodies can recover more quickly.
Ann Bigelow, a professor and researcher of developmental psychology at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, talks about how important touch is in terms of a baby’s emotional needs:
…it helps calm babies: they cry less and it helps them sleep better. There are some studies that show their brain development is facilitated — probably because they are calmer and sleep better. Ann Bigelow
An important emotional milestone for babies is learning how to have ‘conversations’ with parents and caregivers.
When you talk to your baby, face-to-face, they will listen intently and respond with a smile or coo.
Pamela Cole, PhD, a researcher and professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, says that:
This very turn-taking is a sign of healthy emotional development. Pamela Cole
Emotional Needs of a Toddler
(1 – 3 Years Old)
Toddlerhood is a time of huge physical, cognitive and language development. Your little one is on their feet and has so many ways they can explore the world around them.
It’s such an exciting time. But it can be a frustrating one too. Toddlers are ruled by impulse.
They can’t regulate their emotions yet. And so they need you to guide them through this stage of development.
Toddlers are like sponges. They soak up so much new knowledge and information as they go about their day to day.
They want to share their skills and achievements with you. And they have a huge desire for your approval.
Showing an interest in your toddler’s play and activities goes a long way to building their self esteem. It can also foster their thinking skills and perseverance.
Claire Gillespie explains how the power of praise nurtures a toddler’s emotional development:
Research shows it’s important for parents to encourage a growth mindset—the belief that kids can develop basic abilities through dedication and hard work. Kids who are praised for their effort instead of their ability, or the end result, are more likely to develop a growth mindset, which will have a positive impact on their confidence. Claire Gillespie
We all know that every toddler wants to ‘to it by myself’. And this can include launching themselves into some dangerous situations. Like reaching up on tiptoes to pull a heavy book off the shelf.
It’s our job as parents to set boundaries to keep our toddlers safe. By setting safe parameters we help our toddlers feel secure to explore, knowing that you will step in if they go too far.
Two to five is an age of testing out who they are and their level of power. It is too scary to think their power is unlimited. They want to know you will keep them safe (even if they battle you!).
The world they are exploring during these years is a big place. There is much to learn, much to see, and so much to figure out…So much is going on and they cannot do it solely on their own.
Children count on parents to set up limits and guidelines, to show them when to stop and let them know we will keep them safe. The feeling that they are not on their own, that we are setting limits, gives them security and feelings of comfort…Deep inside, they want to know that we will not let them go too far.
How Toddlers Thrive, Tovah P. Klein – See book on Amazon
There’s a huge gap between what toddlers can understand and what they can express.
Sometimes they don’t have the words to ask for what they want or explain how they feel. Sometimes big emotions (such as frustration or anger) overwhelm them.
The result? The tears and tantrums that we all associate with the toddler years. Taking time to understand what they are trying to say or how they feel helps diminish this and puts them at ease.
Meri Wallace LCSW, parenting expert and child and family therapist explains why empathy is so important:
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. Meri Wallace
Emotional Needs of a Child
(4 – 11 years old)
At age 4 or 5 your child is learning how to behave in and be part of the world outside you and your home.
This move away from the comforting sphere of home can be both exciting and unsettling. There are so many new rules to learn to be part of a group.
They need you to be there to cheer them on, to guide them and to put them back on their feet when they falter.
UNCONDITIONAL LOVE & ACCEPTANCE
Children need to feel accepted and loved for exactly who they are.
They might have a day when they’re cross and grumpy. You might have a day when you’re cross and grumpy – because they press ALL your buttons.
What matters is that your child knows you love them no matter what. Wallace says:
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.” Meri Wallace
SAFETY THROUGH FAMILIAR ROUTINE
Children thrive on routine. Knowing what to expect makes them feel more secure. A structured framework helps them handle the big changes they are facing.
Children, like the rest of us, handle change best if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine. A predictable routine allows children to feel safe, and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives.
PERMISSION TO FAIL
Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm Winston Churchill
Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm Winston Churchill
Children are learning. And they will make lots and lots of mistakes along the way. Each will teach them something new that will help them get things right the next time.
When we see our children get into difficulty it’s our instinct to rush in and fix the problem. If we stand back then they often find a way to resolve things on their own.
When should we take a step back?
Jessica Lahey, illustrates this well with her story of her son not being able to tie his own shoelaces. It was quicker and easier for her to tie them for him. Talking to The Guardian, she said:
Every time I tied his shoes, rather than teach him to do it himself, I reinforced his perception that I believed the task was too hard for him.
Realising her mistake, she set out to change:
I empathised with his worry, and I told him that, while the task might be hard for him at first, I knew he could conquer it with some effort and perseverance.
I told him I was so confident that we were going to stick with it until he mastered those darned shoelaces. In less than an hour, the embarrassment he’d felt about being the only child in his year who couldn’t tie his shoes was gone.
He’d succeeded, and I’ve hardly seen him so proud of himself. All it took was a little time, a little faith in each other and the patience to work through the tangle of knots and loops. Jessica Lahey
Emotional Needs of a Teenager
(12 – 18 years old)
The teenage years are a time of massive change. Your child looks so grown up. But they’re not yet grown ups. However much their bodies have grown, their brains have a bit of catching up to do.
The parts of the brain responsible for reasoning and judgement are not mature yet. And won’t be until your child is around 25.
University of Rochester Encyclopedia has this to say about teenage brain development:
Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgement and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.
In teen’s brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing—and not always at the same rate. That’s why when teens have overwhelming emotional input, they can’t explain later what they were thinking. They weren’t thinking as much as they were feeling.
KNOWING YOU’RE ALWAYS THERE
As your teen forges their way in the world they will pull away from you. It’s all part of growing up. But the confidence and security to do so often relies on knowing there is a safe and consistent haven at home.
Anisha Abraham M.D. of the University of Amsterdam explains why a parent’s presence is still so important:
Adolescence is an exhilarating time full of emotional lows and highs. Parents can play an important part in supporting and guiding teens to feel good about themselves as they deal with heightened emotions….Parents’ steady, unwavering presence is critically important.
TO MAKE DECISIONS
Teens have a pressing need to be independent and make their own way in the world.
It’s hard, as parents, to let them make decisions that we know might be wrong. But giving them some freedom to do so can build their self esteem and minimise their frustration.
When, for example, they ask to go to a party, where there will be alcohol available, don’t automatically say ‘No’. Listen to your teen. There might be a compromise to make it work for both of you.
Kathie Hardy-William, family therapist in Oregon explains:
There is no way for parents to know for certain if their teen is going to make the wrong choices. The chances of a teen making the right choice are increased when parents believe in the teen’s ability to do so.
That said, trust must be earned—and in order to earn trust, teens must act responsibly.
In order for teens to grow up, they need to have the opportunity to experience the freedom of making their own decisions (age appropriate) and the opportunity to learn from mistakes.
When parents place a certain level of trust in their teen, the teen will be more likely to respect the parents as well as their rules.
Every teen will make mistakes. Some can be easily fixed. For example, if they mess up a mock exam you can help them find a way to study more for the real thing.
Some have greater consequences. Your teenager might drink too much at that party, even when they swore they wouldn’t.
They will know they have messed up. Showing that you forgive them and love them, even when they’ve made a mistake, counts for an awful lot.
Some days it feels like the most communication you get from your teenager is a grunt and an eye roll. But teenagers need to be listened to and understood.
All the work you have put in in the earlier years will set the foundations for you to communicate better now. Listen and make the time to just talk.
Sometimes you need to be creative to find that time. Like this mum who decided to write it in a letter:
I decided to write a letter to my angry son…I knew he was not in a space to hear any sounds much less my sermon… I silently walked upstairs and hand-delivered it to his lap…
It took only 20 minutes for him to come out of his room and acknowledge me in a loving fashion. No words, just one hug. Wendy Wolf
Nurturing your child’s emotional needs can help them grow into an emotionally healthy adult. And one day hopefully a balanced parent themselves.
It also gives your child a solid foundation from which they can develop and grow. It provides a safety net they can fall back on when they make mistakes or struggle.
It’s not always easy to understand and cater to a child’s emotional needs through the different ages. But it’s well worth the battle. Along the way you will build the most beautiful and powerful bond between you.
- ‘Understanding Children’s Emotional Needs’, Psychology Today
- ‘Caring relationships: The heart of early brain development’, NAEYC
- ‘The benefits of touch for babies, parents’, Stanford Medicine
- ‘How Important Is Physical Contact with Your Infant?’ – Scientific American
- ‘Your Baby’s Emotional Development’ – Parents
- ‘This One Thing Boosts Kids’ Self-Esteem, Science Says—and It’s Not Praise’ – Reader’s Digest
- ‘Why Kids Need Routines’ – Aha Parenting
- ’30 powerful quotes on failure’ – Forbes
- ‘Why we should let our children fail’ – The Guardian
- ‘Understanding the teenage brain’ – University of Rochester Medical Centre
- ‘Supporting Emotional Development in Teens’ – Parent and Teen.com
- ‘How Much Freedom Should Parents Allow Teens to Have?’ – Good Therapy
- ‘Letter to My Teenage Son: My Job is to be a Good Parent’ – Your Teen
- You and Your Hormones – Oxytocin
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