Psychological needs of Children

What parent doesn’t want their children to be well-adjusted, happy and able to accomplish what they want in life? The truth is that many parents don’t realize that their children have some very basic psychological needs that, if not met, may affect their potential to learn and achieve later in life.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Before considering the higher order psychological needs of children it is important to preface the discussion with a general understanding of the basic needs of all people and how humans get their needs met.

Abraham Maslow, a brilliant psychologist who studied human motivation in the ’40’s and ’50’s, determined that humans have innate needs that must be met, for the most part, in a particular order.

Often represented in the shape of a pyramid, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs model consists of five levels, ascending from basic survival needs to higher order psychological needs:

• Physiological/biological – These needs consist of things like food, water, air and sleep.

• Safety – The need for safety would include protection from the elements, the need for laws and limitations and the need for security and stability.

• Love and belonging – This requirement is fulfilled through our familial bonds, work relationships, intimate relationships and friendships.

• Esteem – Esteem needs are met through our ability to recognize competency in accomplishing tasks, mastery of our area of expertise, ability to handle responsibility, status, and prestige.

• Self-actualization – The final level of need is when a human is self-governed, self-fulfilled and realizes their full potential at a creative level.

According to Maslow, when a lower need is met a person will instinctually ascend to the next level and attempt to meet the next need in the hierarchy.

Parenting and a Child’s Higher Needs

Assuming that parents are capable of meeting the first three or four levels of needs in the above hierarchy, we have to ask the question: How, then, can we ensure that we have well-adjusted, emotionally balanced, successful children?

This brings us to self-determination theory, or SDT. SDT was introduced in the ’80’s as researchers attempted to study human motivation and the innate psychological needs relevant to reaching full human potential. Now accepted as sound theory, SDT explores intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation as well as proposing three key psychological elements in a person’s life that must be present in order to maintain motivation and prompt personal growth. Parents need to become aware of their children’s psychological need for autonomy, competence and relatedness in order to give them the best possible start in life.


Autonomous support and encouragement from parents and primary caregivers are crucial to a child’s personal and social development. Researchers have concluded that children behave better and more productively when they feel that their behavior originates within themselves. For example, a parent can either tell a child that they must read for thirty minutes a day or ask the child to choose which book they would like to read. In the latter example, the child is not only getting their choice of book but, more importantly, they are also making the choice to read by implication. This child will be more likely to be intrinsically motivated to read “just for fun” because they see themselves as being able to make the choice independently. This child will also experience an important side benefit of gaining self-esteem from the act of accomplishing their reading task.


Children need to know that they are capable of accomplishment. Competence is the driving force behind our motivation to continue in a particular task. For example, Mary is the mother of two year old, Shelly. When Shelly is playing with her puzzle, Mary is constantly standing over her telling where to put the right shapes so that they will fit. She sometimes finds herself doing the puzzle for Shelly instead of letting Shelly fit the pieces by trial and error. What Mary doesn’t realize is that helping Shelly is different than becoming frustrated when Shelly doesn’t fit the pieces right. Shelly needs to try and fail so that when she finally does put the right shape in the puzzle she will realize a sense of accomplishment and feel competent in her puzzle playing abilities. When Mary is constantly doing the puzzle for her daughter, she is actually sending a message that she thinks her daughter is incompetent of doing the task on her own. This message will have a negative effect on Shelly’s self-esteem and may eventually de-motivate her daughter to pursue future projects.


The need to love, feel loved and be accepted is essential to a child’s healthy psychological development. Parents and primary caregivers who display genuine warmth and affection impart a sense of security to their children that cannot be obtained anywhere else or by any other means. Children who do not develop this sense of security often display abnormal and various problems adjusting to everyday situations, making life difficult and often leading to emotional maladjustments in adult life.

Although all humans have basic needs that must be met, there are some that are higher on the psychological scale than others. In our society, most of our survival needs of food, water, shelter and safety are met most of the time which catapults us into the realm of reaching for higher needs like esteem and self-actualization. This can be particularly tricky when it comes to helping our children meet these needs. Parents can provide an effective social context for their children to excel psychologically by encouraging independence, helping them feel competent and providing them with a loving and secure home environment.