5 Emotional Needs of Kids

5 Emotional Needs of Kids

Jan 03, 2024

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In compassionate parenting, we talk a lot about emotions. In today’s episode I’m explaining the 5 emotional needs of kids, how unmet needs show up in behavior and how you can support your child’s emotional health.

In last week’s Parenting 101 episode, I talked about the core needs of attachment and authenticity for humans, including how we can teach better coping strategies while validating our kids’ emotions and authentic selves.

This week, we’re diving deeper into what is really going on when your child is misbehaving. Remember, feelings drive behavior.  As parents, we can use our kids’ behavior as information to help them deal with the emotions underneath.


5 Emotional Needs of Kids

These five needs are essential for all of us, and anytime we have a need that isn’t being met, we’ll look for a strategy to cope or try to get what we want. The same is true of our kids.

Please don’t judge yourself as we go through these. It is not your responsibility to meet every one of these needs at all times, but it is important to recognize that when your child has an unmet need, they will have feelings about it (fear, worry, sadness, etc.) and these will show up in their behavior. 

For humans, attachment means safety. Kids need to feel safe, secure and connected in their relationship with their parents. An unmet need for attachment feels unsafe, insecure, worried, anxious, scared or hurt. 

This relates to our core need for authenticity, the ability to be accepted for who we are, without conditions or expectations. Your child doesn’t want to believe that they have to earn your love. They want to feel like, at their core, they’re great and there is nothing wrong with them. When kids start to sense that they aren’t being accepted for their authentic self, they might feel rejected, unwanted, neglected or abandoned.

Our children thrive on physical touch and affection. This physical affection can serve as a symbol of your connection and attachment. Unmet affection needs show up as feelings of loneliness, fear or sadness. 

We all have work to do in the world. We have a primal need for our lives to matter and to feel like we have purpose. Even kids need to feel seen and that they matter. They need to feel valued and recognized for their efforts and achievements. Feeling unappreciated can also look like feeling unworthy, disapproved of or even unlovable. 

Kids crave a sense of independence and control over their lives (as becomes obvious when they learn the word “no” as toddlers). The need for agency and autonomy is there at all ages, but becomes especially true during the teen years. In order to go out into the world, they need to believe that they have power over their lives and be trusted with that power. When this need isn’t met, we feel powerless, trapped and scared. 


Supporting Your Kids’ Emotional Needs

I sometimes call this therapeutic parenting, because you’re learning how the brain and psychology work so that you can become your child's emotional coach, guiding them through navigating their emotions and understanding their needs.

When you see arguing, blaming, stalling, hitting, kicking, spitting, complaining, intense crying, hiding, lying or other challenging behaviors, you can get curious about what feelings and unmet needs are underneath.

Step 1: Tune into your child’s emotional state. 
Be present, listen actively, and offer empathetic responses. Our kids need to feel seen, heard, and valued for their emotional experiences. We need to be present and attuned to their needs, but it doesn’t mean we have to solve every problem for them. 

Step 2: Recognize the need. 
Get curious about what need isn’t being met. As you look at your child’s behavior, ask yourself what is going on under the surface? What is the unmet emotional need here? Then, narrate to your child what they might be missing. This will help them start to understand themselves more and communicate their needs.

Step 3: Offer solutions. 
Try to give them a little way to get that need met. Sometimes, our kids don't need us to solve the problem. They just need us to acknowledge their feelings and provide a supportive presence while they figure it out. They need to know their grown-ups have their back and they can trust them. 


When a child feels that deep sense of safety, then they can take risks, problem solve, be creative, play and feel good. When they are able to be themselves, express their feelings and get their needs met, they are less anxious and irritable. There are fewer behavior problems because your kid feels good. 

This attachment comes from having a warm, attuned interaction with you. 

When you do this over and over, your child starts to learn that they can handle their feelings, they know how to take care of themself and that they can trust their parent. They grow up to be more content and know how to get their needs met. 

We want to give our kids the beliefs that they have power in their lives, they can be creative and solve problems, they can trust their attachments and that they matter.

What did you wish you heard from your parents when you were little? Practice saying those things to your kids now. 

This might look like, “The feeling you have right now is because you’re feeling powerless, but you always have power and choice in your life.” Or, “The feeling you have right now is because you’re feeling lonely, but I want you to know that we’re always connected even if we’re not together.”

By recognizing and meeting their emotional needs for attachment, acceptance, affection, appreciation, and autonomy, you lay the foundation for your child’s emotional health throughout their lives. 

You’ll Learn:

  • The 5 emotional needs kids (and all of us) have
  • How unmet needs show up in behavior
  • What to say and do when one of your kid’s emotional needs isn’t being met
  • How noticing patterns in your child’s behavior can highlight unmet needs


Additional Resources:

Ready to stop yelling?

Get the one simple tool you need to stop yelling at your kids, so you finally feel calmer and connect better. 

You'll learn why you yell, how to stop yourself yelling, 40 things to do instead and scripts for what to say to your kid when you yell.


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