Parents have many important jobs to do when it comes to raising healthy, successful children. As we often say in our parent programs, "Parenting is not a job for sissies!" We can become overwhelmed with trying to take care of all that needs taken care of- carpool lines, laundry piles, packing lunches, cooking dinners, games, concerts, and the list goes on and on. How can we prioritize spending our time, energy and money when it comes to parenting? We will suggest that the greatest priority parents have is meeting the emotional and social needs of their children.
There are a number of different theories related to emotional and social development, as well as to motivation and behavior. Perhaps the most familiar is that of Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" where he identified a hierarchy of basic emotional and social needs. Psychology research has worked to understand why humans act the way they do and how we can impact behavior for good. In speaking of self-determination theory, related to emotional needs and motivation, it has been said-
To the extent that their needs are ongoingly satisfied, people will develop and function effectively and experience wellness, but to the extent that they are thwarted, people will more likely evidence ill-being and non-optimal functioning. (www.selfdeterminationtheory.org)
So what are these needs? And how can parents help meet them so that their children "will develop and function effectively and experience wellness?" Let's look at basic emotional and relational needs and how they are experienced by children, and explore how parents can best meet those needs. The following diagram was developed for use in "Aim for Success" parent programs:
Safety and Security- These are the primary needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Children all have a need to know they are protected and provided for by those who care for them.
Love and Connection- The next level of needs are relational needs- experiencing unconditional love and acceptance, and forming close bonds with others.
Purpose and Contribution- The highest level of needs asks the questions "Who am I?"- "Why am I here?"- and "What can do I do to make a difference in the world?" Each of us needs to understand our unique attributes and abilities, and sense that our lives are contributing to the betterment of the world.
Now how can parents work to meet these needs of their children? When children's needs are NOT met at home, they are more likely to go seeking to fulfill those needs in unhealthy ways. Or as the old song says, they are more likely to go "looking for love in all the wrong places."
Monitoring and Supervision- To meet their need for safety and security, parents can provide monitoring and supervision. Can you answer these three questions: (1) Where is your child? (2) Who are they with?, and (3) What are they doing? Your child will feel safer and be safer when you can answer these. The Centers for Disease Control says, "When parents make a habit of knowing about their teens-what they are doing, who they are with, and where they are and setting clear expectations for behavior with regular check-ins to be sure these expectations are being met-they can reduce their teens' risks for injury, pregnancy, and drug, alcohol, and cigarette use." (www.cdc.gov)
Support and Love, Empathy and Compassion- To meet their needs for love and connection, parents can provide emotional support and unconditional love and acceptance. Empathy says, "I can see the load you are carrying, and I want to help." An empathetic parent, then, offers help with life's pressures that can build in their child's life. Am I helping with the pressure- or heaping more pressure on the load they're already carrying? Compassion is seeing, caring and acting on another's hurt or difficulty. Parents can greatly improve their relationship with their children by acknowledging the challenges today's young people face, and responding consistently with support.
Opportunity and Contribution- To help children fulfill their greatest need of understanding who they are and the difference they make in the world, parents can give opportunities for them to grow in independence and in being a "difference-maker." One way to do this is to allow them to learn from their mistakes and recover from their failures- which in turn helps them grow stronger. Another way to do this is to help them find ways to volunteer in service to others. "Givers go farther!"
The application of these ideas goes back to the question of how to prioritize spending time, energy and money as you parent. What matters most is growing healthy children in healthy family relationships. Are the ways we're spending our time, energy and money helping meet their emotional and social needs, or taking away from it? Are we adding stress or helping decrease it with support and empathy? Are we working ourselves too hard trying to take care of everything for our kids (they call this 'overparenting'), instead of letting them take care of some things for themselves and grow in independence?
When parents are working to meet these important emotional and social needs of their children at home, and coordinating with other adults who love and care for them to do the same, their children will be more likely to make choices to protect their health and well being. And they will have freedom to reach their dreams and goals!
Family Discussion: Sit around the dinner table and talk through the emotional and social needs diagram. Have each person give an example of how these needs are and are not being met in their life. Then talk through the ways the family can help meet each other's needs. Parents- be willing to listen and receive constructive feedback from your children- it will greatly improve your relationship with them. Research clearly shows, children who are connected in positive relationships with their parents are healthier- physically, emotionally and relationally!