Your Child’s Core Emotional Needs, Part Two: Autonomy

Today's post is Part Two of a series about your child's core emotional needs. If you missed Part One, I highly recommend you go back and read it. In that post, I shared the first of three core emotional needs — connection — and how to foster it.


THE second NEED: autonomy

Autonomy is the act of making one's own choices or decisions. For kids, autonomy is freedom from external (read: parental) control.


Parents who are too controlling produce two types of kids – those that comply and those that defy.


When kids comply, they’re not really thinking on their own or acting autonomously. They’re focused on pleasing their parents and getting approval instead of figuring out what’s right for them.


These are the kids who, for example, go to law school or med school because their parents told them they “should,” and then feel miserable because they didn’t freely choose it for themselves. It was sort of thrust upon them.


Adults usually like these rule followers because they don't cause much trouble. But they often have difficulty making decisions and resisting peer pressure due to their conformity.


Then there are the kids who defy. They’re the ones who say, “You think you’re going to control me and tell me what to do? I’ll show you!”


Instead, we want to raise people who think for themselves, make their own decisions, and take responsibility for their actions.



When kids feel powerless, they act out in ways that create a sense of power for themselves: they throw tantrums, say “I hate you!”, talk back, show attitude, and ignore requests. Whenever their behavior gets an emotional reaction — boom! They get a big dose of power.


Starting from the age of about 18 months, every single reminder or request you make has the potential to turn into a power struggle. And the more you try to control your kids, the more they’ll resist whatever it is you’re trying to get them to do.


You'll know your child needs more autonomy when she engages you in power struggles. You can also tell by paying attention to your own emotions. Do you feel angry, challenged, or provoked? If so, it's time to consider letting go of some control and giving more away. That may seem paradoxical, but read on!


HOW TO encourage autonomy

Let me be clear — autonomy isn’t about letting your kids do whatever they want. Though you don't want to control your kids, you do want to be in control — of yourself and your authority. Kids need limits, structure, and routines to help them feel safe, but within those limits, you want to give them as much freedom (age-appropriate freedom) as possible.



Throughout the day, provide your kids with as many proactive choices as possible and allow them the opportunity to feel a sense of control over their lives. Being proactive (as opposed to reactive) lets you plan choices ahead of time because you know there’s potential for a power struggle. This also helps you stay CALM, and staying CALM creates its own authority.


For example, let’s say that there’s a bathtime battle in your house every night. Think of some aspects of bathtime that your child could have control over. Does she want to use the pink towel or the purple one? Does she want to take a bath before dinner or after? Notice you’re not negotiating about taking the bath, just the details surrounding it.


Let’s take another example: homework. Does your child want to do her homework in the office or at the kitchen table? Does she want to have a snack first or wait until she's finished? Again, homework needs to get done no matter what, but she can have some choice about how it gets done.


You can’t give choices about everything because it’s not realistic — and younger kids can only handle two or three options before getting overwhelmed. But as they get older, and as you start giving more age-appropriate choices, they won’t feel as much of a need to exert their power in negative ways and they’ll be more likely to cooperate in those instances when they don’t have a choice.


Besides giving choices, helping kids meet their need for autonomy involves slowly allowing your child more and more freedom to make their own mistakes and solve their own problems.



I know from experience that this can be soooo hard to do! Like most parents, I don’t want to see my “babies” hurt or upset. I want to “fix” their problems immediately. But letting them problem-solve develops their self-confidence and self-esteem.


Lately, my daughters have  developed a keen interest in cooking and DIY (Do-It-Yourself) projects. It can be challenging for me to sit back and let them decide how they spend their allowance or use the materials they buy. Being able to tolerate my own discomfort, calm my anxiety, and trust my kids more has been critical for reducing power struggles and inviting more cooperation at home. And I've realized that making mistakes and learning from them is a big part of growing and maturing — at every age!



How can you encourage your child to be more autonomous? Leave a comment below and let me know. 


Next week we'll wrap up this series with a post about the third core psychological need. Can you guess what it is? If you’re not subscribed to the blog yet, make sure you get on the list so you'll find out!

  • Sydney

    Great suggestions Pam!

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