Your Child’s Core Emotional Needs, Part Three: Competence

Today's post is Part Three of a series about your child's core emotional needs. If you missed Part One or Part Two, I highly recommend you go back and read them. In those posts, I shared the first two core emotional needs — connection and autonomy.


THE third NEED: competence

Competence is having the necessary ability or skills to do something well. It means being capable and efficient.


Kids need to feel capable of solving problems, using their unique skills and talents, and contributing to the family in significant ways. They're often so much more competent than we give them credit for, but they can feel incompetent so much of the time because they have yet to master certain skills.


This is why kids can get so upset when they lose a game, or why they quit extra-curricular activities soon after they start them. They feel inadequate, embarrassed, and discouraged when they don't excel, win, or succeed right away. Kind of how we feel as parents sometimes, right? 😉



Kids who lack feelings of competence often engage in negative self-talk. They may say things like, “I'm so stupid” or “I can't do anything right.” One of their favorite expressions when asked a question is, “I don't know.” This can lead parents to feel frustrated, impatient, or worried about their child.


They're afraid of making decisions, getting an answer wrong, being criticized, and being perceived as dumb. For these reasons, they tend to avoid new experiences and taking risks.


In school, they rarely raise their hands to contribute. They might zone out, misbehave, copy others' work, or act silly to cover up for their feelings of inadequacy.



HOW TO strengthen your child's competence

What I'm about to share might confuse you, especially if you read last week's post about autonomy.


One of the most important things you can do to strengthen your child's competence is to provide structure.  (Say whaaaaat?) Stick with me here.


Structure provides children with a sense of order. Clear expectations and predictable consequences can help build competence because kids learn what to do in different situations and about the cause and effect of their behavior.


Creating structure while encouraging autonomy is the secret sauce.


Rather than dictating the rules and consequences for every situation and trying to control your child, explain the reasons behind each rule and seek input from your child whenever possible.


For example, instead of simply stating, “You must hang up your towel after your shower,” explain that germs and bacteria love damp towels and after a while, they can smell moldy, too. You could even go so far as to experiment with an old washcloth to show him what happens. Invite him to think of a way he can remember to hang up his towel, and what the consequence should be when he forgets.


Also, rather than constantly telling your kids what to do (which makes you feel like a nag and can make them feel inept), ask them to tell you. Instead of reminding my daughters to brush their teeth I’ll sometimes ask, “What else do you need to do before I can read stories to you?” They’ll say, “Brush teeth!” and off they go. Instead of telling them to bring their raincoat in the car I’ll say, “Hmm. Looks like it might rain today. Is there anything else you want to bring in the car with you?”


When the two of them are bickering, rather than intervening, I might say, “Ok. What ideas to you have to solve this problem?” They can be very resourceful and creative when I allow them to be. They feel a sense of pride in their ability to take care of things themselves.


Cultivating competence requires teaching new skills, breaking things down into manageable steps, and encouraging effort instead of focusing on the end result. Allow him to help you cook, clean, put groceries away, and weed the garden, and show your appreciation for his efforts. He's learning, so making mistakes is part of the process.



Criticism and disapproval easily squelch competence. When teaching new skills, resist the temptation to point out mistakes or find fault with the way he does it. Your conversation could sound something like this:


You:  I’d like you to help me fold the laundry

Child:  I don’t know how!

You:  I’ll show you…

Child:  Like this? This is terrible! It doesn’t look like yours!

You:  That’s okay, I learned how to do it like this from lots of practice. I didn’t know how to do this automatically when I was your age, either.


Older kids can feel especially incompetent (and resentful) when you try to solve their problems for them. All they really want is for you to listen and validate their feelings.


Be sure to support any natural talents and interests your kids have, but don’t force them to take part. Involve them in making some family decisions, too, like which restaurant to go to for celebrating a special occasion or what activities to do during school vacation. This may mean going along with a choice that’s your child’s, not your own. By showing them that you'll go along with their ideas, they'll be more likely to return the favor later.


Strengthening your child's competence will foster her self-confidence, as well as trust in herself and her abilities. To me, that's the ultimate goal of parenting — raising responsible adults who feel good about themselves.


How can you strengthen your child's competence? Leave a comment below and let me know. 


Want personalized help implementing strategies to encourage the three needs? Check out my private coaching here.

Leave a Comment