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Soenens, B. Deci, E. L., & Vansteenkiste, M. (in press). How parents contribute to children’s
psychological health: The critical role of psychological need support. In L. Wehmeyer, T. D.
Little, S. J. Lopez, K. A. Shogren, & R. Ryan (Eds.), Handbook on the development of self-
determination. New York: Springer.
How Parents Contribute to Children’s Psychological Health:
The Critical Role of Psychological Need Support
Bart Soenens Edward L. Deci Maarten Vansteenkiste
Ghent University University of Rochester Ghent University
Anyone observing young children in a playground will easily notice remarkable
differences among them. Some of the children explore the playground with curiosity and have
a great time; others are more withdrawn and feel uncomfortable with other children around.
At home some children may accept parental rules or negotiate constructively with the parents;
others may feel forced to comply with parental rules or even react defiantly against them.
Later, in adolescence, some youngsters willingly share their thoughts and feelings with
parents; others disclose much less and may even be secretive. How can these differences
among the children’s and adolescents’ emotional, social, and behavioral adjustments be
explained? Although different determinants, including genetics, temperament, and a variety of
social-contextual influences, play roles in young people’s development, this chapter will focus
on the role of parents. Specifically, we address how parental supports or thwarts for children’s
basic psychological needs either promote or diminish the children’s mental health, social
adjustment, and psychological growth.
Basic Psychological Needs and Children’s Psychosocial Adjustment
Self-Determination Theory (SDT; Deci & Ryan, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2000) argues
that children’s psychosocial adjustment depends to a substantial degree on satisfactions of
three basic psychological needs, namely, the needs for autonomy, competence, and
relatedness (see also Chapter 4, this volume). Satisfaction of the need for autonomy manifests
in experiences of volition, psychological freedom, authenticity, and ownership of one’s
behaviors and choices. When the need for competence is satisfied, children feel efficacious
and able to deal with optimally challenging tasks. The need for relatedness is satisfied when
children feel appreciated by and closely connected to important people. In SDT,
psychological need satisfactions are considered essential and universal nutrients for healthy
psychological development (Deci & Ryan, 2000). When children’s psychological needs are
satisfied , they report more well-being, engage activities with interest and spontaneity
(intrinsic motivation), more easily accept guidelines for important behaviors (internalization),
display more openness in social relationships, and are more resilient when faced with
adversity and distress (Vansteenkiste & Ryan, 2013).
While much research on psychological need satisfaction involved university students
and adults (e.g., Chen, Vansteenkiste, et al., 2015), recent research has also demonstrated the
importance of the psychological needs for children’s and adolescents’ adjustment. For
example, Veronneau, Koestner, and Abela, 2005) found among 3rd and 7th graders that
satisfaction of each of the three needs was related to positive affect. Satisfaction of the need
for competence in particular predicted decreases in depressive symptoms across a 6-week
interval. Luyckx, Vansteenkiste, Goossens, and Duriez (2009) found psychological need
satisfaction to be critical for adolescents’ thorough exploration of identity options and
stronger commitments to identity choices.
Recent work has also focused on people’s dark sides resulting from psychological
need frustration (e.g., Bartholomew et al., 2011). When social-contextual factors are thwarting
of children’s needs, the needs are likely to be frustrated, leaving the children feeling
controlled (autonomy frustration), inferior (competence frustration), and lonely (relatedness
frustration). In SDT need frustration is not equated with an absence of need satisfaction.
Rather, frustration ensues when the psychological needs are actively undermined rather than
merely unsatisfied. Because frustration results from intruding on the children’s sense of self, it
is a serious threat that renders the children vulnerable to ill-being and psychopathology (Ryan,
Deci, & Vansteenkiste, 2015). Research increasingly supports the notion that psychological
need frustration is particularly predictive of maladaptive developmental outcomes. It has been
shown, for instance, that need frustration is related to physiological indicators of stress
(Bartholomew et al., 2011), interpersonal problems (Costa, Ntoumanis, & Bartholomew,
2015), and eating-disorder symptoms (Boone et al., 2014).
The Nurturing Role of Parents in Children’s Development
Given the pivotal role of the basic psychological needs in children’s and adolescents’
well-being and adjustment, a key developmental question is how socialization figures, and
parents in particular, affect psychological need satisfaction and psychological need
frustration. SDT argues that parents, in interaction with other key individuals (i.e., the
children’s teachers and peers), play a crucial role in the nurturing versus thwarting of
children’s psychological needs. Paralleling the distinctions among the three needs, differences
in parents’ style of interacting with children are conceptualized with three concepts (Grolnick,
Deci, & Ryan, 1997; Joussemet, Landry, & Koestner, 2008): (a) relatedness supports or
involvement (e.g., respect and warmth), (b) competence supports or structure (e.g., offering
clear expectations, adequate help, and non-critical feedback), and (c) autonomy support (e.g.,
acknowledging the children’s perspective, providing choice, and encouraging exploration).
Each of these contextual, need-supportive concepts has a need-thwarting dark side just
as each of the need satisfactions has a need-frustration dark side. For instance, relatedness
thwarts are characterized by parental behaviors that are cold, neglectful, and rejecting;
competence thwarts are demeaning and chaotic; and autonomy thwarts include pressuring
demands and coercion. Importantly, being low in need supports does not necessarily mean
that parents will be actively and intrusively thwarting of children’s needs (Skinner, Snyder, &
Johnson, 2005), and similarly, being low in need thwarting does not necessarily mean that
parents will be actively and happily supportive of children’s needs. However, when parents
are actively need supportive, it has been shown that they will foster experiences of need
satisfaction (and subsequent well-being and positive adjustment), and when parents are
actively need thwarting it has been shown to bring about experiences of need frustration (and
subsequent ill-being and maladjustment).
We do note that there is not a simple one-to-one association between one of the
parental need-supportive dimensions and satisfaction of the children’s corresponding need
(Grolnick et al., 1997), or between a parental need-thwarting dimension and frustration of the
children’s corresponding need. Each of the dimensions of need-supportive parenting is to
some extent relevant to satisfaction to each of the three needs. For example, when parents take
their children’s perspective in a conversation, the children are likely to feel some relatedness
satisfaction and also some indication of parental trust in the children’s capabilities. In this
regard, the graphical representation in Figure 1 is a simplification of reality, for there could be
an arrow from each support to each need satisfaction, and from each thwart to each need
In the remainder of this chapter we focus on the three dimensions of need-supportive
parenting for our primary goal is the facilitation of greater self-determination. [Those
interested in further discussion of need-thwarting parenting are referred to Assor, Kanat-
Maymon, and Roth, (2014); Grolnick, (2003); and Soenens and Vansteenkiste (2010)]. In
discussing need-supportive parenting we describe the basic attitude underlying each
dimension as well as their more specific manifestations (Vansteenkiste & Soenens, 2015). We
also provide a selective discussion of research relevant to each dimension.
The basic attitude behind relatedness-support is characterized by love, care and a
genuine desire to support the child (Vansteenkiste & Soenens, 2015). Parents supporting their
child’s need for relatedness deeply care about the child’s well-being and enjoy being in the
child’s company (Deci & Ryan, 2014). These parents engage in warm and sensitive
interactions with the child, interactions that build a child’s sense of attachment security
(Bowlby, 1988). As a consequence, a child feels protected and learns to trust and rely on the
parent when experiencing distress. This supportive orientation can be contrasted with a cold
parental orientation, where parents are largely unavailable, unresponsive to a child’s requests
for support, or even rejecting.
A basic requirement for all need-supportive parenting is parental presence and
involvement. Parents who support children’s need for relatedness spend a sufficient amount of
time in the presence of their children and get at least minimally involved in the children’s
activities (e.g., Grolnick, Kurowski, & Gurland, 1999). However, parental involvement and
investment of time is not a sufficient condition for children to feel deeply connected to their
parents. Research shows that there is no straightforward association between the amount of
time parents spend with their children and children’s well-being (Milkie, Nomaguchi, &
Denny, 2015) nor between parental involvement in the child’s activities and the children’s
motivation for and performance in these activities (e.g., homework: Pomerantz, Moorman, &
For children to really benefit from their parents’ involvement and presence, the quality
of parents’ involvement needs to be sufficiently high. In this regard, it is important for parents
to be mentally present, to be alert to the children’s feelings, and to proactively consider the
impact of situations on the children’s feelings. For instance, parents can try to anticipate how
the children will respond to an episode of separation (e.g., leaving the children with a
babysitter) or to a potentially painful situation (e.g., a doctor’s visit). By announcing what will
happen, these situations may become less emotionally unpredictable and overwhelming and
parents can proactively help children to regulate their emotions. When a child actually
experiences emotional distress or physical pain, parents high on relatedness need-support
react in a responsive fashion. They offer comfort and they are available for help. In doing so,
they provide a safe haven for the children to turn to when feeling upset (Bowlby, 1988).
In addition to being involved, alert, and responsive, parents high on relatedness need-
support are warm and affectionate. This warmth can be expressed emotionally, through
friendly, humorous, and positive interactions with the child as well as physically (e.g.,
through hugs, kisses, or an embrace). A final element of parental relatedness need-support is
engagement in joint activities. Parents can engage in enjoyable and interesting activities with
their children one-on-one (e.g., father and son playing basketball or playing a board game) or
with the family as a whole (e.g., making a trip, going to a music festival, travelling together).
While activities with an individual child can strengthen the parent-child bond, activities with
the family can build a sense of cohesion and collective identity in the family.
There is a longstanding tradition of research, some of which is rooted in attachment
theory, demonstrating the importance of parents’ relational need support for children’s
development. Relatedness need support has been shown to predict a plethora of adaptive
outcomes, including secure attachment representations (van Ijzendoorn, 1995), self-worth
(Brummelman et al., 2015), social competence (Barber, Stolz, & Olsen, 2005), and social
skills contributing to social competence such as adequate emotion regulation (Davidov &
Grusec, 2006) and empathy (Soenens, Duriez, Vansteenkiste, & Goossens, 2007). In contrast,
cold and rejecting parenting has been found to predict a host of developmental problems,
including internalizing and externalizing behaviors (Putnick et al., 2015).
Parents who provide structure assist their children in building a sense of competence.
Their basic attitude involves a focus on the development of their children’s skills and
emerging abilities. They are process-oriented, meaning that they are interested in discovering
the children’s talents and in providing support to nurture these talents (Reeve, 2006;
Vansteenkiste & Soenens, 2015). They are aware that children learn through trial and error
and that wide individual differences exist in the timing and rhythm of children’s development
of capacities. Parents who provide structure take into account these individual differences and
try to provide a level of support and help that is attuned to the child’s developmental level and
possibilities. Parental structure can be contrasted with chaos, which is characteristic of parents
who do not match their level and type of involvement to the child’s abilities. They fail to
provide clear guidelines for adequate behavior and they provide vague or even confusing
guidelines. They give unwanted help and irrelevant information, and, at times, they can even
become explicitly critical of the children’s behavior and achievements.
The components of structure can be organized according to the timing with which they
are typically used; that is, before, during, or after competence-relevant activities (Reeve,
2006). Two important elements are particularly relevant prior to children’s engagement in an
activity. When a child is about to start an activity, parents high on structure provide clear
guidelines, they communicate limits about which behaviors are allowed and which are not.
They also discuss consequences that might follow if rules are not followed, but they do that in
an informative rather than controlling fashion. Further, they provide the necessary help for the
child to set goals and, if needed, also offer a step-by-step script so children know how to
achieve the introduced goals. Parents who provide structure also attend to the kinds of
activities their children engage in. Specifically, they try to stimulate activities and create
conditions that are optimally challenging to the children. Activities that slightly exceed the
children’s developmental level but are still within reach (i.e., activities in the children’s zones
of proximal development) stimulate the children to learn new skills (Vygotsky, 1978). For
parents to create these optimally challenging conditions, they need to be aware of the
children’s abilities and present the activities in ways that are not overwhelming to the
children. It is also important for parents to openly convey their trust in the children’s abilities
to do well and master new skills.
Parents can also provide structure during the children’s engagement with activities.
They can do so by monitoring the children’s progress in a process-oriented fashion. When
parents and children agreed upon a rule, parents high on structure are consistent in following
up on this rule. They signal to the children in non-intrusive but consequent ways when
agreements are not respected. Further, parents high on structure provide adequate help during
children’s engagement in the tasks. They are available in case the children ask for help. When
their help is solicited, parents give advice or they break down the task into smaller units to
make the task more feasible to the children. There is a thin line between appropriate and
inappropriate help—that is, information and instruction—with inappropriate help defined as
help that is unwanted or that is excessive, in which case the parents are essentially taking over
the task, thereby precluding a possible learning opportunity for the children. Yet, parents may
also provide too little help such that children feel like they are left helpless. The provision of
help in a way that really contributes to the children’s competence again requires an accurate
parental assessment of the children’s abilities and need for assistance.
Both during and after the children’s engagement in a task or activity, parents can
provide structure by giving informational feedback. Ideally, this feedback is process-oriented
and focused on the children’s efforts and strategies (e.g., “You seem to have found a good
way of studying this course”) rather than on the person as a whole (e.g., “You are so smart”)
(Kamins & Dweck, 1999). Even when children did not do well at a task, parents can be
supportive. To encourage self-reflection, prior to the parents giving their own take on the
situation, they may invite the children to reflect on what happened, and perhaps whether they
see different ways they might try the task next time. This will allow the feedback interchanges
to be learning experiences and allow the children to feel a sense of ownership. That is, when
children are able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, they are likely to develop a
stronger willingness to improve their skills and to build a sense of mastery and a feeling of
control over their own development. During the interchange, the parents may need to provide
some informational feedback by pointing out things that did go well that the children did not
notice. They may also formulate suggestions and hints in specific and constructive ways.
In sum, there is more to structure than rule-setting and the communication of
expectations. Clear expectations and rules are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for
children to develop a sense of competence (Mouratidis, Vansteenkiste, Michou, & Lens,
2013). Children are more likely to feel competent when parents also provide adequate help,
give process-oriented feedback, and assist the children in reflecting upon their learning
process. Further, structure is relevant not only to activities that involve learning (e.g.,
homework) and play (e.g., games) but also to rule-compatible behavior. Also when teaching
children to behave well (according to moral, conventional, or prudential standards), parents
can provide structure by communicating clear guidelines, by giving advice about how to
respond in challenging situations, and by giving constructive feedback on the children’s
Compared to research on supports for relatedness and autonomy, there is less research
on parental structure, although a relevant study on teachers providing structure to adolescents
did predict more student behavioral engagement (Jang, Reeve, & Deci, 2010). Further, studies
are beginning to show that parental structure is related to important motivational and
developmental outcomes in different life domains, including academic competence,
engagement, and performance (e.g., Farkas & Grolnick, 2010; Grolnick, Raftery-Helmer,
Flamm, Marbell, & Cardemil, 2015), feelings of competence during unsupervised time (e.g.,
activities with friends in the absence of parents; Grolnick et al., 2014), and engagement and
positive experiences during parent-child conversations about sensitive topics such as sexuality
(Mauras, Grolnick, & Friendly, 2013). In contrast, parental chaos has been found to relate to
problem behaviors such as substance use and delinquency (Skinner et al., 2005).
Parental autonomy-support is the parenting concept most unique to SDT. Autonomy-
supportive parents tend to focus on their children’s perspectives. Rather than prioritizing their
personal agenda, they are interested in the children’s point of view (Deci, Eghrari, Patrick, &
Leone, 1994; Vansteenkiste & Soenens, 2015). Also, they unconditionally accept the children
as they are (Rogers, 1961). As a result, children experience a sense of volition and feel able to
be who they want to be. Autonomy-supportive parents are confident that children are
naturally inclined to grow and develop in a positive direction (Landry et al., 2008), so they do
not feel a constant need to intervene in the children’s development. Instead, they are patient,
they respect the children’s pace of development, and they display a sincere curiosity for what
happens in the children’s lives. Autonomy support can be contrasted with a more controlling
approach, where parents impose their own frame of reference and subsequently evaluate or
even judge the children in light of their capacity to meet expectations and standards that
matter primarily to the parent (Grolnick, 2003).
A first important feature of autonomy-support is parental fostering of task enjoyment.
As much as possible, autonomy-supportive parents try to emphasize the intrinsic value of
activities, they capitalize on children’s interest or they add fun elements to promote the
children’s enjoyment of activities (Reeve, 2009). Even seemingly uninteresting activities,
such as brushing teeth and cleaning up, can be made more fun by making a game out of it, by
telling stories, or by appealing to children’s fantasies. This appeal to the children’s inner
motivational resources can be contrasted with an approach relying on external contingencies,
such as rewards and threats of punishment such as removal of privileges.
Further, autonomy-supportive parents allow input and encourage dialogue. They leave
room for negotiation, offer choices, and encourage initiative (Soenens et al., 2007). Such a
participative approach allows children to explore possibilities and different roles and to have a
say in important decisions. Of course, parents cannot always allow their children to make
decisions freely. Sometimes they introduce rules that set limits to the children’s behavior. But
even in these instances parents can be autonomy-supportive by providing a meaningful
rationale. Rather than simply imposing a rule or giving a parent-centered reason for following
a rule, they given explanations that are relevant to the children. Doing so helps children accept
and internalize the personal importance of the rule (Deci et al., 1994).
Autonomy-supportive parents are attuned to the children’s rhythms and pace of
development. When a child gets stuck on a task (e.g., homework), they help patiently and
leave room for the child to come up with a solution rather than taking over the learning
process. This requires that parents trust the child’s natural capacity to develop skills (Landry
et al., 2008). Parental support for autonomy also entails an open attitude towards children’s
negative emotions, oppositional behaviors, and diverging opinions. Rather than minimizing
negative emotions, suppressing undesirable behavior, or invalidating different opinions,
autonomy-supportive parents show an active interest in these “deviant” feelings, behaviors,
and opinions. Rather than perceiving those as irritating, they curiously explore their meaning
or role to fully understand the children’s perspectives. For instance, even when children defy
parental rules, autonomy-supportive parents pay attention to children’s reasons for doing so
and to the feelings that elicited reactance. Having heard the children’s opinions, they
acknowledge the children’s perspective and perhaps flexibly adjust the rule or, if the rule
cannot be changed, explain why the rule is meaningful.
Finally, autonomy-supportive parents rely on inviting rather than coercing or
pressuring language. They say things such as “You can try to …”, “I suggest that you.. “, and
“I propose that you …” instead of “You have to …”, “You must …”, and “I expect you to
…”. Pressuring language can be quite overt and explicit but also more subtle. Psychologically
controlling parents (Soenens & Vansteenkiste, 2010) or parents relying on conditional regard
(Assor et al., 2014) in particular tend to pressure children in insidious ways by expressing
disappointment non-verbally or by appealing to feelings of shame and guilt.
Autonomy-supportive parenting has been found to predict need satisfaction and high-
quality motivation in different domains of life, including school (Grolnick et al., 1991), sports
(Gagné, Ryan, & Bargmann, 2003), and friendships (Soenens & Vansteenkiste, 2005). When
children perceive their parents as autonomy-supportive, they engage in activities with a sense
of volition and because they want to rather than because they have to. Autonomy support is
also related to high-quality motivation in the context of adherence to parental rules. Children
of autonomy-supportive parents display deeper internalization of parental rules
(Vansteenkiste, Soenens, Van Petegem, & Duriez, 2014). They follow these rules because
they accept and understand the rules rather than because they feel compelled to do so.
Relatedly, autonomy-support fosters open and honest communication in parent-child
relationships (Bureau & Mageau, 2014; Wuyts, Vansteenkiste, Soenens, & Van Petegem,
2015). Possibly because of these beneficial effects of parental autonomy support on children’s
need satisfaction and motivation, autonomy-support is related to adjustment in specific
domains of life and to children’s and adolescents’ overall well-being (Joussemet, Koestner,
Lekes, & Landry, 2005). Parental autonomy-support also contributes to key developmental
skills, such as adequate emotion regulation (Brenning, Soenens, Van Petegem, &
Vansteenkiste, 2015), cognitive self-regulation (Bindman, Pomerantz, & Roisman, 2015), and
altruism and moral development (Roth, 2008).
In contrast, controlling parenting has been shown to predict need frustration (Mabbe,
Soenens, Vansteenkiste, & Van Leeuwen, in press), secrecy in parent-child relationships
(Tilton-Weaver, Kerr, Pakalniskeine, Tokic, Salihovic, & Stattin, 2010), maladaptive
motivational orientations such as amotivation (Garn & Jolly, 2015) and oppositional defiance
(Vansteenkiste et al., 2014), and developmental problems such as internalizing distress
(Soenens, Luyckx, Vansteenkiste, Duriez, & Goossens, 2008) and externalizing behaviors
(Joussemet, Vitaro, et al., 2008).
About the Interplay between the Three Dimensions of Parental Need Support
To fully understand the role of parents in children’s satisfaction of the three basic
psychological needs, it is important to consider the interplay of the three dimensions of
parental need support. Of particular relevance is the interplay between structure and
autonomy-support. Some developmental scholars tend to confuse autonomy-support with
parental permissiveness, leniency, and an absence of rules (Baumrind, 2012). However,
autonomy-support can be (and ideally is) combined with structure, in which case parents
provide clear guidelines for behavior and at the same time respect the children’s perspectives
(e.g., by providing a rationale and leaving room for the children’s voices). Autonomy-
supportive parents are more likely to provide structure in a way that fosters competence and
autonomy because their communication of expectations and their provision of assistance is
better attuned to the child’s abilities, preferences and interests. In line with this reasoning,
Sher-Censor, Assor, and Oppenheim (2015) showed that maternal communication of
expectations for behavior (as a feature of structure) was related negatively to adolescents’
externalizing problems only when mothers at the same time scored high on perspective taking
(as a feature of autonomy-support). The combination of structure and autonomy-support
probably helped adolescents to understand the importance of the expectations and to
experience more self-endorsement while behaving in accordance with them.
While the combination of structure and autonomy-support gives rise to a harmonious
experience of satisfaction of several needs, other parental behaviors give rise to a conflicting
relationship between different needs. A case in point is conditional regard, a parenting
practice characteristic of parents who provide more love and affection than usual when the
child meets parental expectations and who withdraw their affection and appreciation when the
child fails to meet standards (Assor, Roth, & Deci, 2004). While this parental practice may
yield at least momentary and superficial satisfaction of the need for relatedness, it is a
controlling practice undermining children’s feelings of autonomy and competence. Research
even shows that the detrimental effects of conditional regard are more pronounced when it is
combined with parental warmth (Kanat-Maymon & Assor, 2010). This combination of
conditional regard and warmth may create a loyalty conflict, where children strongly feel that
they need to choose between having a close bond with their parent and preserving a sense of
autonomy. Such internal conflicts ultimately give rise to feelings of resentment towards
parents and to emotional costs in children (Assor et al., 2004, 2014).
The Role of Cultural, Developmental, and Individual Differences
The SDT-based argument that need-supportive parenting appeals to basic and
fundamental needs that universally foster children’s growth is a strong statement that may
lead one to wonder whether in this perspective on parenting there is room for contextual and
individual differences in effects of need-supportive parenting.
An important notion in SDT speaking to this issue is the notion of functional
significance (Deci & Ryan, 1987). This notion refers to differences in the way people appraise
and interpret events. Most things that happen to people can be interpreted in different ways by
different people. For instance, a reward to one child for doing homework may have an
informational value indicating that he or she did a good job, but another child who gets the
reward may interpret it as a control to get him or her to do more homework (Deci, Koestner,
& Ryan, 1999). Depending on factors such as age, culture, and personality, different children
may interpret such practices differently.
For example, Pomerantz and Eaton (2000) showed that with increasing age elementary
school children were more likely to view parental involvement in homework as signaling
incompetence and as a threat to their autonomy. As regards culture, several studies have
shown that children and adolescents living in collectivist societies have more benign
interpretations of potentially autonomy-suppressing parenting practices than children from
individualist societies (Miller, Chakravarthy, & Das, 2008; Rudy, Carlo, Lambert, & Awong,
2014). Finally, to capture personality-based differences in the way social events are appraised,
SDT distinguishes between autonomous and controlled causality orientations (Deci & Ryan,
1985), although as a general orientation this typically emerges clearly only in later
adolescence. Research shows that individuals high on the autonomous orientation are inclined
to see the informational value of interpersonal (e.g., parental) behaviors, whereas individuals
high on the controlled orientation tend to more easily experience interpersonal behaviors as
pressuring and intrusive. In fact, a study by Hagger, & Chatzisarantis (2011) showed that
individuals who were high in autonomy interpreted rewards as informational and those high in
controlled orientation interpreted them as controlling.
The fact that there are contextual and individual differences in children’s appraisal and
perception of parental behavior does not contradict SDT’s claims about the universal
importance of the psychological needs. The universality claim in SDT deals with individuals’
experiences of need satisfaction and need frustration. While children may differ in the way
they interpret potentially autonomy-supportive practices, subjectively felt autonomy is said to
be beneficial for all children. Indeed, SDT argues that children’s perceptions of parental
behavior in terms of need support or need thwarting ultimately affect the children’s
developmental outcomes. When parental practices are experienced as supportive of the three
psychological needs, they will foster well-being and adjustment. In contrast, when practices
are experienced as a threat to these needs, they will undermine development and increase the
risk for ill-being. Consistent with these claims, evidence shows that subjectively experienced
need-supportive and need-thwarting parenting are related to outcomes similarly across
developmental periods (Joussemet, Landry, & Koestner, 2008), across cultures (Ahmad,
Vansteenkiste, & Soenens, 2013; Chirkov & Ryan, 2001), and irrespective of children’s
personality (Mabbe et al., in press).
We also note that there are limits to the degree to which parental behavior can be
interpreted in various ways (Soenens, Vansteenkiste, & Van Petegem, 2015). Although
children may differ somewhat in the way they perceive parental practices, there are real and
important mean-level differences between parental practices in terms of how need-supportive
and motivating they are. For instance, meta-analyses have shown that while rewards generally
undermine intrinsic motivation (Deci et al., 1999), the provision of choice typically enhances
it (Patall, Cooper, & Robinson, 2008). Thus, while children may vary in the degree to which
they perceive rewards as controlling, they are unlikely to perceive the provision of choice as
more controlling than the provision of rewards. In line with the notion that certain practices
are generally more need-supportive than others, Chen, Soenens, et al. (2015) showed that
while Chinese adolescents had a more benign interpretation of parental guilt-induction than
Belgian adolescents, both Chinese and Belgian adolescents perceived guilt-induction as more
controlling and need-thwarting than parental autonomy-support. Thus, autonomy-supportive
practices were perceived to be generally more favorable to adolescents’ development across
Clearly, SDT highlights children’s agency in the socialization process (Reeve, 2013;
Soenens et al., 2015). Rather than being passive recipients of environmental influences,
children give meaning to parental behaviors and actively develop perceptions and
representations of their parents. In addition, children also differ in the way they cope with
need-thwarting parental behaviors (Skinner & Edge, 2002). While some children respond to
controlling parental behavior constructively (e.g., by negotiating and by trying to create a
compromise between the parents’ goals and their own), other children respond defiantly or in
other ways that may contribute to their own need frustration such as simply complying
passively. Although these responses appear to be quite different, in both cases children
experience frustration of their need for autonomy because they do not stay true to their
personal goals and preferences. Future research on these coping responses may reveal why
some children are more resilient to need-thwarting parenting than others and why need-
thwarting parenting is related to different developmental problems in different children. For
instance, while passive compliance may give rise to internalizing difficulties, oppositional
defiance may render children more vulnerable to externalizing problems.
Children have a natural tendency to develop towards higher levels of psychosocial
maturity as they grow older (Deci & Ryan, 2000). Parents can contribute to this
psychological-growth process by supporting children’s needs for relatedness (e.g., by being
warm and responsive), competence (e.g., by providing clear guidelines and by giving positive
feedback and help), and autonomy (e.g., by recognizing the child’s perspective and by
encouraging initiative). When parents thwart these very same needs, they risk forestalling
children’s development or even increasing vulnerability to psychopathology. Various factors
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Conceptual Model of the Associations among Parental Support for Children’s Needs, Needs Experiences, and Developmental Outcomes
+ Involvement, warmth,
- Cold, aloof, indifference,
+ Structure, clear and
- Chaotic communication,
+ Empathy, allowing choice,
Satisfaction of the need for
Frustration of the need for
Satisfaction of the need for
Frustration of the need for
Satisfaction of the need for
motivational, and social
motivational, and social
Frustration of the need for