Children’s 3 Basic Psychological Needs and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Child Playing Wooden Blocks

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the ways in which children around the world are learning, playing, and interacting.

Understandably, parents have felt worried and uncertain about their children’s physical safety, social isolation, and academic progress in school. 

Aside from physical and academic needs, children have basic psychological needs that are essential to their well-being.

When these needs are met, children can continue to grow and thrive, even during times of change and disruption.

Just as we have physiological needs, such as oxygen and nutrients, which foster our physical growth and development, we also have psychological needs that must be met for healthy growth and well-being.

Original Image of Triple Venn Diagram Illustrating the three components of Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory (SDT) focuses on basic psychological needs for wellness and growth that apply to humans of all ages, across cultures. These needs can be either supported or thwarted, depending on the relationship between the individual and their environment. 

When these basic psychological needs are not met, people experience lowered vitality, loss of motivation, and a diminished sense of well-being. This applies to both adults and children.  

Number One: Autonomy: I feel that I have a choice.
Child Holding Map

Autonomy is the need to have control over one’s own experiences and actions.

Children have the same need as adults to feel that they have at least some control over their lives. They want to feel like they are doing something they want to do. 

When children lack autonomy, or choice, they are left feeling like they are not in control of their own lives.  

Number Two: Competence: I feel that I am good at something

Competence is the need to develop mastery over tasks that are perceived as important.

Children feel competent when they can express their talents and abilities within important life contexts. Children want to feel like they are good at something that they enjoy doing. 

When children are prevented from developing skills, understanding, or mastery, the need for competence is not met.  

Number Three: Relatedness: I feel that I matter to someone
Two Children Looking Up

Relatedness is the need to feel that we are connected and involved with others. 

The act of both caring and being cared for is an important part of relatedness. Children also need to feel a sense of belonging to a group of peers.  

When children do not feel like they are a valued member of a group that is important to them, they feel lonely and become disengaged.

“Alongside such physical needs, SDT posits that there are also basic psychological needs that must be satisfied for psychological interest, development, and wellness to be sustained.”

(Ryan & Deci, 2017, p.10)

There have been many ways in which the pandemic has affected the three basic psychological needs. Children have experienced many abrupt and startling changes in familiar routines over the course of 2020. 

Girl in White Long Sleeve Shirt Sitting in Cardboard Box

Just like adults, children face an uncertainty about their future, as well as increased anxiety and stress about their loved ones, with less of an understanding and control over their situation. 

There have been disruptions to many of the structures that had been put into place to help meet children’s basic psychological needs. 

In addition, decreased social interactions with peers and non-parental adult role models such as teachers, coaches, or grandparents, have been a major concern amongst many children and parents alike.

As the pandemic continues, parents navigate the tricky question about how to best support their children during times of change. Keeping in mind children’s needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness can provide a roadmap for how to ensure their growth and well-being.  

1. Autonomy

How It Has Been Affected: Since the pandemic has started, children have been facing a loss of a sense of control due to many choices being taken away from them. Children can no longer make some of the choices they previously had control over, such as inviting a friend over for a sleepover or getting together with a group of friends.  

Boy Playing Superhero

How to Foster It: In order to help foster autonomy, it is important to ask the question, “Where in life does my child have a choice?”. Establishing parameters for what is safe and acceptable and then letting the child make age-appropriate choices within those parameters helps make them feel that they are in control of their lives. Talk to your child about their goals and help them figure out a path to achieve those goals. 

2. Competence

How It has Been Affected: Many of the activities that once provided children with a sense of competence and mastery were shut down, or have been disrupted due to the pandemic. Because of this, many children have experienced a sense of loss over canceled events such as performances, competitions, and sports games.

Boy in Black Shirt Playing the Guitar

How to Foster It: Children should be able to identify what activities are important to them and have goals for how they are working to get better at them. Participating in activities where children can have a way of evaluating their progress, versus the progress of others, helps to develop the feeling of mastery over skills and meet the need for competence. 

3. Relatedness

How It has Been Affected: The onset of the pandemic has brought a decrease, or at least significantly altered, interactions with peers, as well as with familiar adults such as teachers, coaches, and other family members. Because of this, children may experience a decreased sense of belonging to important social structures.  

Girl in medical mask fixing boy's medical face mask

How to Foster It: Children should be able to say, “This is where I belong”. Structured and unstructured social interactions, with and without the presence of adults, as well as working with peers towards a common goal, can help meet the need for relatedness. 

Moving Forward…

The past seven months have brought on a lot of disruption and change into the lives of children and families around the world.

Many of the structures that had been put in place to help meet children’s psychological needs have been interrupted, or ceased all together.

However, understanding children’s needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness can help guide parents and professionals in supporting children and ensuring their growth and well-being.  


This blog post was prepared with the help of Grace Murphy, a second-year graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, concentrating in 21st Century Literacies: Media and Technology. Grace is passionate about improving the lives of children through creating media content with the purpose of educating and informing parents, child caregivers, and practitioners. Her special interests include the social-emotional well-being of children and adolescents, the social/cultural influence of media, and positive representation in media. 


Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Self-Determination Theory. (2020, October 16). Retrieved from