Core Childhood Needs: Competence as we grow

Updated: Apr 1


Competence is closely linked to fear of failure and achievement anxiety. If children feel incompetent, they may be reluctant to test their skills, tackle challenges or even engage in social interactions. This becomes self-perpetuating whereby lack of trying new things decreasing confidence in our abilities, which makes us more and more reluctant to take risks, and so on and so forth.


A sense of incompetence may develop from over-protective caregivers who handle challenges on behalf of the child, not letting them test their own abilities or experience failure. It may also come from living in an unpredictable environment where there was not necessarily a link between our own behaviours or attempts to solve problems, and the outcome. Children may then feel like nothing they do actually works, enhancing a sense of incompetence. To avoid feelings of inferiority or failure, children may either withdraw or become disruptive and distracted when faced with things that they perceive as too difficult.



So what can we do as adults to help to fulfil the need for competence in our children? Here are a few ideas:

· Encourage children to try tasks on their own

· Refrain from intervening immediately when your child begins to struggle with a task. Some struggle is good for us as it pushes us past what we think we can do.

· Speak openly about the value of failure

· Celebrate successes and successes, and failures as learning opportunities

· Differentiate between abilities and self-worth, i.e. “One of the things you are really good at is tennis.”, not “Everyone will like you because of how good you are at tennis.”

· Identify realistic skills and abilities of your child in not just one, but in various areas, including academic (e.g. maths, science), interpersonal (e.g. empathy, kindness), sports, art, etc.


Fulfilling the need of competence for our children is linked to enhanced self-esteem, resilience, and confidence, and reduced mood and anxiety issues.


The need for competence remains relevant for us as adults. If we were raised feeling unsure of our competence and not trusting our skills or our ability to enhance our skills, this may result in three typical behaviours: avoidance of challenges or anything that could reflect negatively on our competence; self-sabotage when things are going well or we are worried that we have bitten off more than we can chew; over-inflated ego whereby we try to put on a show of how important and good we are in the attempt to mask our own fears of incompetence.


However, regardless of our childhood, with the right tools, we are able to meet this need in adulthood without letting the past control us. The way we would treat children now, is the way we can also nurture our own inner child.


To find out more about how to help your children develop their competence or to successfully meet your own need of competence, book a consultation with Dr. Terrighena on (852) 2715 4577 or e.terrighena@mind-balance.org.

Dr Esslin Terrighena - Psychologist in Hong Kong

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