Child Development – Fostering Self-Actualization at a Young Age

Finding out who we are meant to be can be a difficult task and most won’t take the time and energy involved in the journey. Perhaps, not that they won’t, more often than not they can’t.

Many people struggle daily with meeting other more base needs, rendering them unable to direct their energy towards higher, more fulfilling needs. In no way am I a self-actualized person, in Rogerian terms I am self-actualizing, that is, I am tending towards my real self and this is necessary for proper and healthy development, and should start no later than once the child is born.

Abraham Maslow identified the hierarchy of needs, in which he proclaims that humans have five levels of need, each of varying significance. At the bottom of the hierarchy lie our very basic needs – the things we need in order to survive. The higher one progresses through the hierarchy the more advanced the needs become. At the very top of the hierarchy is self-actualization, which Rogers defines as the activation of your innermost capacities, the congruence between the perceived self and the ideal self.

These needs will only be met when the other needs have been satisfied. For instance, a homeless man who is constantly struggling to obtain food, water and shelter, will find himself locked in battle between the two bottom tiers of the hierarchy. It is only when these needs are satisfied that he will be able to seek out love, self-esteem and so on. The first four levels are known as D-needs, and these alone are not motivating. When the needs are not met a person will feel an urge to satisfy them, and once they have been satisfied the individual will feel content.

A positive environment for child development

The hierarchy of needs can help us better understand child development, and the progression children go through in order to discover themselves. We will be focusing particularly on self-actualization in children, with regards to personality development, and comparing how different living environments may affect development.

A child reared in a generally positive, and accommodating environment has more opportunity for growth than one that is reared in a generally negative environment.

A positive environment would be one with two parent-figures, who not only offer the child unconditional positive regard, but offer it to each other as well. The child should feel generally safe, secure and content within their environment, and should not fear either parent. Rather, they should respect their parents.

The importance of authority

The best way to create such an environment is to employ an authoritative parenting style. Diana Baumrind describes authoritative parenting as a combination of high demand and huge responsiveness. That is, the parent has firm rules but is willing to make exceptions when the situation warrants, the parents should also be responsive to the child’s needs, without being overly indulgent. This sort of parenting offers the child an environment in which they can flourish – it helps them to understand that they are required to act a certain way within society, but they are also able to develop high levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy due to their parents supportive and accepting demeanour.

A typical authoritative parent will reprimand their child for hitting another child, for example, but will also then follow up after the punishment of choice. For instance, after the child has been on time-out for an appropriate amount of time for his or her age, the parent will ask the child what led them to the decision to hit, why it was wrong, and what they would do in the future. The parent should also be sure to make sure the child knows they themselves are not bad, rather the behaviour is harmful, and is generally not acceptable.

This way the child understands the parents reasoning behind their punishment, and less likely to repeat the behaviour in the future. Further, the child is less likely to walk away from the situation harbouring negative feelings towards themselves, or about their relationship with their parents. This is an essential part of child rearing, and without such a positive relationship with the parent, the child may foster negative feelings towards the self or others, which may promote the development of certain neuroses such as anxiety or depression.

The importance of a healthy & safe home

It is imperative that the child is offered a healthy and safe environment in which they can grow in order to develop the self. This way, the child will awake every day with the first three levels already fulfilled-meaning that throughout the day, the focus will be on achieving esteem, and self-actualization – two very similar and interrelated levels of the hierarchy.

With the fulfillment of level three – love and belonging – which will be achieved through a healthy family relationship, (both parents to the child, and the child’s understanding of their parents relationship with each other), the child will simultaneously fulfill esteem (to a degree). That is, by the parent offering the child love and a sense of belonging, they also build the child’s belief in his or her abilities – their self-efficacy – which strengthens their self-esteem.

For example, a parent who offers their child a warm and loving environment would also offer their child support in activities. A young boy is drawing and his mother tells him “that’s a beautiful picture, you’re good at drawing.” This statement encourages the boy to continue drawing because he believes he is good at it – and the more his parents support him, the more he believes in himself and his abilities.

A parent’s love and acceptance lays the groundwork for a child’s success in self-actualization, in that it allows the child to exert all their energy into developing their self, and understanding their self.

Consider the example above. The child is built up by his parents, and has an understanding of himself as being “good at art,” and he has the opportunity to continue with this talent, or to find and develop a new talent. Should he be told he is bad at drawing, and should not continue with it because he will never improve – this strips him of any esteem or sense of belonging provided by the parents. In the future he will vie for the parents positive attention and love, and will only be able to find esteem in others approval. This means that his energies will constantly be focused on the 3rd and 4th tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and will constantly be struggling to fulfill self-actualization.

This is not to say parents should coddle their children, and provide false praise – in fact the parent should not give praise where praise is not due. The parent should recognize the child’s successes as well as the child’s failures – the way the parent deals with the failures is what is important. In order to deal effectively with a child’s failure, the parent should address the situation with the idea of unconditional positive regard in mind. That is, accepting the child as they are, and not judging.

Being sure to address the failure as external from the child is imperative – the child should never be made to feel that a failure is directly correlated with who they are as a person. If the child is made to feel this way, we will have a similar scenario to the one cited above, where the child will constantly be trying to prove to himself and others, that he is in fact, not a failure. He will be constantly battling between belonging and esteem, and will find it tremendously difficult to self-actualize.

Thus, the importance of self-actualization at a young age is evident. This is not to say that children should self-actualize at a young age – it is very difficult for anyone to self-actualize, particularly because of the tremendous amount of energy required. However, if a child is offered the proper environment in which they may achieve esteem and belonging, they will be well primed to successfully fulfill their self-actualization need.


Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of Authoritative Parental Control on Child Behavior Child Development, 37 (4) DOI: 10.2307/1126611

Boeree, C. (2006). Abraham Maslow. Accessed online 2015-10-15.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370-396 DOI: 10.1037/h0054346

Maslow, A. H. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. London: Constable.

Image via Michael Drager / Shutterstock.

Taylor Bourassa, BA

Taylor Bourassa, BA, is an independent researcher and writer living in Atlantic Canada. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Carleton University. Her main areas of interest are art therapy, psychotherapy, schizophrenia, and humanistic psychology.
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