Parental autonomy support, basic needs, and self-esteem

Understanding the dynamics between parenting styles and children's psychological development is important. A new study by Chen et al. (2024) examines the relationship between parental autonomy support, basic psychological needs, and the self-esteem of Chinese primary school students. Through an extensive cross-sectional analysis, the study examines how autonomy support influences children's self-image.

Parental autonomy support versus controlling parenting

Parental autonomy support is an important parenting style in which parents understand their child's perspective, allow them to make choices, and minimize control. This promotes positive outcomes such as a strong parent-child relationship, emotional adjustment, and higher life satisfaction. Children raised with autonomy and support develop positive self-evaluations and internal motivation. Autonomy support is crucial during childhood, a period essential for the development of autonomy. It contrasts with controlling parenting, which imposes strict rules and limits children's autonomy.

The study is rooted in self-determination theory, which posits that autonomy, competence, and relatedness are basic psychological needs essential for healthy development.

The study

This study examined 309 primary school children from Shandong, eastern China, between October and December 2023. The researchers expected that parental autonomy support has a positive influence on children's self-esteem and that basic psychological needs mediate this relationship. They also expected gender and age differences to moderate the impact.

Children (52.8% boys, 47.2% girls, 6–13 years) completed questionnaires measuring autonomy support, basic needs, and self-esteem. These were measured with scales from Wang et al. (2021), Gagné & Deci (2005), and the Self-Perception Profile for Children (SPPC). Data analysis was performed with structural equation modeling (SEM) and multi-group analyses.


  • Descriptive statistics showed significant correlations between parental autonomy support, basic psychological needs, and self-esteem. Strikingly, autonomy support showed a strong positive correlation with children's self-image (r = 0.45, p < 0.001).
  • The SEM results showed that parental autonomy support significantly predicted the satisfaction of basic psychological needs (β = 0.36, p < 0.001) and that this satisfaction significantly predicted children's self-esteem (β = 0.42, p < 0.001). The mediation model explained 78.5% of the variance in children's self-concept.
  • Multi-group analysis revealed significant gender and age differences in the associations between parental autonomy support and self-esteem. For girls, the effects of parental autonomy support on the need for autonomy were stronger, while boys focused more on competence needs. Both groups were sensitive to relatedness needs. Younger children (groups 1-3) showed a stronger effect of parental autonomy support on self-concept via the need for competence, while for older children (groups 4-6), parental control was directly negatively predictive of their self-concept.

The findings highlight significant associations between parental autonomy support, basic psychological needs, and children's self-esteem. Consistent with self-determination theory, autonomy-supportive parenting positively influences children's self-concept by fulfilling their psychological needs.


Self-determination theory states that the satisfaction and frustration of basic psychological needs predict the well-being and unwellness of all individuals, regardless of differences in sociodemographic factors, personality, cultural background, or the intensity of the need. This is called the universality claim.

I often encounter people who implicitly dispute this universality claim. They think that people from different cultures have fundamentally different needs. For example, someone recently said to me that autonomy support probably doesn't work in Russian schools because they are used to a much stricter approach. I heard someone else argue that in Suriname, you have to raise children strictly and that threatening punishment works well there.

However, Chen et al.'s current study, like many previous studies across diverse cultures, supports the idea that basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness are universally important for children's functioning and self-esteem. Of course, there are cultural differences. To satisfy people's basic needs, good and continuous attention to the person and situation in question is always necessary. This applies both within a culture and between different cultures.