As complex human beings, it takes a lot to maintain psychological stability in life. That can mean carving out time to exercise, meditate, talk to a therapist, and even deal with the side effects of antidepressants, all for the sake of raising your children in a happy and healthy environment. Still, what if our mental health came down to a few basic needs? It sounds like a tempting wellness grift, but in psychology an evidence-based premise known as Self-Determination Theory suggests that our well-being may come down to just three principles: autonomy, competence, and relatedness (aka relationships with other people).
First introduced in the mid-1980s, Self-Determination Theory (SDT) has gained popularity in the clinical world not just because of the simplicity of it, but because studies have continued to back it up over the years. “Unlike other theories, there was an incomprehensible amount of data that supported SDT,” says clinical psychologist Susan Whitbourne, Ph.D., a professor emerita of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In fact, a recent meta-analysis reviewing over 100 studies spanning more than 70,000 participants found that the focus on the three internal needs emphasized by SDT improved well-being across a variety of research.
The notion that having more relationships, skills, and freedom would make most people feel better is simple by design. Psychological theories are intentionally written in a broad way so they can be used to help a lot of people. That said, mastering each internal need in a world of external obstacles is deceivingly difficult, says psychotherapist Patrick Turbiville.
“If most people got heaping helpings of additional autonomy, competence, and relatedness in their lives, mental health would likely thrive,” Turbiville says. For parents in particular, autonomy seems to be the most difficult need to address. You can’t typically Jerry Maguire your way out of professional conflicts when you have kids to care for.
With all that in mind, I decided to take on the task of applying Self-Determination Theory to my own life as a non-parent to see if it could boost my own mental health — and if it’s something parents should strive to meet for their mental well-being.
Self-Determination Pillar #1: Competence
Assessing My Competence: When it comes to being competent, I tend to focus on assessing my professional competence. If my capacity as a writer and journalist were charted in a line graph, I’m looking for an upward trend over time.
In the context of Self-Determination theory, my competence has granted me a certain level of autonomy in my work. After being laid off from a full-time media position, I have managed to be my own boss for the past year, and I’m pretty proud of that. But competency can also have to do with our relationships, and as a single woman in my mid-30s, this is arguably an area where I’m lacking.
Finding New Competence: Luckily, and ironically, you don’t have to overthink competency. Competence can be as simple as “I did a really good job steaming these vegetables,” Whitbourne says. “It can just be a little everyday activity that you step back and take pride in.”
In an effort to increase my competence and attend to my relationships simultaneously, I decided to let my dad teach me something new: how to swing a golf club. Having recently moved walking distance from a driving range in the suburbs of Chicago, he eagerly obliged, and even brought my mom’s spare set of lefty clubs so I could get a feel for both sides. This made sense, as I’m a lifelong righty who swung a softball bat left-handed in my youth because it put me closer to first base.
After a few attempts with two different 7-irons, it became clear that I was not ambidextrous, and had mostly been a clever kid who hated running. Since golfing required no such sprints, I learned I was officially right-handed. Competence achievement unlocked.
Competence For Life: The takeaway for myself and parents alike is that you can take a class or get a certification that might further your career or increase your autonomy at work. But you don’t necessarily have to go that route. Staying competent can be as simple as picking up a new hobby or trying a new activity. You don’t even have to be very good at it to appreciate that after trying it, you were better than when you started.
“You don’t have to feel like competence means you’re brilliant at something — all competence means is good enough,” Whitbourne says. For me, the novelty of trying something new with someone I care about, along with the rush of hitting a few golf balls, was enough to increase my well-being.
Self-Determination Pillar #2: Relatedness
Assessing My Relatedness: As close as my dad and I are, it took a trip to the driving range to realize that we rarely spent much time together, just the two of us. Likewise, the last time he taught me anything about sports, I wasn’t old enough to vote.
Additionally, I’ve had to adopt an “it takes a village mentality” with my parents, who have experienced a number of serious, and at times debilitating, health problems over the past three years. Between hospitalizations, rides to doctors’ appointments, and trips to the grocery store, I’ve relied on my brother, sister-in-law, aunts, uncles, and family friends, logistically and emotionally. I’ve made connections with new people who have experienced caring for sick parents, and these friendships have given me much needed perspective.
Finding New Relatedness: Whitbourne stresses that sources of support outside the home are crucial for the mental health of moms and dads. The best way for parents to nurture the relationships in their lives is to fight the urge to isolate when the stressors of life wear on you, and instead “shore up” with other parents going through similar things — similar to how I made friends with other people caring for sick parents. So make an effort to get to know other parents and grab an occasional coffee in between playdates.
Since I moved back to Chicago, where my parents live, in August 2020 when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, my dad and I have spent a lot of time together that wasn’t as easy as swinging a golf club. We’re lucky and grateful that my mom has been in remission for the past year and change, but none of it has been without complications or stress. In three years of ample time together, little has been light.
As I wildly swung and missed the golf ball below me for a third time, it was like a time warp back when my dad was coaching me in youth sports and the encouragement he gave me. A few decades and buckets of golf balls later, it was nice to return to that feeling.
Relatedness For Life: Ultimately, in times of stress and even crisis, relationships have made everything more bearable for me. That’s why of all the three basic needs outlined in Self-Determination Theory, relationships may be the most important category, because without them it “constricts all three areas,” Whitbourne warns.
In many ways, it makes sense why relationships are so closely tied to well-being in the scientific literature. You can learn as many new skills as you want, and have all the autonomy in the world, but without people to share those talents and privileges with, then these things aren’t going to move the needle much in terms of happiness. As a consolation prize, you might end up looking like a smug jerk.
Relationships can also help parents compensate for deficits in autonomy and competence when raising young children, Whitbourne says, because they remind moms and dads that they’re not alone. “If you felt like you were the only person doing this…that’s what really can detract from well-being.”
Self-Determination Pillar #3: Autonomy
Assessing My Autonomy: After working for myself as a freelancer for the past year, I’ve developed so much autonomy that I’m worried it has eclipsed my relationships and competence. I love the freedom I have to structure my days and deadlines in a way that full-time employment rarely allows. However, this experiment illuminated how the hustle associated with working for myself had kept me from learning new things, building new relationships, and nurturing old ones.
For parents, it works the opposite way. When you have a tiny, dependent human to take care of, autonomy is one of the first things that’s lost. But, as Turbiville points out, the toll parenthood takes on autonomy is somewhat American, and other countries like Sweden and Germany have policies that foster better work-life balance, provide universal healthcare, and are generally more supportive to families.
“These are the things that will give people the autonomy to develop whatever kind of competence or relatedness would feel fulfilling to them,” Turbiville says. “Mental wellness would almost certainly follow.”
Finding New Autonomy: In lieu of massive systemic change, Whitbourne recommends that parents find smaller ways to express themselves in their lives, a concept she refers to as “controlled autonomy.” For instance, you might not be able to tell your boss that they have a terrible idea, but through your competence and relationships with your colleagues, you might be able to advocate for an alternative plan. Or in the context of parenthood, expressing your frustration to other parents in the day to day may make you feel just a bit more like an independent being.
As an unencumbered fun aunt, the last thing I needed was more autonomy. But Self-Determination Theory put into perspective that I could give up some of that autonomy for the sake of my relationships, even if it just means taking more regular trips to the driving range with my dad.
Autonomy For Life: In the end, autonomy is important, but it’s not the only ingredient in a happy life. So if you’re having a hard time hanging onto your autonomy while raising young kids, rest assured that you will get it back one day, and that you can compensate for a lack of it in the meantime.
What’s really imperative is that you’re living in line with who you truly are. The three needs outlined in Self-Determination Theory provide a solid framework to do that, by focusing on internal goals that you can control, over external goals, which are harder to harness.
“Don’t try to hit the ball, Laur,” my dad told me as I squared up my stance on the driving range. “Just get the form right, and eventually the ball will get in the way.” And when I finally listened to him, I hit a few balls further than expected.
That’s really what Self-Determination Theory is all about. You’re not going to nail it with your mental health every time. But if you focus on the fundamentals that SDT provides, you’ll likely get a lot further than you would otherwise.