Probably one of the most expected questions to be asked in therapy. You know, the kind of question you know is coming and yet, when asked, you don’t even know where to start—or why you’re talking about what family dinners did, or didn’t, look like all that time ago.
It may feel silly and unproductive to talk about what it was like growing up, but the truth is that through such conversation, a lot can be learned about how we interact with the world around us and why.
Think about it: our very first understandings of the world were developed through childhood experiences with our family, friends, community, etc. Through interactions with those around us, we were taught communication styles, how to love, how to set boundaries, how to respond to someone who has upset us, and so on. Beyond just interacting with other people, we were also taught how to interact with the world around us: what was safe, what was not safe, and what to expect back from the world.
Our childhoods consist of interacting with a great, big, unknown world, and are a time of constant new experiences and new lessons. It can be scary, confusing, and exciting all at the same time, and it requires support and guidance from others. In order to grow up into a confident, self-assured adult who knows when to take risks, how to set boundaries, how to show and accept love, and when to set boundaries, we need a childhood during which these things are taught.
These needs, also known also emotional needs, lay the foundation for children to lead fulfilling, authentic lives, and when consistently met, improves a child’s mental health, social skills, self-confidence, self-esteem, and emotional lookout on life (Mental Health America, 2020).
Some basic emotional needs that children require from their caretakers are (Mental Health America, 2020):
- Unconditional love:
- Children need to know they are and will be loved, regardless of their mistakes and separate from any accomplishments. Children will make mistakes and be defeated—it is natural and expected. Acceptance and support that does not hinge on their abilities fosters confidence in a child.
- Nurturing of self-confidence and self-esteem: praise, setting realistic goals, honesty, support, encouragement
- Praising children for their accomplishments helps them develop a desire to try new things, and reassurance while they are exploring new things (such as a smile and a nod while their testing out the sandbox at the playground for the first time) helps children feel more confident in process of learning/exploring new things (which, let’s be honest, can be scary sometimes!).
- It’s important that children have realistic goals given their abilities, since having unrealistic and unattainable goals only sets a child up to fail. Helping a child set attainable goals allows them to improve their abilities and confidence, since success it a viable outcome.
- Caregivers being honest about mistakes they make help a child understand that such experiences are universal, and nobody is perfect. When children view mistakes as a part of life rather than an internal fault, it is less likely that their confidence or drive will be shaken when they do not succeed at something the first time around.
- When a child does make a mistake or feels defeated, it is important for them to be met with support and reassurance. Losing a soccer game or failing a test can feel defeating to children. In such moments, caregivers should talk with their children to gain an understanding of how they are processing the event and what they need in order to feel better (A pep talk, maybe? Just some time to feel sad about it?)
- Encouraging children to try new things (a sport, making new friends, learning something new, etc.) aids in building their self-esteem, curiosity, and social skills. Encouragement should be focused on a child enjoying the process of learning and exploring just as much as it is on doing their best.
- A safe and secure environment:
- As a reminder, a world that may feel very predictable and familiar to adults does not always feel that way to a child. Children are constantly coming into contact with new things, and some fear and anxiety is a natural part of that learning process. When speaking with children about their fears or anxieties, a caregiver should be understanding, patient, and reassuring; it is important that a child’s feeling of fear or anxiety be validated as real, because it is.
- Appropriate guidelines and guidance:
- Guidelines help children learn what behaviors are acceptable verse unacceptable and that they are responsible for their actions. Behavioral conduct and social skills taught in the home transfer to how children conduct themselves outside of the home. Guidelines should be fair and appropriate, expectations should be realistic, and guidance should be firm and kind. While guidelines do need to be enforced, inducing fear as a means to do so can be detrimental for a child’s sense of security and safety.
- Appropriate play and socialization with other children:
- Play helps children learn social skills and how to appropriately interact with others their age. Play is meant to induce joy, so it is helpful when caregivers stray from asking if a child did well (e.g., won the game of tag they were playing) and rather ask if they had fun. As mentioned earlier, focusing on the process rather than the outcome helps a child feel more confident in exploring new things.
The emotional needs outlined above are representative of the most basic requirements that need to be fulfilled for a child to flourish mentally and emotionally, but it is by no means an exhaustive list. Anytime a child’s emotions are treated as invalid, unimportant, excessive, or go unacknowledged, their needs are neglected.
While some caregivers do consciously and purposefully ignore their child’s emotional needs, emotional neglect is often unintentional and may occur for a variety of reasons. For example, a caregiver may have not had their own emotional needs met as a child and therefore not know how to fulfill the emotional needs of a child they are responsible for. Even caregivers who do their best and love their children very much may fall short of fulfilling their child’s emotional needs.
However, whether intentional or not, emotional neglect can lead to long-standing, negative affects on those who are subjected to it. When a child’s emotions are invalidated or questioned, they receive a subliminal message that their needs are unimportant or that their emotions are wrong. In order to cope, children may repress their true emotions or find unhealthy ways of coping with them. For instance, children who have their emotional needs neglected may grow into adults who:
- Find it difficult to trust others
- Have trouble asking for what they need from others
- Experience feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and/or low self-esteem
- Often mistrust their own feelings and feelings expressed by others
- Find it difficult to express their own emotions
- Fear conflict or criticism
- Fear failure
- Become overwhelmed easily and give up quickly
- Reject the support, help, or care of others due to a fear of relying on others
- Believe they are deeply flawed and believe that “something” is wrong or missing
(Sources: “9 Signs of Childhood Emotional Neglect, and 3 Ways to Heal” by Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T.; Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families by Charles L. Whitfield M.D.)
The negative consequences of emotional needs not being met during childhood can be a frustrating experience, and it can sometimes feel like there is nothing that can be done to address such deep-seeded hurt. However, healing is possible and leads to living a more fulfilling, authentic life. Therapy is a good place to begin exploring and understanding how your childhood influences you and how you interact with the world today. A trained therapist can help you in identifying your emotions, your needs, and how to open yourself up to trusting and relying on others for help.
If any part of this blog resonated with you but you don’t know where to begin, the clinicians at Gateway to Solutions are happy to help you begin to navigate your past and grow into your future.
Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families by Charles L. Whitfield M.D