Discussion Individuals

How our childhood needs can persist into adulthood

Someone may come across as an intelligent, accomplished, confident person and yet in their close relationships they feel consistently let down.

Whoever they find themselves with there is a strong probability the other person will disappoint them.

Often when I talk with clients about their childhoods they may describe an environment in which their material needs were met but where one or both  parents were a little distant, or absent, or critical.

“It’s ok,” they may say, “my parents did their best”.

And it may be true that their parents did their best and we should not underestimate providing food, shelter, birthday presents, holidays and all the other things many parents give their children.

But, as Austrian-born psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut pointed out, children need more than to be fed, clothed and receive material comfort from their parents. 

One of the fundamental needs of all children, believed Kohut, was for one or both parents to ‘mirror’ the child. By this he meant to take delight in the child and to communicate that he or she is wonderful and special. 

Of course, no parent can provide this mirroring all the time and, in fact, it’s good for the child’s development that there are times when it does not happen, as the child can then draw on the experience of parental mirroring to soothe themselves. 

But when there is not sufficient mirroring – perhaps because a parent is depressed, insecure or was not sufficiently cherished by their own parents – the child’s development is affected. 

He or she may then feel a gnawing lack of self-worth and seek to compensate in a variety of ways. These may include by over achieving and needing to be ‘special’, in other words we continue to try and get others to provide for us what our parents failed to.

One of the interesting aspects of this view is the suggestion that even as adults we continue to try and get these childhood needs met, even though we may not be aware that that is what we are doing.

Many of us believe that, as adults, we need to ‘put away childish things’, as the bible says. But actually, it is about recognising the continued influence of our childhood’s unmet needs.

The more we can make these unmet needs conscious, the more chance we have of not being dominated by them. This is, of course, a process that takes time and one that may include grieving over what we didn’t receive. Therapy is one place where we can be supported in this grief process.

The grieving process allows us, in time, to make peace with ourselves and, hopefully, our parents or caregivers. By allowing ourselves to grieve we can also, gradually, develop the capacity to give ourselves the love and empathy that can help us let go of the need to try and manipulate others into meeting our needs.

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By Patrick McCurry

I'm a psychotherapist based in Canary Wharf, London, and Eastbourne, UK.

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