“We are only as needy as our unmet needs” – John Bowlby.
Childhood experiences and relationships shape who we become and determine how we act as adults. The degree to which our basic needs were met as children can affect relationships, mental health, and feelings of security and safety and can also cause us to develop schemas.
Unmet needs in childhood can be caused by a wide variety of factors such as parental illness or incarceration, poverty and displacement, a lack of love and attention, and undiagnosed health conditions or disorders such as autism spectrum disorder. For some, identifying their unmet needs in childhood is a simple process. However, for many people, it is not immediately clear and can take years of therapy to work out.
Through understanding how your childhood has impacted your present self, you can begin to heal yourself by addressing the original wounds caused by the unmet needs that resulted in the self-protective behaviors or responses that are now causing problems or posing challenges in your life.
Common Unmet Needs
The list of unmet needs in childhood that can cause maladaptive coping mechanisms, mental health issues, or schemas is inexhaustible. However, it is helpful to know some of the most common unmet needs in childhood and how they can affect development.
Security is one of the most fundamental needs for healthy development, yet people grow up with widely varying levels of security for a wide range of reasons. Many people may initially think of security as having stable housing, finances, and employment. It is true that a lack of these resources can increase the chances of certain health conditions as well as affect our sense of security as adults.
Recent sociological evidence suggests that eviction is not merely a symptom of adverse social conditions but also a significant cause of future adversity.  Additionally, converging research indicates that food insecurity impacts children’s ability to reach their full physical, cognitive, and psychosocial potential.  Food insecurity is associated with behavioral, academic, and emotional problems spanning from infancy to adolescence in addition to causing internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors  that can lead to social isolation, lack of self-esteem and trouble forming relationships.
Lesser-known types of security unrelated to socioeconomic status can also influence development. Children who grow up with parents who over-criticize and under-encourage them can struggle to develop a sense of security in their abilities. Parents who expect high levels of achievement and provide an appraisal of the accomplishment of these goals as opposed to effort can also undermine their children’s belief in their own abilities and can cause children to develop an external locus of control. This means they introject their parents’ values and base their sense of self-worth on the conditions of worth acquired in childhood. This external evaluation process can be carried into adulthood and in many cases causes people to introject the values of others – such as intimate partners or a significant other – and base their self-worth on their ability to fulfill the expectations and beliefs of those around them.
This can result in maladaptive patterns of behavior, low self-esteem, and incongruence – which means that we act to fulfill the desires of others instead of being driven by our own interests and beliefs.
Social-emotional development begins with the first bond you make – most often with parents – and the relationship you develop with this primary caregiver. The type of relationships that are formed during early life serves as a model for relationships and interactions throughout childhood and adolescence and can have life-long effects unless it is understood and addressed.
Attachment theory explains that if a child’s needs are not consistently met during early development, then they will develop one of three styles of insecure attachment: anxious, avoidant, or ambivalent.
Anxious attachment is often associated with an inconsistent parenting pattern, meaning that parents respond to a child’s needs on certain occasions but not others. Sometimes, parents will be supportive, loving, and responsive to the child’s needs, yet at other times, they will be misattuned, leaving the child to cry alone, not recognizing they are hungry, or responding with anger and frustration. This inconsistency can make it difficult for the child to understand what the parent’s response means, and they are often left to wonder whether it is because of something they have done wrong and to question what kind of response they can expect in the future. Research shows that children who are inconsistently spoken to, left to cry themselves out, have little opportunity to explore their environment, or who experience frequent anger or boredom cannot fully develop their potential. It can also lead to a distorted perception of how relationships work and adversely affect relationships in adulthood.
Avoidant attachment develops when a child’s caregivers demonstrate that people cannot be relied on as a result of their not meeting the child’s needs. This is most often related to emotional needs and frequently occurs when emotional support was not consistently provided when a child sought it. Often, people with avoidant attachment appear confident, strong, and together, with high self-esteem and strong independence. However, they often struggle internally with intimacy or close relationships in which they are expected to express emotional vulnerability. This can make it incredibly challenging for those with an avoidant attachment style to form lasting relationships and can cause hurt and frustration in the relationships that they have.
The most challenging type of insecure attachment is the disorganized attachment style. This is most often observed in those who have been physically, verbally, or sexually abused in childhood. This attachment style develops when a young child’s primary caregivers – who are their only source of security and safety – become a source of fear and do not meet the child’s fundamental needs. As adults, people with disorganized attachment styles are inconsistent in their behavior and find it incredibly difficult to trust others. They may also have developed mental health issues as a result of their upbringing, such as substance abuse, depression, disassociative identity disorder, or borderline personality disorder. As a result of unmet needs in childhood, those with disorganized attachment learn to view attachment figures – who were once the parents and are now a partner – as unpredictable. In adulthood, it is accompanied by the belief that because rejection, disappointment, and hurt are inevitable, their partner will never love and support them as they are.
Meeting Your Needs
While this summary focuses on common ways that needs are not met in childhood and the lifelong effect that this can have, there are countless other ways in which inconsistency or complete lack of parental support can cause problems in adulthood.
Addressing these problems by getting to the root of their origin is often explored most successfully in therapy, although many embark on a journey to identify these on their own. While identifying the root of issues caused by unmet needs can result in increased awareness of oneself and understanding of behavior patterns, changing these can take time. Addressing the original wounds that led to your current coping mechanisms is the first step to fulfilling your own needs and living a more fulfilling life.
“Every criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic expression of an unmet need.” ~ Marshall B. Rosenberg
 Leifheit, K. M., Schwartz, G. L., Pollack, C. E., Black, M. M., Edin, K. J., Althoff, K. N., & Jennings, J. M. (2020). Eviction in early childhood and neighborhood poverty, food security, and obesity in later childhood and adolescence: Evidence from a longitudinal birth cohort. SSM – population health, 11, 100575. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2020.100575
 Grineski, S. E., Morales, D. X., Collins, T. W., & Rubio, R. (2018). Transitional Dynamics of Household Food Insecurity Impact Children’s Developmental Outcomes. Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics : JDBP, 39(9), 715–725. https://doi.org/10.1097/DBP.0000000000000598
 Malik, F., & Marwaha, R. (2022). Developmental Stages of Social-Emotional Development In Children. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.
 Bowlby J. Attachment and loss. Vol 1, Attachment. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis; 1969. pp. 1–401.
 Avoidant attachment style: Causes and adult symptoms. Attachment Project. (2022, September 12). Retrieved January 10, 2023, from https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/avoidant-attachment-style/
Disorganized attachment style: Everything you need to know. Attachment Project. (2022, September 12). Retrieved January 10, 2023, from https://www.attachmentproject.com/blog/disorganized-attachment/