If your childhood was less than ideal, you’re not alone. Many of us have experienced childhoods that included family turmoil, unstable living conditions, violence between caregivers, betrayal, abandonment, emotional or physical abuse, or neglect. These kinds of traumatic experiences often trigger a pattern where instability, unpredictability, or inconsistency leads to one or more of a child’s basic needs going unmet.
How a child sees themselves and how they engage with their world are products of biology and environment, which includes their mental schemas being formed. Schemas formed in childhood walk hand in hand with how consistently a child receives their most basic needs. When a schema is formed based on a healthy upbringing, these typically generalize to healthy and adaptive adult schemas, which further generalize into healthy romantic relationships.
On the flip side, if an unhealthy schema is formed in childhood, it can distort how an event is responded to both emotionally and behaviorally. Thus, traumatic experiences often leave a child with “holes” in their emotional development that remain unmet even when they are adults.
For example, a child who is allowed to do whatever they want without limits may grow up developing an air of entitlement where they believe relationship rules do not apply to them. Similarly, a child that is raised by emotionally negligent parents or with caregivers who do not provide nurturance, guidance, or let the child feel seen and heard may develop a schema that others are not to be trusted and will never provide the love or acceptance they need.
These schemas operate on an unconscious level where early patterns replay in a person’s adult relationships. Hence, schemas that are dysfunctional and self-limiting may “feel right” because the person is choosing toxic relationships that resonate as “familiar” or “comfortable” with their existing unhealthy schemas.
The following are three unmet childhood needs that can cause emotional and relational issues in a person’s adult life.
1. Safety. Safety needs include safety, security, trust, predictability, reliability, consistency, nurturance, and guidance. If a child cannot feel safe in their environment or trust that their caregivers are going to be there for them consistently and reliably, these wounds typically create attachment trauma and adult relational problems that can resonate with fears of emotional intimacy and vulnerability. Most notable is when a child experiences emotional or physical abandonment or betrayal from a parent or primary caregiver.
When safety needs are missing or incomplete in childhood, this can set a person up for an adulthood of “chasing” safety in their romantic relationships. This dynamic is commonly seen in the “rescuer/victim” dynamic where a person who has unmet needs may look outward at their significant other to “fix” or “save” them, or they may overcompensate for a lack of feeling safe by being controlling or a “fixer” in their relationships.
Other common red flags that result from unmet safety needs include internal schemas that resonate with not feeling “good enough,” or that “everyone will eventually abandon them." In adult romantic relationships, an unmet need for safety can generalize to patterns of being controlling, manipulative, or a personality disorder such as narcissistic personality disorder.
2. Autonomy. Autonomy is defined as our ability to know who we are at our core, and to act on our feelings, beliefs, and interests. Our development of self-love and self-trust is fundamental to having a sense of autonomy.
When a child’s basic needs for independence and autonomy are not met, this can create developmental “holes” where they may have gone unseen, unheard, or controlled as a child. If a child is not taught how to be autonomous, they are also not being taught how to establish a sense of self-identity, or how to trust their judgment. Mental schemas that may have developed in childhood as a result of this dynamic may include beliefs that they are incapable of caring for themselves, or that others are needed to turn to for the “right” answer.
In a person’s adult relationships, a lack of autonomy can predispose them to “mirroring” others as a way of trying to gain a sense of self, or they may have a constant need for external validation (“people-pleasing”) as a way of gauging their behavior through the “approval” of others. Because of these needs-deficits, a person may appear “clingy” and unable to advocate for themselves, may not be able to make their own choices, or may constantly turn to their partner as having the answers.
3. Love. Parents or primary caregivers who are neglectful, self-absorbed, abusive, critical, or absentee can instill feelings of invalidation, not being “good enough,” or establishing a pattern of pathological romantic relationships as a way of “attaching” to another in an attempt of getting an unmet need for love met.
When there is a lack of love in childhood, it typically predisposes a child to not understanding what love is. Instead, children raised without feeling a sense of love may become adults who confuse sex as intimacy, codependency as love, or abuse as a connection. A lack of love in childhood can place an adult at an increased risk for mental health issues including major depression, substance abuse, and low self-worth. Or compulsive behaviors toward love.