How Unmet Childhood Needs Shape Your Life

The way we were raised shapes the way we experience the world today, for good or bad. Sometimes, wounds from childhood leave us hurting or sensitive as adults. Unmet childhood needs may affect our relationships now. A key unmet childhood need is the need for unconditional love and acceptance that was not given when we were children. Is this a concern? Should we try to resolve it? The answer is: Yes.

Why resolve unmet childhood needs?

We are at our most vulnerable when we are in deep relationships, first as a child within the context of our family and then as an adult in our intimate relationships. Experiencing less than healthy family dynamics as a child will create unmet childhood needs, and those needs we carry with us into our present intimate relationships. The cognitive message we might have absorbed in childhood is, "You are not worthy of being loved." If not dealt with, that message can lead you to distance yourself from deep, loving relationships of any sort. Or, you might be reluctant to let anyone see you for who you are because “who you are” does not feel good enough to be loved. Yet, love is a core need—that is how God created us.

Unmet childhood needs affect intimate relationships

If we have not addressed those unmet childhood needs, we will likely choose intimate relationships, at least on an unconscious level, that give some love and comfort but also push our emotional buttons--causing conflicts, confusion, disagreement, and arguments. We keep gravitating toward people that remind us of our parents hoping this time they will love us better. Too often, the same flaws our parents had show up in the adults we choose, and the pattern repeats.

Gravitating towards familiar relationships

We all have a conscious list of what we are looking for in our intimate relationships. Is he or she attractive and romantic? Financially stable and ambitious? Responsible and dependable? Spiritual and religious? Adventurous and fun to be with?

What many of us do not realize, however, is that we have an unconscious list as well. That unconscious list are needs we never received as a child: emotional attachment, security & safety, belonging, connection, and fulfillment.

In our adult relationships, we find ourselves drawn towards love that feels familiar and comfortable. This is not about replicating exactly the relationship you had with father or mother, but rather about being drawn to something we recognize; for example, we find ourselves in a relationship with someone who is strong yet also critical like our father. Or nurturing yet somewhat passive like our mother, or a partner who is fun but emotionally unavailable.

If as a child, your parents did not implement emotionally healthy boundaries, you may feel as if you are being smothered, neglected, or abandoned in your present relationship. Without emotionally healthy boundaries growing up, you will tend to gravitate towards people that are similarly passive and who have a difficult time saying no to you.

Still, our unconscious longing in intimate relationships is for the other person to meet those emotional needs of love that never were met in childhood. We want a mate who will know us and love us perfectly, anticipating and meeting our needs before we even ask. Is this a realistic expectation? If we are honest with ourselves, the answer is: No! Why? It’s because we are all flawed, human, have limitations, and can never truly meet or resolve ours or someone else’s full need for love. God tells us that all of mankind is sinful. “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins” (Romans 3:23, 24).

Resolve unmet childhood needs

First, it helps to understand, that everything our parents did was from one of two places: their love for us or the unconscious patterns that their parents passed down to them. All of us, regardless of how wonderful our parents were or weren’t, have some needs that went unmet or that weren’t met enough. All of us are broken, and we're usually doing the best we can. Knowing that your parents loved you as best as they were able is also a step toward resolving old wounds.

Second, change the cognitive script away from those childhood messages in which others make us feel defeated toward the messages of love from our Creator. God loves you because he made you. Changing the cognitive script to what God says will meet our needs for unconditional love in ways that broken people never will.

We might say, “She’s so critical—I can’t do anything right! My dad was like that—I could never please him.” God says, “The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:13). The Apostle Paul said: “I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God…” (Galatians 1:10).

We say, “He never listens to me—he doesn’t care how I feel—nobody cares how I feel! My parents never listened to me either—I never was heard—my feelings did not count.” God says, “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry” (Psalm 34:15). The psalmist said of God: “I love the Lord because he hears my voice…because he bends down to listen.” (Psalm 116:1, 2).

Third, change the focus away from looking to our present intimate relationships to meet all our needs for love toward looking to God and his unconditional love for us and allowing him to meet all our emotional needs. Your partner is only human, and will never know you as deeply as God does. You'll have to ask to make your needs known. You'll have to expect occasional disappointment in your partner's ability. But God will always have his eye on you.

Meeting all our emotional needs

So, what’s the solution to meeting all our emotional needs? The Bible says, “God is love…” (1 John 4:8). If we invite God into our relationship, he tells us, I have loved you with an everlasting love; with unfailing love, I have drawn you to myself (Jeremiah 31:3). When each partner places their emotional foundation in the God of love, the cognitive scripts of unmet childhood needs can be changed by embracing God’s eternal and unchangeable love. Each person in the relationship becomes adopted as Gods’ own children who can call him, "Abba, Father" (Romans 8:15). Finally, the Bible proclaims, “See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1). All our emotional needs are met in the God who is love.

About the author — Linda Ostlund, MA, LCPC

Linda is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor at Chicago Christian Counseling Center. Together, she and her clients have explored issues such as trauma, anxiety, anger, low self-esteem, sexuality, impulsive and at-risk behaviors, life transitions, single-parent and child conflicts, and everyday stresses and concerns. Linda personally knows the feelings of vulnerability in seeking counseling and the courageous endeavor to grow emotionally. She believes that God gives empowerment toward change.

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