Recognising our needs - throughout our lives


If I asked you to make a list of things you consider to be "grown up" and another with things you consider to be "childlike", my guess is that you would put down certain objects, behaviour, ways of communicating, and interests. It is less likely that you would put down basic needs; everyone needs food, drink, shelter, clothing - these things are neither "childish" nor "for adults". But there are other needs which we have throughout our lives that, somewhere along the way, end up on one of these two lists. Things that people are often less willing to give children than adults - like answers to their questions, or a degree of control - and things which get labelled as "childish" and are more easily dismissed or ridiculed in adulthood - such as physical comfort or the need to move about regularly.

No one quite knows when it is, but it's generally accepted that there is an age after which it is no longer OK to take a teddy bear out to the shops with you, and an age after which you should be able to sit and concentrate quietly without issue. We start to listen to a general set of rules and learn what is "acceptable" to expect and ask for rather than focusing on what we need and knowing that it is OK to ask for that.

I think the expectation that we will grow out of having certain needs starts quite young. Children get told that they are big as though it's an achievement, and are praised for leaving behind "childish" things. My dad always used to make a very useful distinction between "childlike" and "childish" - there are lots of wonderful things about being like a child. My toddler will follow other children around at the park and smile and try to talk to them because he just wants to connect with them. He asks for a cuddle as soon as he wants one. Children find wonder in the smallest things, they want to create things, they generally don't worry about things that aren't their responsibility. There is a lot of freedom and joy in acknowledging that these parts of us still exist. There are also measurable benefits to nurturing them - playfulness in adults is associated with lower levels of stress, better relationships, creative thinking and problem solving.

We also need to be aware that children have needs that we might assume they won't until they are older, such as honesty and clarity. Saying "because I said so" or trying to distract them so they will forget they have asked you a question is not respectful - you would not do that to another adult - and research suggests that children whose parents are more dishonest with them grow up to become more dishonest with their parents in adolescence and adulthood.

Another problem is, of course, that the rules that get created around what we should need - and how we should feel or behave or think - are a bit different everywhere. What your family expected of you was not necessarily the same as the school you went to, and how you feel able to express yourself amongst your friends might be quite different to in your workplace. We can become quite skilled at suppressing ourselves in certain contexts, especially when this feels like a necessary strategy for survival, but this creates a disconnect where we become less and less in tune with who we are and find it hard to trust ourselves.

One classic example of this is when it comes to the need for food. Rather than trust our bodies to tell us what we need and when, we learn to restrict eating to certain times of the day, we label foods acceptable at some meals and not others (why is pizza not a breakfast item? why is cereal not OK to have for lunch?), and we go so far as to label foods "bad" or "good" and deny ourselves what we want. We demonise cravings rather than trying to understand them, we praise exerting self-control over these undesirable cues, we do not believe that given free reign we would eat anything other than cake. We essentially learn to judge what our bodies tell us and try to fit in with what we have been told is the 'correct' way to eat. Though of course, everyone will tell you something a little different, and anyone who claims to have found the ultimate answer has to ignore cultural diversity as well as individual differences.

How then might we understand this when it comes to our emotional needs? We never stop having our needs. We might learn that others feel more comfortable if we don't express them, or that they don't always get met or respected. We might learn to hide them away, even from ourselves. But this doesn't mean that we ever stop having them. Research suggests that the more we try to suppress our emotions, the stronger they become, and this means that we have to go to more and more extreme lengths to continue to suppress them. Some of the consequences of this can be addiction, aggression, depression, and increased risk of physical health conditions such as cardiovascular disease. Emotional suppression also impacts our social lives; a study looking at transition to university in the USA (a significant time of changing expectations and young people having to work out for themselves how they get their needs met) found that students' emotional suppression was predictive of lower social support, less closeness to others, and lower social satisfaction.

If we want to feel comfortable in who we are, and with the people around us, it is important that we understand what our needs are, how we get them met, and how we can ask for them to be met. This is an ongoing process of knowing ourselves better, appreciating how we differ from others, and becoming more comfortable discussing differences with curiosity and compassion. Not everyone's need for physical comfort, for example, is going to be met in the same way, or to the same degree. From early on you will see children who seek out a brief cuddle when they scrape their knee and then they are off on their own again, while others will be very tactile with other people and soft toys almost constantly. Neither of these children are doing it wrong, they are just different. The first child is not automatically 'aloof', nor is the second 'needy'. In both childhood and adulthood we can clearly see individual differences when it comes to what constitutes 'play'; whether it's cars, dolls, swings, colouring, reading, cocktails, hikes, spa trips or golfing, our own preferences and experiences mean that what nurtures this side of us can be really quite diverse.

We can see growing up as being a process of constant change, leaving behind old parts of ourselves to make way for new ones. In my roles as therapist and coach, I believe that the goal is growth rather than change. Change implies something is wrong and needs to go; growth is about using what is already there to create something more. Growth involves an increase in self-awareness, and valuing what we see in us, looking for ways to work with, not against, who we are. An oak tree looks very different to an acorn - we would say they are completely different things. But an acorn weathers its environment, using everything it is, to become something only it can become. It does not try to be a fir tree, or a cat. It has not left behind its roots.

It is hard to get back in touch with ourselves. To wade through assumptions and opinions, to believe that we know ourselves better than others do, and to be brave enough to stand firm, proud of your oak branches, even if it feels like the world is telling you to be a daisy. But I believe it is worth the effort. I believe that you are worth deeply knowing.

What did you love to do when you were a child?
When do you feel most like yourself?
When do you feel most unsettled?
What would you ask for from others if you were certain they would take you seriously?


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2. Guitard, P., Ferland, F., & Dutil, É. (2005). Toward a better understanding of playfulness in adults. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health, 25(1), 9-22.

3. Setoh, P., Zhao, S., Santos, R., Heyman, G. D., & Lee, K. (2020). Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 189, 104680.

4. Vohs, K. D., Glass, B. D., Maddox, W. T., & Markman, A. B. (2011). Ego depletion is not just fatigue: Evidence from a total sleep deprivation experiment. Social psychological and personality Science, 2(2), 166-173.

5. Mauss, I. B., & Gross, J. J. (2004). Emotion suppression and cardiovascular disease. In: Nyklícek, I., Temoshok, L., & Vingerhoets, A. (Eds.). Emotional expression and health: Advances in theory, assessment and clinical applications. Routledge. pp.60-80.

6. Srivastava, S., Tamir, M., McGonigal, K. M., John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2009). The social costs of emotional suppression: a prospective study of the transition to college. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(4), 883-897.

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