The Unmet Need

Oh, unmet needs!

The kids that come into our homes most certainly come with these. We often have them. And these little suckers are what… well… often suck the life out of us, whether it is helping the children in our care heal from them or healing from our own.

What is an unmet need?

We as human beings have basic emotional needs. We need to feel safe. We need to feel belonging. Capable. Loved. A sense of control in our lives. Cared for. Pleasure. As though our physical needs will be met (food, shelter). Understood. While this is not an exhaustive list, these all play a vital role in our emotional well-being. And these all most often are met by our parents or caregivers.

When a mother comes to a newborn baby with food as that child cries out with hunger, the baby learns to feel safe, loved, and cared for. When a toddler throws a fit as another child takes a beloved toy, a parent who comes with compassion and nurturance (rather than punitive demands) teaches that child they are understood. An eight year old running around the backyard deep in the heart of imagination and laughter learns they can have a sense of pleasure. As a teenager explores different “cliques” within the love and safety of the parent’s direction, they begin to have a sense of understanding their identity and knowing they are safe.

These needs are not necessarily stated thoughts, but more a way that our bodies and minds store information. This is greatly linked to our threat response system. For lack of space, when children are secure in these basic human needs, this leaves their neurological system feeling safe to thrive. When these needs are lacking or deplete, children’s neurological systems leave them in survival. Which makes sense. All human beings need to have a sense of these.

When parents and caregivers are caught in their own mess of hurt (unmet needs), they often lack in meeting these needs in children. This becomes quite the perpetuating cycle, because as you may guess the children who grow up in their emotional mess will parent… well, you get the point.

So, let’s look at the converse. When parents are emotionally distant, children learn that they are not understood or cared for. They may learn that they are not loved. When parents act in abusive ways, children learn they are not safe. Not loved. When parents place an undue emotional burden on children, these children learn they are not cared for. When a children lives in poverty and their need for shelter or food is not met, these children learn that they will not be safe and their physical needs will not be met. Again these unmet needs may not be within a cognitive awareness, but a storing of information within the body and mind (sound too psycho-analytical? Look up the vagus nerve… this is hard science, my friend :P).

When I initially shared my unmet needs in my confessions of a foster parent, these messages were stored in my body. When a fear around my unmet need arose, my body would freak out (for lack of better words). Fears around stored unmeet needs trigger people into their threat response system (hint, hint: this is very helpful in raising children in foster care, in addition to our own healing). As we begin to understand these needs, and these triggers we can begin to learn to meet these needs for ourselves and to regulate around these fears.

For my peeps who, like me, love examples, this is for you. Let’s say for instance that a person was raised in a home of chaos. The chaos prevented the parents from being emotionally available for the child. What might a child learn from this? I am not cared for. I will never have pleasure in life (because I’m trying to survive through chaos). I will never have a sense of control in my life. Fast forward to adulthood. Without parental intervention, these messages will store within that person’s body. As an adult, a fear around losing control may trigger that adult in the threat response system (which by the way is 100% reactionary). Meaning, they may freak out (for lack of better words) when they sense of loss of control. When our hypothetical person fears they are not cared for, they will go into their threat response system.

How does this relate to foster care? As the grownups, in caring for children many fears arise that trigger our unmet needs. I will never be valuable translation: I will try to find my value through fostering but when the child doesn’t “get better” the fear sets in which triggers me into my survival brain. I will never be loved translation: I will try to find love through a foster child but when that child doesn’t attach to me the fear sets me into survival brain. I will not be cared for translation: when I try to care for a child who does not reciprocate or does not receive that care the fear sets in which triggers me into survival brain.

Having these fears does NOT mean we shouldn’t foster. It just means we need to understand these fears and learn how to care for ourselves, instead of trying to meet these needs through fostering and/or children in care.

Also, on a side note: I’m not saying we should never feel good about fostering. It’s ok to feel good when we help others. In fact, attaching to these children should create a warm fuzzy for us. The true test though: When we are not “feeling good” (which, as my veteran foster parents know, is a lot of the time), are we dysregulated or are we able to stay calm in order to continue meet the children’s needs? When a child is struggling internally (and acting that struggle out externally), are we able to continue to be emotionally available for them or do we become withdrawn, verbally aggressive? When we struggle with staying regulated, there is likely a fear triggering an unmet need of our own.

Stay tuned though! There is so much hope in this. Next up, how to learn to regulated through the identified unmet need (how to you like those “therapist clinical terms”? hehehe!).

Happy Foster Awareness Month!