Understanding Core Childhood Needs
The Schema Model and Core Childhood Needs
Understanding our core childhood needs, how these have or have not been met and the impact of this on our adult relationships is a core aspect of Schema Therapy. This article explains our five childhood needs in more detail.
Within schema therapy, it is believed that the dysfunctional coping strategies and schemas we develop originate from a mixture of our biological temperament and exposure to unmet emotional needs.Young, J; Klosko, J and Weishaar, M (2003) 
Our natural character and temperament are the biological traits we are born with. Some babies are naturally irritable, others are relaxed, others may be anxious. This is part of our personality from birth and not linked to our upbringing. Schema therapy suggests that the following are temperamental dimensions that are largely biological, and are unlikely to be change significantly through our lives. We are all somewhere on the continuum of these characteristics.
Our core emotional needs are universal, we all have these. They are:
- A secure attachment to others
- Autonomy, competence and a sense of identity
- Freedom to express valid needs and emotions
- Spontaneity and play
- Realistic limits and self-control
Schema theory hypothesises that early maladaptive schemas are produced due to an interaction between core emotional needs not being met and the individual’s natural temperament. Temperament may impact on how a child responds to negative experiences. For example, it is possible that a shy child who faces a lack of emotional support from their parents may become the quiet people pleaser. However, someone who is more labile and aggressive may cope with this by being more vocal and seeking attention through their behaviour.
It should be noted that everyone will have had experiences that mean their core emotional needs were not met at some point in their childhood. Even the best parents will make mistakes or life circumstances may get in the way. Sometimes, as discussed below, some experiences where parents felt they were doing their best for a child may also lead to their emotional needs not being met.
Being able to connect with our childhood needs that may not have been met, and understanding how these have developed into patterns of behaviour, is a key aspect of schema therapy. The core emotional needs are discussed in more detail below.
Core Emotional Needs
A secure attachment to others
The feeling that we are safe, nurtured, there is stability in our home life and we are accepted by our parents.
John Bowlby described attachment as an emotional bond that impacts behaviour “from the cradle to the grave.” Young children who are securely attached generally become visibly upset when their caregivers leave and are happy when their parents return. When frightened, these children will seek comfort from the parent or caregiver. Contact initiated by a parent is readily accepted by securely attached children and they greet the return of a parent with positive behaviour. While these children can be comforted to some extent by other people in the absence of a parent or caregiver, they clearly prefer parents to strangers.
Children may not get a secure attachment if their parents are absent, neglect them, are in and out of their life or are abusive towards them in some way. Secure attachments may also not develop if a parent shows inconsistent emotions and behaviours – for example, sometimes being caring and funny, but at other times being angry or withdrawn.
The problem with inconsistent/ absent parenting is that a child never learns through experience the appropriate skills to manage their own emotions in situations that create adverse effects. Those where parents are absent (either emotionally or physically) may not have a role model to learn from, or a person to soothe them when they are upset. They will likely find other ways to soothe themselves that may be dangerous or harmful to themselves. Those where parents are inconsistent may be confused about the appropriate way to respond and may learn strategies to cope that are based on managing the anxiety that comes with this and so are fear driven. One example may be a child that learns to be withdrawn and quiet around their parents, as they do not know if they will be angry or happy around them.
Autonomy, competence and sense of identity:
Being able to develop age appropriate tasks on your own, getting useful feedback and support to do this
Some children may not get autonomy either because their parents do everything for them and won’t let them learn alone or because their parents do nothing for them, and so they don’t learn how to manage their responses healthily.
Identity can be considered to have two parts – personal and social. Personal identity refers to children’s feelings about how they differ from others, their sense of uniqueness and of individuality. Social identity refers to the ways in which the child feels they are (or would like to be) the same as others, typically through identification with family and/or friends. Therefore, our identity forms through our interactions with others, where we learn about our similarities/ differences, communication strategies, our likes/ dislikes and our personal strengths. The first people that we have these learning experiences with are our caregivers.
For example, if a child hears critical and negative messages from their parents from an early age, this may impact on their identity, as they may internalise these as being ‘who they are’. They may develop schemas such as emotional deprivation or defectiveness. Similarly, if an older child is not given the opportunities to start to make decisions for themselves, form relationships with other children, and to learn from making mistakes, they may struggle to form their own identity away from their caregivers, and develop a dependence schema.
Having the freedom to express your feelings and basic needs
Expressing ourselves without being scared of negative reactions.
To take children seriously is to value them for who they are right now rather than as adults in the makingAlfie Kohn
Children don’t need more things. The best toys a child can have is a parent who gets down on the floor and plays with themAnonymous
The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independenceDenis Waitley
Having the ability to regulate and express emotions are key to a child’s development. For young children to successfully engage in interpersonal exchanges and form the relationships necessary for positive social experiences, they must learn to send and receive emotional messages in ways that are advantageous to both themselves and others. Emotional regulation helps children to be involved in tasks and interactions with others, without being faced with rejection or negative reactions.
A child who does not have this need met may face negative consequences when expressing his emotions – from being punished for being upset or being told to not show anxiety/ worry to others. For example, if they are being bullied being told to ‘fight back’. Normal emotions may be labelled as showing ‘weakness’ or that the person is inadequate in some way. Similarly, a child who faces anger when smiling and being happy may learn to not show positive emotions within the home. Such experiences may leave a child with no experience of how to manage difficult emotions when they happen outside of the family home; and if their reactions to these are not socially normal (for example, a child that cannot be happy with other children) this may lead to further rejection and problems developing in their interpersonal skills. Coping mechanisms which may continue into adulthood may include bottling up emotions; using substances to manage feelings; or avoiding certain situations/ relationships so that emotions are less likely to be triggered.
Having the opportunity to learn through play and enjoyable activities
Children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges.”Ginsburg (2007)
One example of how the need to learn through play may not be met include if a child has to grow up too quickly, for example due to having to look after themselves, siblings or parents. Another example may be where play is seen as a bad thing and a child is punished for this within the family home. It could be that someone has high expectations put on them about succeeding at school, where academic achievement is seen as more important than play and socialising. Whilst externally such children may appear more mature than others, and may gain positive feedback about this, underneath this they may feel different and unable to connect with individuals of their own age. This could lead to a schema such as social isolation.
Having realistic limits from your parents/ care givers
Having limits and boundaries set as a child is believed to help development in a number of ways:
- It helps to teach self-discipline, with the overall goal being that the child internalises this and is able to manage their responsibilities as the get older.
- It keeps a child safe from harm
- It helps to limit a natural urge to act impulsively and meet immediate gratification.
- It helps children to learn to manage difficult feelings that come with having boundaries put in place – for example, sadness or anger.
- They show the child that their parents care – even if this is not consciously understood, limits help to develop a sense of safety for children to first start to explore the world around them.
In the development of schemas, some children may not have any limits and be able to do what they want, due to neglect on the part of their caregiver. For others, their parents may be overly strict and create fear in the child if they do anything wrong.
A person who has no boundaries in place and is allowed to do what they want from a young age, may become emotionally upset when they find themselves in situations (such as school) where boundaries are used. They may also feel different from their peers as they have not learnt how to manage impulsivity or what may/ may not be harmful to them – as they get older this could show through in risk taking behaviour, or struggling to achieve goals that they have set themselves. This may lead to schemas such as insufficient self-control, but may also leave a sense of defectiveness or social isolation.
A person who grows up in an environment where there are rigid boundaries in place may learn that to gain attention they must ‘do well’ or act in a certain way. For example, they may have strict parents who expect them to behave in a particular way at home. Depending on their temperament, the person could develop rigid beliefs and expectations themselves – such as the unrelenting standards schema. For others, if their temperament makes it hard for them to abide by such boundaries it could lead to a sense of being different, or ‘not good enough’ within the family group, which may manifest in a defectiveness or failure schema.
With all of these core emotional needs the schemas that people develop to manage a deficit in these and the strength of dysfunction that they bring will depend on a complex mix of factors. Areas such as temperament, social and cultural environment, other positive influences/ mentors in their life, relationships with siblings and learning needs will shape the messages a child takes from a situation, and the mechanisms they learn to manage these.
It may be helpful to consider the following questions for yourself:
- What were some of the messages that you took from your parents growing up? These can be helpful and unhelpful ones
- For each of the needs above, how were these met by your parents/ caregivers? What sorts of things did they do with you which meant that they were met?
- Which of these needs were not met consistently for you growing up? How were they not met? How did this make you feel?
-  Young, J; Klosko, J and Weishaar, M (2003). Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide. Guilford Press.
-  For further information on Bowlby’s theory: http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm
-  Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.