Josh: Coping with Unmet Developmental Needs in Adulthood

Wednesday Work BadgeLast week I spoke about trust and the role it plays in the relationship between the person with substance dependence challenges and the support person/counsellor.  The behaviours that relate to unmet development needs in children that cause difficulty in later years were a part of that post.

This week I wanted to take a look at how some clients block unmet needs with a range of internal coping strategies.  Because it makes reading more personal I’ll talk about Josh and how he copes with feelings of inadequacy because of unmet childhood needs and his responses to others.

Josh treats himself as he was treated in childhood
He is critical of himself and is angry that he feels distressed about his inadequacies.  He internalises what he has heard his parents/caregivers tell him and their words become his self-talk, the tape he repeatedly plays when he is anxious:  hings like:  it’s not important, I don’t matter, I’m being silly, I’m needy and weak. I’m not worthy, I’m a waste of space, I’ll never amount to anything.  His self-critical self-talk carries the same tone as that of his parents although he is unaware of this when we talk about it; his face tenses and his voice is strained and harsh.

In an interesting twist Josh’s lack of self-worth and unhelpful self-talk gives him some control as does placing himself in dangerous situations or participating in unhealthy habits (drug using).  It then becomes his fault that his parents treated him the way they did and he has control over the way he now behaves; his self-talk tells him that he is responsible for the way his parents treated him.  If he is responsible then he must be to blame.  Without this twist Josh has no control over the fact that his parents may in fact have been unreliable or unfair.

Don't let the fire go out

He treats others as he was treated
Josh’s default behaviours in times of distress: anxiety, stress or financial difficulties, is to behave towards others as his parents treated him.  He finds himself abusing and yelling at his children and partner and often uses the same words and tone as his parents did.  When his children seek comfort or affection Josh is reminded of his own childhood unmet needs and when he thinks of how he felt as a child asking for the same comfort and affection as his children his feelings trigger anxiety and emotional pain from childhood.  In an effort to control that pain and minimise anxiety, he pushes his family away.   He regains control over his emotions yet has pushed his family away by not being able to comfort his children and show affection.  Josh is treating his family as he was treated as a child.

Never Give Up

Eliciting in others responses that are similar to those of his parents

Josh has chosen a partner who has similar problematic tendencies as his parents and she is abusive.  While he is able to acknowledge the similarities between his partner and his parents’ treatment of him he feels he can cope with the feelings of rejection.  Josh wants a loving relationship with his partner but when their relationship improves he becomes anxious and unable to sleep because he says he is waiting for the rejection to come ‘because nothing this good can last’.  He learned in his childhood home that rejection is a constant and feels comfortable with his feelings, and coping strategies, in those circumstances.


For Josh to remain engaged with the service he needs to feel that he is respected and not judged.  A challenge is always to find the middle path – understand his behaviours yet to gently challenge them.  All each of us do every day is behave.  Behaviour is described as a response to an action, environment, person, or stimulus.  Because Josh’s parents were not able to role-model appropriate behaviours in meeting his needs as a child, his coping behaviours in response to their actions and his environment were adequate to safeguard him in childhood but inappropriate in adulthood.

Part of Josh’s recovery treatment is to address these behaviours within the home environment and to find support for his partner to help minimise the tension within the relationship.


This post was written as part of the NaBloPoMo challenge to post each day in November.



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