The Dangers of Needing to be Needed
Foster W. Cline, M.D.
The mom popped up to talk to us after we completed our workshop. A middle-aged lady, she had that worn-out look that said, "I’ve been around the block – a couple of times." As she started to relate her story about her son, her cares seemed to disappear, and her eyes glistened with an inner spark.
“Rob went off to college yesterday, but today he phoned me, and said he’d forgotten to pack his tooth brush. He wanted to know where he could buy one. He wasn’t sure where folks buy tooth brushes.” Her joy as she recounted this was obvious. And in spite of my best efforts to keep a neutral demeanor, perhaps a bit of my shocked inner response of “You’ve got to be kidding!” bubbled out and spread across my face because she evidently suddenly felt compelled to happily explain, “He still needs me!”
This dear mom was a walking example of that old song line, “The happiest people in the world are people who need people”! She was plenty happy! But there is a down side to operating in the “need to be needed” world. This mom has raised a son who, at eighteen, isn’t sure where to go to buy a toothbrush. The more insistent parents’ need to be needed, the more likelihood there is that their children will grow to be needy, dependent, and less able to function well and cope in the real world.
Raising a child with a chronic illness isn’t easy. When a child is small and requires frequent attention, the line between being protective, and over-protective can become very blurred indeed! Special needs and ill children have far more needs than their healthy peers.
Parents naturally love their children and meet their needs. As the child grows older, it is very difficult to know how and when to back off. As Lisa Greene and I have clarified in our book, Parenting Children with Health Issues, the line between the child’s “can’t” and “won’t” responses becomes a wide gray area. Over the years, I’ve found that most parents of special needs children are understandably normally over-protective. We explore in detail this potentially debilitating cycle and clarify ways to avoid it in our book.
In this short article, it is not appropriate to examine all the relevant details of the need to be needed. However, as a psychiatrist, I must emphasize that not only are the parents of special needs children at risk, but also those parents who, in their childhood, experienced loss or rejection or the loneliness occasioned by death or divorce. Such childhood experiences can leave an adult with a concern in the back of the mind that quietly nags, “I could be abandoned again.”
Being needed serves as an insurance policy against being rejected or abandoned again. To clarify this, I can use the example of government growth. Consciously or unconsciously everyone in private and public sectors (including bureaucrats and legislators) want to grow their business. The former want their department to become larger and the latter seek to insure reelection. The most certain way of doing this is to develop a need for citizens to look to government to meet their needs. As dependency grows, there is increased acceptance of government control. At least until the budget blows wide open... But enough of politics and back to a personal level.
The antithesis of the need to be needed is the want to be wanted. Healthy relationships occur when people interact because they want to be together- not because they "have" to be. Love and Logic (a parenting program that teaches healthy communication skills) therefore stresses tools, techniques and skills that enhance relationships and decrease the development of dependence. Thus the happiest children and parents want to be together. Their time together is filled with joy rather than occasioned by a sense of obligation or guilt. A father may feel obligated to help a needy son, and the son may demand ever increasing support from the father, without either actually wanting or enjoying being together. In summary, the need to be needed almost insures that some family members will feel dependent on others but not necessarily pleased or joyful about the relationship. There is the sense of obligation on one side of the relationship, and often hostile-dependency on the other.
When people want to be together, they are exercising a choice that is often absent in a need-based relationship. Choices give people a sense of freedom and ownership of the relationship thus increasing the odds that the relationship will be healthier and more enjoyable for all.
There are a number of responses that help individuals resolve a “need to be needed” relationship. The purpose of this article is to help parents define the issue and clarify the healthy alternative. Recognizing the problem is more than half the solution! Our book, Parenting Children with Health Issues clarifies ways to disentangle a need to be needed relationship.
Foster W. Cline, MD is a child psychiatrist and co-founder of Love and Logic®. Lisa C. Greene is a parent educator and mom of two children with cystic fibrosis. Together they have written the award-winning book “Parenting Children with Health Issues."Visit www.ParentingChildrenWithHealthIssues.com.