Circle of Security: The 7 Basic Emotional Needs
by Hillary Chaney, LMHP
Most of us have heard it said that “behavior has meaning.” What??? Could someone please explain that? Especially when our two year old is throwing a complete tantrum on the floor at Walmart…please, tell me what it means. What is that behavior telling us? That is the million-dollar question.
One of my areas of expertise is in Circle of Security Parenting, a training which is part of an international organization for moms and dads who would like to increase their understanding of and capacity to meet their children’s needs in the home. According to the Circle of Security, there are 7 emotional needs our kids (or really any human in our lives) are asking us to meet:
Watch over me, delight in me, help me, enjoy with me, protect me, comfort me, or organize my feelings.
So, what do these emotional needs mean? I am glad you asked! I will bullet point them for you with a quick example of each.
- Watch over me: This need means “keep an eye on me in case I do something cool so you can cheer me on, or if I hurt myself I know you will be aware and come help.”
For example: If I am playing on the playground, sit on the bench and watch me, so when I get hurt, you will see the sadness on my face and you will come help.
- Delight in me: I LOVE THIS ONE! Who doesn’t love it when you make eye contact with someone and they give you the biggest, most proud smile because they think you are neat?
For example: You kiddo has been playing in the living room while you are doing dishes, and you think how lucky you are to have such a neat kid, and at that moment they look at you and you both smile. Not because your kid just did something amazing, but because your kid IS amazing. Let’s just take a moment and think back to that time grandma, teacher, friend, or parent gave you that look. Bask in it. You! You are neat! Feels good, right?
- Help me: How obvious can we get here? This is when someone is obviously struggling with something and you give them just enough assistance to be successful.
For example: if I fall, come rushing over to help me up!
- Enjoy with me: Doesn’t it feel good to share what we love with someone we love?
For example: If your kid just LOVES playing with Legos, get on the floor with them and build something too! Play. Laugh. Smile. ENJOY!
- Protect me: We all get scared sometimes, whether physically or emotionally, and it gives us peace of mind when we realize someone will protect us from any harm.
For example: UMMM, there is a boogie man in the closet and I need you to Karate chop him so I can sleep because you are bigger and stronger than me.
- Comfort me: My feelings are confusing and overwhelming, and I need to not feel alone.
For example: You interview for a job that you do not get, and you feel like you are not good enough, you have been rejected. A hug from a loved one eases the very natural, unavoidable pain.
- Organize my feelings: Here it is folks, the Grand Torino of needs. The most confusing of them all. This is when I am acting out, and I have NO IDEA WHY. We see it in tired toddlers, hungry teens, or “tough” guys who don’t show emotion. This is an opportunity to ask, “Do you need a nap?”, “are you hungry?”, or “Was it a rough day at the office?”
For example: You pick up your kid from school and they say things like, “Why do you drive so slow?” “Nothing ever goes right!” “You forgot to put an apple in my lunch!” “My math teacher just hates me!” on your way home. And, instead of commenting on your child’s bad attitude, you say, “Did you have a hard day?” and then the most beautiful thing happens, your child feels a connection. Like you get them. And sometimes, I repeat sometimes, they open up to you about their day and all of the difficult things they faced.
When these emotional needs are not met, behaviors escalate. It’s like when you are hungry and you go out to eat, but the waiter totally ignores you or takes your order and never delivers. You might start to get agitated, and then flat out HANGRY! Your behavior is likely to escalate, right? I know mine does. But when the need is met, and the food comes, you can rest easy and cool down. All you needed was a little bread.
Imagine for a moment if these 7 basic emotional needs NEVER get met. This is what we professionals like to call trauma. Trauma is a confusing topic because much of the population thinks of trauma as PTSD in war veterans or abuse victims. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder absolutely is trauma (it is in the name, after all). However, there is also acute trauma, or “little ‘t’ trauma,” which resides in most human beings, in those that have ever had a moment in their life that was scary or confusing, during which their emotional (or physical) needs were not met. That is pretty much everyone, myself included.
When I was in 3rd grade I walked up to Joanna (my best friend since pre-school) at the playground to swing, and she told me that she was no longer my friend because she had found “cooler” friends. My emotional need was NOT met, and I realized that people could leave me. They could ditch me for something better. (Go ahead, wipe the tear from your eye.) Joanna did NOT delight in me. She did NOT enjoy with me. And no one was there to comfort me or organize my feelings on the playground that day.
Ever since, I have been afraid of losing friends. Still to this day that feeling manifests in me when I keep my distance for a while before letting someone in. Sometimes it looks more like being a people pleaser so that people don’t leave me. Trauma. I was “little ‘t’” traumatized, and I know this because it affected the way I behaved and STILL behave. My behavior has meaning!! I am asking people, “please don’t leave me” by being a people pleaser. Or, “show me you are invested so that I can open up to you” when I am keeping my distance. BEHAVIOR HAS MEANING!!!!
When our emotional needs are met, we are secure in who we are and in the people around us. When these needs are not met, we start to question ourselves and the people who are supposed to care for us. And although we may originally have a hard time feeling loving toward the toddler throwing a tantrum in Walmart, if we look at behaviors through the “trauma lens,” we start to have empathy for the behaviors we are seeing. We create space to realize that somewhere along the line, a need was not met, and that person became scared, confused, or traumatized.
This just scratches the surface of what Circle of Security Parenting curriculum has to offer, and does not even touch how complex trauma can be—but these principles can be applied in any type of relationship at any stage of life! If you are interested in learning more about the Circle of Security (in an individual or group setting), I encourage you to contact us.
Finally, if by reading this you felt that, in fact, you experienced some trauma that you have not yet worked through, reach out! Trauma is so common, and we at Hope and Wellness are here to help.
To make an appointment at the Hope and Wellness Center, call our office at 402-639-2901 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hillary is a licensed mental health professional with experience working with foster kids at Boys Town. She also has many years of therapy with clients who have experienced significant trauma. Along with that, she and her husband have foster multiple children…all teens.