Mealtime Musings: Needs Matter

Anxiety is a typical response to any situation perceived as uncontrollable or unavoidable. Taking a test, giving a presentation, or any situation (including eating) where the outcome is unknown will create a sense of nervousness and apprehension.

In an educational setting, anxiety serves no useful purpose. Besides the fact that it can be debilitating, it is not a recognized exceptionality, (defined as something that significantly impedes learning), and is therefore ineligible for support. Instead, anxiety is a clue that something else exists (autism, AD/H/D, learning disability). In the absence of ‘something else’, what is a typical anxiety response (avoidance or ‘flight’) is frequently misinterpreted for deliberately defiant behaviour. When the perceived threat cannot be avoided, another typical anxiety response (‘fight’) is seen as aggressive and violent behaviour. While many conditions do contribute to anxiety, anyone can experience anxiety in any environment, and is often the result of neglected needs.

What exactly are “needs”? Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs parallels several other theories on human developmental psychology, and for lay-speak, I find, is the easiest to understand.

Physiological Needs

These are basic needs that should be met before and above all others. Air, water and food are required for survival. Adequate rest is necessary for stable mental health. Shelter provides protection from the elements. Child or adult, no one functions well when hungry, tired, sick, or homeless.

Providing for physiological needs seems obvious – feed the hungry, shelter the homeless… Some families can’t afford medical care; hospitals are under staffed; food banks are sometimes in higher demand than they can supply. Homelessness has a significant impact on the outcome of mental illness, both of which are plagued by stigma and discrimination.

In the United States, 1 in 7 people live in poverty. That’s approximately 44 million people who struggle to find adequate food, shelter and access to health care in just one first world nation.

Safety Needs

After basic physiological needs for survival are met, the need for safety has a significant influence on behaviour. Living in a traumatic situation (war, natural disaster, abuse), economic instability or lack of disability accommodations create barriers that impede access to physiological needs. Even the behaviour of children between six months and two years of age becomes goal-directed to achieve the conditions that make it feel secure. (Prior and Glasser).

In any situation where we have little (if any) ability to influence our environment, trust is essential to create a sense of safety. A person will not eat food they do not trust; a child who doesn’t feel safe at school will not learn. Neglecting the individual’s need for safety can have long lasting, traumatic repercussions.

Social Needs

Humans are social beings who seek to create and maintain emotionally significant relationships. Social groups provide for the individual’s need to love and be loved. Many people become susceptible to social anxiety or depression when denied their need to belong.

Social anxiety is very common among selective eaters. A lifetime of being publicly shamed for their food choices makes social eating extremely uncomfortable. Not only is the need to build connections (family and friends) denied, but also the need for safety, and to satisfy hunger.

Children will use maladaptive behaviours to satisfy their need for attention and to feel included. Turbo, one of my daycare kids, is an excellent example. What appears to be defiance is more an attempt to create his own ‘community’. By accepting him unconditionally as a lovable and valued person, I created a place where he feels he ‘fits’ and feels safe. Consequently, the defiant behaviours have diminished significantly.

Self-Esteem Needs

Not only do we need to feel like we belong to a community, humans need to feel accepted and valued by others within that community. Self-esteem relies on a sense of personal competence, and the ability to accept our self for our unique gifts and flaws. Feeling unaccepted and devalued can lead to a sense of helplessness and depression.

Self Actualization

When physiological, safety, belonging and self-esteem needs are secure, the individual is unencumbered to pursue their aspirations, and strive for personal achievement (fame, success, creative, athletic, academic…). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are often displayed in a pyramid, where one level must be attained before achieving the next. While fulfilling each level before the next has been shown to have an impact on one’s happiness, needs on the higher tiers can be achieved before obtaining lower, more basic level needs.


Maslow believed that the only reason people would not move toward self-actualization is because of hindrances placed in their way by society.

The Rosenthal study tested the theory that children would become smarter if they were expected to. When teachers were told that certain children had greater academic potential, those children tended to be treated more warmly, and were made to feel more safe. The chosen children formed more trusting relationships with their teachers – they were protected from public ridicule when they gave the wrong answer, or received more help to verbalize a correct one. They were encouraged through verbal feedback, and non-verbal cues to strive for a higher standard of educational excellence.

Essentially, teachers believed in the chosen children’s ability to be competent students, and so, they were.

This works the same way with eating. Providing a safe (shame-free) eating environment ensures TJ eats for his physiological needs. Creating a warm, social mealtime atmosphere helps him feel safe around food. Respecting his food choices, his current eating ability, and accepting him unconditionally regardless of what’s on his plate supports his ability to become competent with eating. I believe he can, and so, he is.

“If we take peo­ple as we find them we may make them worse, but if we treat them as though they are what they should be, we help them to become what they are capable of becoming.” -Johann Goethe

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Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper.

Prior V, Glaser D (2006). Understanding Attachment and Attachment Disorders: Theory, Evidence and Practice. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, RCPRTU. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.



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