I Always Had a Roof Over My Head

I frequently investigate how well a client’s parents provided for their basic needs. I use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as my framework, working my way up. I start with physiological needs and sometimes I hear about clients having gone hungry or fend for themselves as children, but most of my clients report being fed. However, when I get to Shelter and Safety I frequently get an interesting response: I always had a roof over my head.

Now what makes this response interesting is that it requires so little to be true, but implies so much more. One of the first clients I did this investigation with reported that his father always provided a roof; however, when I asked how many times he moved by the time he was 18 years of age, he reported they had moved 17 times—each one an eviction. Another client recently used the same answer and in follow-up reported that she had moved 27 times (!) in the first 18 years of her life. Other clients report being shuttled between parents without a regular schedule or much warning sometimes. I think one of the sub-needs subsumed in “safety” are predictability and stability. For many of my clients who have always had a roof over their heads, they did not have the benefit of predictability and stability that is implied by the claim. Hierarchy of Needs Image

Another line of question in which I engage with clients who “have always had a roof over their heads” is were utilities turned off for lack of payment. Embedded in the idea of “shelter” is the idea of protection from the elements. Not having electricity or gas can lead to not being very well protected from the elements. Infestation of a home with insects or rodents also qualifies as having a roof, but does necessarily provide for the sense of safety that having a roof over one’s head implies. Sometimes clients report having a tarp over a hole in the roof for an extended length of time—but hey, they had at least a partial roof over their heads, I guess.

Safety and comfort within the dwelling with the roof is also a concern I explore with clients. Was there violence in the house—either directed at you or to which you were exposed? Witnessing violence is known to be damaging to young children—it undermines their own sense of safety.  How people shared the house? A crowded house can make one feel unsafe and certainly inhibits any sense of privacy, which is a human need as well. Witnessing the sexual activity of others is not inherently disturbing, but can be. And not being able to express one’s own sexuality (even through masturbation) can be disturbing as well. Alone time and having a sense of personal space is something that many of us take for granted but from which we would suffer if it were taken away.

Similarly, the sense of safety of the neighborhood in which the roof was can be an issue. Growing up in an environment in which there is a fear of violence or theft prevents the development of a sense of safety in the world. Being “home alone” can likewise undermine both a sense of safety and a sense of being cared for—despite the roof.

Many of the clients who “always had a roof over their heads” also report some form isolation because of their home life situation. They frequently either did not make friends because they moved around so much or limited their friendships because of shame about their home/family situation—unwilling to reciprocate have friends over causing them to withdraw after friends have them over. Maslow’s Hierarchy is somewhat additive, in that each level of needs builds the foundation for the next level. Essential to the development of Belongingness, kids need to develop relationships—belongingness is specifically an interpersonal need. It is through belongingness that we learn that we have value as people (thus the next level of Maslow’s Hierarchy, Esteem) and how to relate to others—including asking for help in solving problems, learning to trust (essential for loving someone and maintaining friendships), and basically interact with others (necessary for education and career advancement).

“I always had a roof over my head” is just one of the ways in which we dismiss the short comings of our childhoods. However, without acknowledging what having a roof actual meant relative to what it implies we fail to recognize the reality of our childhoods and therefore fail to understand how we perceive the world more generally. There are many people trapped in suffering, somewhat resulting from refusing to look at the stark realities of their childhood; sometimes we need to pull back the curtain and see that parts of our childhood really were shit before we can truly move on from those parts.

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About Denis "Woodja" Flanigan

A Licensed Psychologist in private practice in Houston, he received his M.S. in Psychology and Ph. D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Florida. He has over 10 years experience in working with high school and college students and adults in counseling centers, community mental health settings, and private practice addressing a wide range of psychological issues. He is an expert on non-traditional relationships and accepting of non-traditional belief systems.

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