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Safety, Core Needs, and Growth Needs: How The Matrix Works

To understand how the Matrix of Needs works, it is important to know how the Extra-Cellular Matrix (ECM), a concept in biology, works. Every cell in every organism has an ECM that does 2 basic things: first, it provides some kind of structure for the cell, without which it would just be a blob, or a collection of blobs in multicellular organisms, and second, the ECM is a signaling system alerting the cell to potential threats and opportunities.

From a psychological perspective, the Matrix of Needs uses this same concept to understand the role of safety in human development. The human ECM, as conceptualized in this model, provides the psychological structure for growth and development. Safety is the glue that holds us together, and when we feel unsafe, we begin to fragment, we begin to regress, and in cases of severe threats to safety, we fall apart.

Safety is a continuous, life-long need in all stages of development. The presence or absence of safety alters our brains, our bodies and our sense of who we are. This safety is not just physical, it is emotional and psychological as well. Maintaining a continuous focus on safety is important in helping people to grow and develop into their best selves, whomever that may be. (Matrix of Needs blog, July 5, 2020)

The Core Needs of Subsistence, Attaching Relationships, and Communication are discussed in the initial article on The Matrix of Needs ( and each also has a dedicated blog. By way of synopsis, safety is always a need. It is always in the back of our minds, and comes to the front of our minds when safety is threatened by circumstances that are sometimes beyond our control, and sometimes the result of our choices. Along with the continuous need for safety, the three Core Needs are the focus of existence for a child for the first year of their lives.

Subsistence is the first of the Core Needs, as without food, water, shelter and sleep life cannot be sustained. Neglect often results in malnutrition, poor hygiene, and chronic infections, which results in an inability of the child to physically develop. What is often overlooked is that these also affect the dietary intake necessary to support a neurological system that is growing both in the womb and after birth. In the womb, the child’s brain adds 250,000 neurons per minute until the child his born. After birth, the child’s brain has to form connections between all those neurons, called synapses, at the rate of 700 new synaptic connections per second. All this requires the right dietary intake, and if neglect occurs, the child’s neurological system won’t grow as it should. Subsistence needs are important in order for other needs to be able to be met.

A child who lacks stable attaching relationships in their lives will also have difficulty focusing on growth needs, especially in social relationships. The more well known challenges associated with a lack of attachment includes reactive attachment disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and other behavioural expressions of their need for stable attaching relationships. Some children whose attaching relationships are insecure and unstable compensate for this by becoming overachievers, hoping they can earn the love that they did not get earlier in their lives. (Mesting, 2010) The become overbalanced on the right side of the Matrix of Needs, becoming skilled at individualistic activities and autonomous, but are unable to work as members of a team because social relationships and affiliative relationships are dependent upon the foundation of stable attaching relationships and safety.

Communication is the third of the Core needs, and the loss or impairment of this need also has far reaching consequences in the Matrix of Needs. However, if assistive and/or augmentative communication systems are available, the loss of typical verbal communication skills is quickly mitigated. We make the mistake of assuming “non-verbal” means “non-communicative,” and nothing could be further from the truth. The term was coined by Tobias Brocher, a psychiatrist trained in London with extensive research and publications in the 1960’s and 1970’s. However, the term never shows up again, which is reflective of the bias and presuppositions regarding communication in any method other than verbal. However, in the Matrix of Needs publications, the term averbal will be used to describe people who communicate in means other than verbal.

Depending on the extent of assistive and augmentative communication systems that are available, and the ability of people to use them, averbal communication can be just as effective as verbal communication. When these systems are not available and/or the person’s abilities limits their use, social and affiliative relationships may be impaired as well. David Howe’s book on Child Abuse and Neglect: Attachment, Development and Intervention (2005) provides an excellent body of research substantiating the impact of neglect (subsistence) and abuse (attaching relationships) on the overall development of human beings.

By framing the developmental process within the Matrix of Needs model, it is possible to see the impact of unmet Core needs on the growth of the individual in all areas of the Matrix. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and neuropsychologist who founded the Child Trauma Academy, writes in The Neuroarcheology of Childhood Maltreatment: The Neurodevelopmental Costs of Adverse Childhood Events, that:

“The remarkable property of the human brain, unlike any other animal species, is that it has the capacity to take the accumulated experience of thousands of previous generations and absorb it within one lifetime. This capability is endowed by the design of our neural systems. Neurons and neural systems are designed to change in response to microenvironmental events. In turn, our experiences influence the pattern and nature of these microenvironmental signals, allowing neural systems to create a biological record of our lives. The brain, then, becomes an historical organ. In its organization and functioning are memorialized our accumulated, synthesized and transformed experiences. And there is no greater period of sensitivity to experience than when the brain is developing. Indeed, as described above, the neuroarcheological record of maltreatment has pervasive and chronic impact on the child. An event that lasts a few months in infancy can rob a child’s potential for a lifetime.” In: The Cost of Maltreatment: Who Pays? We All Do. (Eds., K. Franey, R. Geffner & R. Falconer), Family Violence and Sexual Assault Institute, San Diego, pp. 15-37, 2001

The central need of the Core Needs appears to be Attaching Relationships, which is why it is placed in the center. Without strong attaching relationships, development may be unbalanced to the right, with people trying to achieve affirmation and love through their achievements. Dr. Jack Shonkoff from the Harvard Center for the Developing Child shows how children who experience significant trauma can become overachievers, workaholics, and risk takers to compensate for their lack of foundational development.

Conversely, the Matrix can skew to the left, with people engaged in multiple social relationships in order to gain the affirmation and love which was not given to them earlier in their lives. In a 2019 study, the higher the number of adverse childhood experiences girls had resulted in very early (11-12 years old) or early (13-14 years old) and a greater number of sexual partners over their lifetime. (Tsuyiki et al, 2019)

The good news in all of this is that the brain is wonderfully plastic, children wonderfully resilient, and with early and appropriate interventions the effects of unmet Core Needs can and have been mitigated. By identifying these needs and their interrelatedness, families and, if needed, professionals can provide the healing so necessary for growth and development to occur.

Bob Bowen


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