Two young women recently came in contact with me and asked, “Liz, we know you have studied human development your whole adult life. What brought you to that path?” I replied, “Well I had a normal looking childhood, civil people all around me, but dull. Unintentionally, what my parents modeled, and thereby imprinted me with, was a turned-offness, a numbing down of my inner exuberance. Years later, when I became a single mother of four children, I started on this quest to find out what are the ingredients that allow a child to grow into a healthy, hardy, conscious adult?”
Of course, we all now know the major ones of love, attachment, etc. but if you asked me for the most surprising and all encompassing ingredient, I would have to share the following…
In the parenting classes I facilitated, one session was devoted to emotional development. When parents recalled how emotions were expressed during their childhood, it became apparent that (in my unscientific study) at the most, only one out of 100 adults had had their sensations, feelings and emotions acknowledged. As I looked into this, and brain based knowledge became more explicit, I learned about the hard wiring of the three basic pain emotions: Fear, Sadness and Anger. The burgeoning field of neuroscience has shown us that when we are faced with a threat, a loss or a surprising unknown (or all three at once) we react automatically. Nerve messages go directly to our Amygdala,* Examples… a three month child is placed in a car seat and she wails loudly. Listening closely, I hear fear, anger and sorrow! A 16 month old who is scooting all around but not quite walking yet holds up her arms to you and utters “eh, eh, eh.” I hear a plea for immediate help. When picked up suddenly without communication from the adult who is exuding grave frustration, she wails with anger.
It is at these crucial times when this tiny, growing human being needs to be heard accurately. Not, “Oh, she’s tired,” or distracted by, “Oh, look at this.” Rather, ACKNOWLEDGE! State what’s going on. “Oh, you need help,” “Oh, it’s frustrating when you can’t quite do such and such,” “Yes, I had to move you in a hurry.” Then go on to comfort, show a solution or just be present. Because this crucial piece of development was blocked, ignored, unknown to our elders, we parents developed all sorts of detours. Therefore the lesson learned is: When you notice you are reacting automatically, Look, Listen and Open yourself to acknowledging the other’s bodily sensations. Provide the child outlets to express her emotions: stamp her feet, yell, run around, cry! Let the emotions flow through and out, all the while you strive to remain neutral, open and loving. You are modeling reassurance, safety and compassion.
* The Amygdala dates back to our reptilian ancestors. It was developed for our very survival. Fear alerts our body for flight. Blood rushes to our feet. Anger triggers a surge of blood to fists, and, our loss and sadness tells us to retreat to the cave to heal/recover.
Image Credit: Cadencia Photography