Young children are known to cry out at night, awakened from sleep by a ghost under the bed, or in the closet, who scares them and makes a parent’s protective presence necessary. Sometimes, a parent looking under the bed and reassuring the youngster that the ghost is now gone, will be sufficient for sleep to return. At other times, a parent’s continued presence may be needed.
Selma Fraiberg, social worker, psychoanalyst, and author of The Magic Years, gives us insight into the minds of young children, when fantasy is more developed than logic and children believe that their thoughts and behavior make things happen in the outside world. In their magical thinking their thoughts, behavior, and feelings are responsible for events around them. As we know, children often have angry thoughts and wishes about their parents, who often are frustrating and mean in their eyes. Then if a parent becomes ill, a child may imagine that his thoughts or wishes were responsible.
The ghosts and monsters that children see are stand-ins for their own frightening thoughts, feelings and impulses. They are frightening because in children’s magical thinking they are responsible for the bad things that happen. And sometimes they are responsible, as when children are punished for “bad” behavior. The struggle with these monsters and ghosts reflects children’s inner struggle with their own forbidden wishes and the untamed impulses that often lead to unacceptable behavior.
In her later work, Fraiberg wrote about other ghosts in the nursery. These “ghosts in the nursery” are things we experienced when we ourselves were children, which sometimes pop up to haunt us when we become parents. Those ghosts may have to do with relationships we had with our own parents, or things about ourselves that may have caused us difficulty. Without realizing it, those old ghosts can influence the way we see our own children and the way we interact with them.
Most of us as parents can think of moments interacting with our children when we suddenly thought we sounded just like our mothers, or were scolding our children in just the way we didn’t like when our parents scolded us. Often these ghosts turn up when something in a child’s behavior or development concerns us, such as times when a child is especially active, or rebellious, or otherwise difficult to handle.
We’re used to comparisons made about physical traits: he has his father’s eyes, she has her mother’s hair. But seeing a child’s behavior or personality traits through the lens of the parents’ childhood can interfere with our ability to know who our child really is himself or herself. Seeing certain things in our child that we identify with ourselves at times makes us feel proud. On the other hand, if it is something we don’t like about ourselves – or our mate – it can lead us to misread its significance for the child, and to respond in negative ways.
Even when strong, loving bonds exist between parents and children, ghosts as intruders from the parental past may break through and a parent and child may find themselves reenacting a scene from another time with another set of characters.
Fraiberg was interested in understanding more about those situations in which ghosts imperil relationships. Her own work pointed to the idea that it was the pain experienced in the past that was too painful to confront, making it impossible for a parent to identify with the feelings of a young child,
Ghost moments are familiar to all of us, but fortunately children are resilient and most ghosts don’t threaten the relationships that exist.
Research videos can raise some questions. The most recent one I saw had to do with the reaction of young children separating from their mothers. This is an issue that at times looms large, such as when children start school. Or even earlier when left with a baby sitter. When children react with major protests this sometimes gets labeled separation anxiety – perhaps creating parental anxiety as well.
The issue of separation brings up questions about attachment. When do infants begin to show attachment to a specific caregiver? How to they behave if that caregiver does not respond? How significant is this for later development? The British psychologist John Bowlby, played a major role in thinking about these questions as well as what the basis is for attachment behavior.
A major theory early on about the basis for attachment in infants was as a response to the survival need to be fed. Babies became attached to the feeding caregiver – at that time the mother – who was responsive to its needs. Bowlby rejected that formulation and instead wrote of a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings who have an innate need to form an attachment.
Bowlby’s theories about attachment were developed further by Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist whose work included an elaboration of various types of attachment behavior. She developed a method called strange situation assessment, which describe categories of responses by children to being left by their parent with a stranger.
Theories about attachment have more recently been incorporated into something called Attachment Parenting, a parenting philosophy that proposes methods aiming to promote the attachment of parent and infant not only by maximal parental empathy and responsiveness but also by continuous bodily closeness and touch. This seems more like a digression from Bowlby and Ainsworth rather than a continuation of their work.
Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Assessment has been used by numerous researchers to explore or refine and elaborate on her major categories, which she described as secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-resistant. These refer to the behavior of young children left temporarily with a stranger upon reuniting with mother. The research video referred to above is such an example.
The categories used in the assessment were intended to describe styles of attachment, or the nature of attachment behavior. However, inevitably value judgements have been made, and it often becomes a matter of “secure attachment” being the good attachment with the others being problematic.
As has been the case with other kinds of research, the secure attachment is attributed to sensitive, responsive behavior by the mother. In other words, the “good” mother. Some theorists have disagreed with that interpretation and have seen attachment behavior determined by a child’s temperament or personality.
A broader interactive interpretation expands on that by positing that a pattern of behavior evolves between mother and child based on a child’s responses to which the mother reacts.
In the video referred to, it is interesting to note the role of the researcher who directs the scene. After the stranger has been in the room a short while the mother is directed to leave. She does so abruptly, without a word to the child in preparation. The child notices almost immediately and erupts in crying protest.
It is worth considering the possibility that the mother’s departure does not reflect her usual behavior upon taking leave of her child. In other words, perhaps it is the nature of the research set-up rather than the mother’s typical mode of response that elicits behavior from the child that fits one of the attachment style categories.
Does research find ways to prove its point?
Recently I watched an old research video involving a visual cliff. The set-up is a specially constructed table with what appears to be a glass top covering a patterned cloth. Half way across, the patterned cloth drops to the bottom although the solid top is actually still there. The illusion created visually is that of a cliff, or dangerous drop.
A crawling baby is placed on top of the table as the mother sitting opposite looks on. The baby starts crawling toward the mother but stops when reaching the “cliff” and looks questioningly at the mother. As instructed by the researcher the mother gets a horrified look on her face as though signifying danger at which point the baby starts crawling back.
In a variation of the research, when the baby reaches the cliff, mom smiles encouragingly in approval and the baby continues to crawl forward. The point of both examples is to show not only the baby’s capacity for depth perception, but significantly the significance of the mother’s reaction in determining the baby’s behavior.
I wondered if they ever had a baby who despite the mother’s fearful reaction proceeded to crawl the rest of the way. I was remembering my son when little plopping down on the sidewalk while we were walking, refusing to take another step. Despite cajoling and starting to walk on myself, he was undaunted, refusing to budge no matter how far ahead I might walk.
Recounting this to my adult son now a parent himself, he asked if that behavior was willful or stubborn. I said it might have felt that way to a mother needing to move along, but in light of his future personality development it seems more like self-assertion.
So much research and theorizing about development has focused on the impact of mothers’ attitudes and responses on children’s behavior. This was especially true a generation ago when the influence of psychoanalytic theory on child-rearing was predominant. These days advice for parents on social media is filled with caution about the damage to be inflicted by mothers not doing things the recommended “right” way.
What gets left out is the fact that a child is a partner in his or her development. A famous psychiatrist used to talk about visiting newborns in the hospital nursery and being able to identify individual personalities. He spoke about the “executive” baby who seemed to manage the nurses’ attention, getting what he wanted.
The point is that babies do arrive with a distinct temperament or personality that influences their behavior and to which parents respond. Some babies are self-soothers, able to comfort themselves if they awake during the night. Others may be fussy, crying more readily, seemingly needing less sleep and more attention. It is easy to see that during infancy, the sleepy, more placid babies are easier to care for – especially for parents needing a good night’s sleep.
In the same way, a child’s innate temperament expresses itself at various points along the way in development. It’s not just that some children are easier to care for, but also that some personalities may better match a parent’s. To be successful, a parent may need to modify her expectations, or adjust her responses to the personality characteristics of her child.
It would be interesting to see if there might be a baby in the research experiment whose impulse to explore might be stronger than the need for mother’s approval at that point, leading her to crawl beyond the visual cliff.
Children are partners in their development. They influence parents’ responses, which then in turn, influence them.
Despite the educational interruptions brought about by the pandemic, another school year will soon be ending. For many current high school seniors this will mean moving on to college. It also means having to decide on next steps without the opportunity for visits to schools as part of the decision-making process. It also entails a next step in the separation process between parents and children.
This process may also involve differences in the way parents see what is best for their children as contrasted to children’s own ideas about their wants and needs; in some ways a continuation of a process that begins early on. Mothers have definite ideas about what their children were like as babies and will describe them as easy, difficult, active, having a mind of their own and so on. Do such descriptions match up to their personalities as they develop?
There are many reasons that we find it challenging to see our children as their own people separate from ourselves. Mothers carrying babies in their bodies begins a very strong connection. There are genetic connections as well. Children look like this or that member of the family. Perhaps similar personality characteristics or behavioral traits. As development progresses it’s easy to get mixed up and think that you and your child are the same person.
We ourselves may have childhood memories of not having felt understood by our parents. Sometimes as parents we set about trying to correct whatever we didn’t like in our own growing up and without realizing it we may repeat the same thing our parents did – treating our children as though they are us, fixing our own lives or realizing our own ambitions through our children.
What makes it difficult is that not only do we want the best for our children, but we are responsible for them for many years. Children are entitled to make their own mistakes, just as we did, but it is understandable that as parents we want our children to learn from our experience, to try to keep them from the mistakes we think they are making or about to make.
It is often hard to know when children need to be protected from their own behavior and when to leave them alone to learn from their own mistakes. We don’t try to stop children from walking because they fall down while learning. We pick them up and help them keep going. But we do intervene if they are trying to climb way beyond their ability and are likely really to get hurt. It can be hard at times, to judge about which is which.
Perhaps what is most challenging is not so much understanding the personalities of our children when they are young, but accepting their behavior when it is consistent with who they are. A child who is cautious in social situations, “slow to warm up,” may become a cause for concern if mom was like that and feels it was a handicap. Wanting to correct in her child a part of her temperament or personality, she has trouble accepting who her child is, rather than who she wants her to be.
The same is true for other behavior, such as when children are self-assertive, willful, observers more than participants, or loners rather than joiners. Because children are still learning how to function in the world, they may not always moderate their behavior in ways that serve them well in various situations.
As when they were learning to walk, we need to help them achieve their goals without trying to change who they are.
How early in their development are children able to identify with the feelings of others? What we think of as empathy has been receiving considerable attention these days. The widespread experience of loss caused by the pandemic has been added to by recent loss due to racial violence. Notice has been taken of President Biden’s ability to be empathic toward others who have experienced loss.
Teaching children to consider the feelings of others is a concern of parents. Children are asked if they strike out at someone, “How do you think that made her feel?” Sometimes a parent who has been hit may do the same to her child, with the idea of showing him what it feels like. Their idea behind these responses is to help a child identify with what someone else is experiencing.
There has long been an interest in determining how early in life children are capable of empathy – the ability to mentally enter into the feelings of another person. Observing two and three-year-old children in groups, it is fascinating to watch their faces while listening to a story. They register not only the emotional content of the story but also the emotions projected by the teacher as she is reading.
Impressive is how often one can see a child attempt to comfort another child who is distressed, such as taking a toy over to a child who is crying and offering it to her. Sometimes a child will put his arm around another child who is upset. At times an entire class seems transfixed by a child who is very upset, and the teacher needs to help the children process what is happening.
If one child begins to cry after her parent has left, her reaction seems contagious as one child after another begins to cry, too. In such situations, the first child’s crying arouses in the others feelings of loss at separation that are still only just below the surface. The crying of others is not so much identification with the first child as the arousal of similar feelings of their own – a step toward empathy.
In a video made by a researcher, a little boy is playing with a workbench toy hammering pegs through a hole, helped by his mother holding the bench steady. Instructed by the researcher, the mom pretends that the child has hit her finger with the hammer and cries out in pain. At first laughing, the child again tries to hit her finger with the hammer. When Mom responds with anger, he looks confused and worried and tries unsuccessfully to resume the play. Finally, he kisses her finger and they make up. The child’s first reaction is not at all an uncommon one.
What happens in such a situation is that a child is often unclear about what has happened to produce the response that follows. He repeats the event in order to try to figure it out. In this case the child was not sure whether or not this was part of the play with his Mom. Were they having fun?
In situations like this we may interpret the child’s behavior as anger or aggression, when in fact it may be a question: “What happened?’. Often what is needed is to clarify with your child what he did that caused the response he got.
The roots for developing empathy. seem clearly to be there from a very young age. As with other areas of development, learning plays a big part, and parents play a big part in the teaching that goes with it.
Over this past abnormal year shaped by the Covid pandemic, those at all stages of the life cycle have felt the impact of the changes that brought loss in many forms. Necessary safety restrictions have kept children out of school, parents out of work, and an end to usual socialization and recreational activities.
There has been much discussion about the effect this has had, and is having on various segments of the population. Much has already been written about mothers carrying the brunt of life changes in the Covid era, forced out of work due to child-care responsibilities or attempting to work remotely while supervising children’s remote education in addition to all other household responsibilities.
Less has been said about adolescents and young adults, except in connection to college applications and the infection spread on college campuses. Yet adolescence and adolescents have at times played a major role in effecting cultural change in society.
Erik Erikson, the renowned developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst described adolescence as the fifth psychosocial stage of development, playing an essential role in developing a sense of self and personal identity which continues to influence behavior and development for the rest of a person’s life. He wrote that in adolescence all continuities relied on earlier are questioned again because of a rapidity of body growth and the new addition of genital maturity. Faced with this physiological revolution within them, “young people are now primarily concerned with attempts at consolidating their social roles.”
Erikson also pointed out that the long childhood of our species, exposes adults to the temptation of thoughtlessly exploiting the child’s dependence. “.. we make them the victims of tensions which we will not, or dare not, correct in ourselves or our surroundings.” Adolescence has been known as a time of rebellion and protest and it is in the attempt to correct their perceptions of adult failings that some are making their mark.
In recent years note has been taken of several young people such as David Hogg, the then high school senior caught in the Parkland, Florida school shooting who was saved by hiding in a closet. Using his cell phone to record the scene, he interviewed the other students hiding in the closet to leave a record in the event that they did not survive the shooting. Hogg emerged as a leader in gun violence protests, talked to the media to voice his opinion on gun control and called on elected officials to pass gun control measures.
Another example is Greta Thumberg, a sixteen-year- old from Stockholm, Sweden nominated for a Nobel prize after inspiring an international movement to fight climate change. Her voice is heard regularly in protests and ongoing public attention being paid to this issue.
It is also interesting to note the attention now in the culture at large to former protest movements and rebellions. Figuring in the recent Golden Globes award and promoted for an Oscar is the current film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the seven defendants who were accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. All were protesting against the country’s participation in the Vietnam War.
From a developmental point of view, identity refers to all of the beliefs, ideals and values that help shape and guide a person’s behavior. Despite the pressures of the pandemic, many young people are finding their identity in protests and movements that may seem to adults like rebellion.
Hopefully, in establishing their own identity they will ultimately both live by society’s standards and expectations, and perhaps change them for the better.
Much has already been written about the pressures mothers have been under during the pandemic. Although everyone has been struggling in different ways, mothers have felt the primary brunt of child care and household responsibilities while also trying to keep up with paid employment. Many have lost employment opportunities because of these responsibilities.
As a result of the pandemic, with school attendance occurring remotely at best, mothers are back to full time child care, while feeling responsible for maintaining the health of their family including making sure that children are following required safety precautions such as mask wearing and distance from others.
Mothers also feel responsible for supervising their children’s remote learning in order to make sure they keep up educationally. This has also meant dealing with children’s resistance to the attention required for remote learning and filling in for the role of teacher whether qualified or not. Children feel the lack of usual activities and the inability to socialize with their friends. Their behavior has reflected the changes they have experienced, resulting in irritability, restlessness and difficulty attending to tasks.
But what about the behavior of mothers in reaction to all the pressures they have been under? Jennifer Senior, as a parent who writes about parenthood, asks why it is that so many mothers feel like failures at this moment. The problems they are dealing with are not of their own making, so why are they blaming themselves for the inevitable consequences of historic mayhem? She wonders if it is to be explained simply by the propensity of mothers toward self-recrimination.
Feeling of guilt due to self-recrimination, come in part from the changing tasks that have been assigned to mothers over the years. The division of labor following the industrial revolution, assigned responsibility for child-care to mothers. Over time, the perceived nature of child care has become increasingly complex in terms of the desired behavior of mothers toward their children.
Research and theories of child development have put forward ideas about desirable responses to children that are necessary in order to assure optimal development. Mothers are held to these standards and are regularly criticized and blamed for perceived failures. The blame is not merely self-blame.
Senior offers another hypothesis for mothers’ widespread feeling of failure. Her idea is that what the pandemic has done is made many mothers feel more insecure about aspects of their parenting that they were already most insecure about. Mothers worry that one’s actions as a parent have dire consequences for one’s child. The fear is that one’s behavior as a parent might damage a child in a way that would interfere with his functioning in the future.
Mothers assume great powers in believing in their capacity to damage their children by what they say and do. The assumption is that children are so fragile that a wrong word from mom can do irreparable damage and leads to the feeling that children must be protected from anything that seems unpleasant, frustrating or upsetting.
This suggests that it is possible to go through life without having such experiences, and that mothers are responsible for making that happen – for creating a perfect life for one’s child. But no matter under what circumstances children are raised, life itself requires the ability to withstand hurts and obstacles. As parents, we wish we could protect our children from pain, but that is an unrealistic goal.
Dealing with the reaction of others to our behavior is a fact of life. Children develop the needed skills to function with others, having learned early that even parents have emotional reactions.
Life as we knew it has changed for everyone, parents and children included. School has stopped or is limited for most children. Parents are working from home or not at all. Usual recreational activities have ended. The adjustment to these changes has been challenging for all.
Older children are better able to process these changes and express their feelings about their situation. Young children, however, are less developed emotionally, cognitively and in the use of language to express their questions or confusions. Parents are sometimes at a loss trying to explain to children the need for wearing a mask, social distancing and the loss of favorite activities.
A reader wrote to me about a book she wrote with her daughter about the impact of Covid on her four-year-old granddaughter whom she calls, Brave Maeve. This seemed to me to be a resourceful use of time during the pandemic, worth looking at. The story, told in Maeve’s voice, describes the changes in her life and what she has been told about the germs that are the cause.
It is a familiar story with lovely illustrations that can be helpful to parents in opening a conversation with their little ones about what they are living through. Parents at times feel unsure about how to have such conversations, particularly if a child’s adjustment has not been so smooth. Our attempts to give recognition to children’s feelings can sometimes sound a little rote. We lose the feeling in feelings.
What I mean by that is that feelings are emotions, and are usually expressed in very emotional ways. If we are angry or upset about something, we not only express it in words, but in our voice, body language, and facial expressions. There is intensity in the way the feeling is expressed. For example, I saw a child in a stroller rip off his mask in frustration. A child’s rebellion at current restraints can take the form of a temper tantrum.
Hopefully, as adults we have some measure of control over the way we express our emotions. Children, on the other hand, are mercurial – everything is black or white. Children express feelings in extreme ways, primarily through their behavior.
Our children want to let us know how strongly they feel about a situation and we have to let them know in a convincing way that we do understand. But we can’t expect that just by recognizing the feeling verbally we will make it go away. Accepting anger is not easy, especially when it is coming from our children who often express emotions in behavior that is difficult to deal with.
We not only do not like it when children are angry, we often have a hard time accepting the whole range of our children’s emotions. We would like them to be happy and even tempered all the time. Life would be so much easier if they were. Besides, too often when they are not it seems as though it is somehow our fault.
As parents, we too often feel that somehow it is our responsibility to make it better. And yet, as adults we are also struggling and wish someone could make things better for us.
Children feeling angry or rebellious in the current situation is especially difficult as there is no end in sight to offer as reassurance. Even Maeve may not be brave all the time. What we can offer is real understanding about how hard this is, letting them know that whatever they are feeling, they will feel better eventually. They really don’t know that, and sometimes we forget it too.
“But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. … Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.” This quote, from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” is spoken by the mother in the play, about the father. These days, the quote should read “a terrible thing is happening to her,” as attention must finally be paid to the mother.
Mothers are paying a terrible price for the consequences of the pandemic. When schools shut down, it was mothers primarily who were making lists and schedules, searching for activities to keep children occupied, supervising online education, while at the same time keeping up at home with their own paid work and household responsibilities. Although many fathers were also working from home, mothers knew it would be up to them to figure out how to do three jobs at once – parent, teacher and paid employee.
Early in the modern women’s movement, I attended one of the women’s groups that had been set up primarily for consciousness raising. The women discussed the parenting and homemaking responsibilities that prevented them from having the opportunities afforded to men – chiefly among them were child-care responsibilities. The idea that child-care might be shared equally with fathers was treated as laughable based on their own experience.
Historically, the expectation that women have a caretaking role has been based on biology: women carry babies in their bodies and nurse them after they are born. With the advent of psychological thinking a new dimension was added. The psychological and feminine attributes of mothers were deemed to have great importance for the development of young children.
Psychoanalyst John Bowlby, drawing from his early interest in animal behavior, focused on what was seen as a biologically based need for attachment to a primary figure beyond the basic need to be fed. Since this was a period when care of children was primarily the mother’s role, much of the early theoretical thinking that emerged was based on the mother as the important attachment figure.
In the present era in which the roles of women have changed, along with the emphasis on attachment theory an effort has been made to expand the list of those to fill that need. An interest in fathers has been part of that effort. Research and experience have demonstrated that father care, even when different from mother care, fills the need for attachment while meeting other needs as well.
But the resistance to fathers’ responsibility for child care is due largely to the existing organization of the workplace as well as a history of mother blame, and mothers’ own feelings of responsibility. Women themselves are quick to examine their behavior and blame themselves if something goes wrong, or if a problem in a child emerges later on.
“Mothers’ guilt” is always at the ready. Partly this is because women carry babies in their bodies, which establishes a most personal connection. But in large measure this is a legacy of years of mother blame for children’s problems and criticism for children’s behavior. Mothers are blamed both from a biological and an environmental perspective.
Perhaps the positive side of this pandemic is that women’s cries for help are now reaching out through the media. Mothers are burned out and father help is needed more than ever. Beyond that, what is clear is the need for more pervasive support for families.
Fathers taking on equal child care can lead to a reorganization of the workplace allowing for the reality of family life – and in turn to government supported child-care.
“All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in Kindergarten,” – a familiar quote from a book by Robert Fulghum identifying some early lessons learned and how they could – or should – be applied to adult life.
Some of the lessons mentioned, “share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back where you found them, don’t take things that aren’t yours,” have a familiar ring. Parents try to teach those things early on.
The idea in Fulghum’s book is to show how the things children learn when they are young, we need to carry over to the way we live in the world as grown-ups. The problem is that many of these lessons go against strong feelings that we struggle with. For example, “share everything”. Do you really want to share everything? Don’t you have some things you don’t want your children to play with? Children, too, have prize possessions that they don’t want to share with a sibling. So “share everything” may be too simple to expect of our children.
How about “play fair”? Isn’t the game more fun when you win? Have you ever had the impulse to cheat? What helps you overcome it – if you do? Knowing that it is “wrong” is only the first part. Young children don’t yet have the concept, but even when they get it, they still have to overcome the strong wish to win that most of us have.
Then there is “don’t hit people”. That seems obvious. No one wants to be hit back. But how about feeling so angry about something someone does that you would like to sock them. And haven’t we all had the feeling now and then of wanting to give our children a good slap? As with the impulse to cheat, we sometimes have to work hard not to act on those feelings.
“Put things back where you found them.” If only! Are you a put-awayer or a leaver- outer? How about your mate or partner? Is one person messy and the other a neat freak? That can cause some friction when people live together. So what do we do when children don’t put their toys away?
The point about all these rules and instructions we’re always giving children is that in adult life we still struggle with many of them. The reason is that what seem like basic, simple things are often really quite difficult. They go against what feels like our own self-interest, or whatever we would most like to do at the moment.
From another vantage point, following these “rules” and going against what we want at the moment is really in our self-interest. We are all social animals and the ability to live together more, rather than less pleasurably is definitely very much to our self-interest. And guidelines on how to live and what to do remind us that others also have needs and feelings to be considered.
It takes time and effort to help children understand the underlying reason for all the do’s and don’ts. Becoming aware of how we ourselves are handling them can help us understand what it is our children have to master in themselves. It can enable us to be more compassionate in the way we give corrections to our children while they work to overcome the impulses we may still be struggling with. It can also help us be less judgmental of behavior that is all too human.
Perhaps the truth is that everything we need to know we are still learning.