Children and the Developing Mind
Curt Thompson M.D., author of Anatomy of the Soul, shares how to parent children with care and respect for their developing minds.
We like to remind parents that every infant comes into the world looking for someone, looking for her, and it never stops. What this means, practically speaking, is that a baby is born with a particular temperament and parents then encounter that baby with that temperament and the parents will react to that baby in a particular way. And that infant will then attach to them in response to their reaction.
Now, if I’m a parent who has the capacity to think about and be reflective of my developing infant’s mind, and by mind here, we don’t just mean their brain, we also mean their brain and their body movement and their sense of distress and their sense of being content and so therefore, I’m not going to bother them at the moment.
My capacity to be aware of their developing mind is deeply related to whether or not I have made sense of my own developmental story. And so one of the things that we tell parents is that there are many, many variables that shape a child’s capacity to attach in a secure way, but the data pretty clearly shows that there is one single variable that stands head and shoulders above every other variable.
Interestingly enough, it’s not how many parenting classes I go to. It’s not how many times I watch certain parenting videos. It’s not about that. The single most important variable is whether or not I have made complete sense of my own life. The degree to which I make sense of my own life, meaning how able am I to incorporate my own emotional states, my own memory, my own traumas, how able am I to experience healing of those to the degree that I am able to do that, it enhances my capacity then to, in a healthy way, sense the states of mind that my infant is experiencing.
Consequently, when my infant is upset, that may evoke in me feelings of being upset. If those feelings are things that I’m able to step back from and say, I’m upset because my infant is upset, but I’m not going to act on those things, that is to my baby’s advantage because I can then pause, reflect, and then act more intentionally rather than acting more impulsively.
This leads to a baby having the experience of, as we say, the experience of feeling felt. The baby has the experience of their mind being sensed and understood by their parent. One of the challenging things of course, as parents, is that some of our children can develop in such a way that their first words come out by the time they’re less than 12 months of age and they’re speaking in full sentences by the time they’re 15 months of age, three word sentences.
And of course, this fools us into believing that they know exactly what we’re telling them when we say no, don’t eat the Begonia leaves, you may not do that. We expect them to understand conceptually the word no, when most of the time, a 15 month old, an 18 month old is only going to comprehend the emotional tenor with which we say that word. Both parents don’t say, no honey.
We say, no! And we typically say it because we want to keep our kids out of danger, because we want them to be safe, so forth. But most of the time they’re not comprehending that in logical, linear ways, which means of course, that when they don’t do what we ask them to do, we assume that there are simply being willfully unwilling to do what we asked them to do as opposed to us comprehending this in different terms.
Really recognizing that what we are trying to do with our children, for the most part, for the first probably two to three years of their life is it we’re trying to help them regulate their emotional states and the single most helpful way we can do that is by being aware of our own emotional states and how we are responding to them.
This leads to all kinds of work as parents that I really, frankly, would rather not do. I’d rather not have to go over and pick them up. I’d rather just say, please come here, and they do that, and when they don’t, I know that, gosh, their brain really wants to just go to explore things and I’m going to have to somehow physically do the work to be present for them to help move them away from the dangerous thing while communicating to them that I’m loving them while I’m doing it.