Sunday, 21 October 2012

Putting on the Brakes

In my last post I reviewed the first nine months of human development. In this post I will review the next nine months. Both genetics and early relationships have something to do with how our moods change through our lifetime and these second nine months can be critical to how this goes.

Parents Say No

There is a profound change that occurs in the relationship between an infant and its mother in this next time period. This change has implications for shaping the person that we will become. The first nine months can involve a lot of warm and fuzzy interactions between mother and infant. Laughing and cooing and cuddling. During the first nine months the child’s capacity for tolerating the world of the senses and ideally the capacity to enjoy human contact and exploration develops. The next nine months take on a different dynamic between parent and infant, a change that happens in even the most successful relationships. As the child becomes more mobile the parent takes on the role of supervisor and parent directions towards the child skyrocket compared to the first period. “Don’t touch that.” “Don’t go there.” “Don’t put that in your mouth.” You get the picture. Infants don’t learn to say “no” at this time, that comes later, but parents start to say “No”, a lot.

Those Eyes

During these next nine months the growth burst in connections in the right brain continues.  According to Allan Schore there is a new pathway being laid down during this period. During this time the infant may, or may not, develop the ability to put the brakes on their exploration of the world. As in the first period, the brain develops connections between the planning parts of the brain (frontal cortex) and the emotional brain that controls our physical state (limbic system). The connections that may develop now allow the child to stop certain socially undesirable or possibly unsafe behaviours.  The infant is now mobile enough to move away from the parent but will pause from time to time to look to the parent for those flashing, approving eyes.  But if, for example, they have drawn a masterpiece on the living room wall, they might receive a different look.  Those eyes will reflect disapproval, maybe even anger.

Shame and Repair

The “parasympathetic” reaction that follows will lead the child to become  deflated. The eyes drop, the heart rate and motor output slows, and the child has had his first experience of shame. The infant of course, does not identify this emotion. Identifying emotions is a left brain task, which doesn’t develop until  later (if it develops at all). This interaction, when it goes well, can have the happy result of the child learning that drawing on the wall is not acceptable. Shame, although much maligned,  is part of normal healthy development. The key part of this interaction being adaptive, comes with the next part of the interaction. The stage that may hopefully follows, is the stage of repair. The child reconnects with the parent tentatively and gradually, and the positive relationship is re-initiated. When these two steps are successfully repeated over hundreds  of interactions, a new type of regulation is achieved. The regulation of high energy, active, exploratory, mood states and low energy, quiescent, reflective mood states. The ability to tolerate frustration and even failure has its origins here, as does the ability to take responsibility when faced with expectations from others. These can be difficult waters to navigate. The infantile temper tantrum can emerge at this time, when children have difficulty making the transition from one mood state to the next. This, of course, has the potential to increase the stress level of the parent who will require considerable support, him or herself, to stay regulated in the face of flying food or cutlery.


Two roads

Interestingly, we can see the development of two patterns emerging in this second stage. As mentioned last time, infants can be identified at birth (even prenatally) as high sensitivity and low sensitivity infants, with an average group in between. Jerome Kagan famously followed groups of children through childhood and determined that high sensitivity infants were likely to become inhibited children and low sensitivity infants tended to become uninhibited children. Parental influences did make a difference as far as avoiding the extremes of recklessness for uninhibited children and high anxiety for inhibited children, but Kagan noted that high sensitivity children almost never became very daring and low sensitivity children almost never became highly cautious.  

Tigger vs Eeyore

By the time this second developmental period is over, children will have developed a consistent pattern of mood states which form their emerging character. Much like the characters from the children’s story Winnie the Pooh, some will bounce along in persistent high energy states, rather impervious to direction, much like Tigger. Others will spend much of their time in highly anxious mood states, sensitive to direction, much like Piglet. Still others will reside in chronic low energy, high shame, mood states like Eeyore. And still others will lurch dramatically between mood states, more like Jeckyl and Hyde. Ideally there will be smooth and flexible mood states. With flexibility, comes the ability to take responsibility for one’s actions and tolerate responsibility, frustration and even failure while not feeling crushed by these experiences. What is critical to understand is that the relationship is at the center of this development.  It is in the relationship that the ability to regulate sensation (last post) develops and it is in the relationship that the ability to regulate mood states develops. Biological factors can make the difference between children who are likely to overreact, and those that are likely to underreact, but these patterns will develop in the relationship and, with support, relationships can lead the way to new abilities which may develop at any time in the lifespan.

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