When a child has suffered a terrifying experience, it may have a lasting impact on his overall development, even after the terror subsides. It’s also possible that the childhood “tasks” of growing up may be stunted even without overwhelming circumstances. Children need adults who understand and provide what is required at each stage of their development. Maturation involves emotional and physical well-being.
If parents didn’t receive support when they were children, moving from stage to stage, they may feel agitated and insecure as their firstborn grows from a passive infant to the toddler who suddenly runs and climbs, getting into any and everything. They may be at their wits’ end as they deal with daily power struggles with their two-, three- and four-year-olds. Or, parents might get flustered watching the “flirtatious” behavior that their five-year-old is exhibiting. And parents of teenagers will get to re-visit any conflicts and issues that were never quite worked through during early childhood.
Parents, equipped with both the knowledge and the emotional maturity to meet their child’s developmental needs—while at the same time setting limits—are less likely to raise a child with painful developmental deficits. Being emotionally mature means staying open to recognizing and healing our own early wounds. If your critical needs were not met by your parents, whether due to a lack of skillfulness or outright abuse, you can be guaranteed that your child will push every one of your developmental buttons. When you feel your own temperature rising, either you can be spurred onto a path of personal growth or stumble down one that may lead to family discord or a nervous breakdown! It’s your choice. Luckily, the first choice will benefit both you and your child.
Responding to Your Infant: Issues of Safety and Trust
How we need to respond to children who have been frightened and overwhelmed depends to a large degree on their age—or more accurately, on their stage of development. Infants are the most delicate and fragile of creatures.
For the first half year of life our children depend on us for just about everything. Without constant ministrations their growth and very survival are compromised. If they are cold, for example, infants can do precious little for themselves. In fact, if the parent doesn’t pick the baby up and give warmth by holding him close and swaddling him with a blanket and clothing, the infant could actually die. This is the very reason that their cries are so compelling—they must communicate to their caregivers that failure to respond in a timely way could result in death. This is, perhaps, why we feel so out-of-sorts, even desperate, when we fail to successfully soothe our baby. But, as most parents discover (after a bit of nail-biting), they are able to intuit what their infant needs by following their own instincts and impulses. We also learn to, intuitively, differentiate when our baby’s distress requires an immediate response, and we wake up in the middle of the night to cater to his needs. It is just this innate sensitivity that ensures our capability to minimize infant trauma, while helping to fortify these tiny beings with a foundation of resilience and security. Our adult nurturing, which instills the essential sense of safety and trust, also bestows a readiness for the next phase of development.
Your Toddler’s Needs: “Me Do It Myself”
By the time babies are about nine months old, they are starting to become autonomous in taking care of their own basic needs. For example, a newborn cannot turn over if placed on their back or tummy; they must scream to have a parent pick them up. But a nine-month-old, by contrast, is able to navigate to some extent on his own. Not only can he turn over, he can crawl and may even be able to cruise furniture as he gets ready to take his first independent steps. With this emerging capacity, these older babies begin to resist being held tightly to the parent’s body. Around this time you see babies stiffen and push against their mom’s chest, as though to say: “Hey mom, don’t hold me so tight; give me a little space!”
From this age on throughout the second year of life, our entire evolutionary lineage drives our body/mind toward separation and autonomy. For this reason, when two-year-olds take a tumble, they certainly need comfort and support but not in the same close way as a six-month-old does. The two-year old needs a little more “space.” This means that parents give toddlers a chance to feel their own ability to recover balance, equilibrium and dignity, while at the same time feeling the security of adults they can rely on to help, only as much as needed. If enough breathing room isn’t given for this to happen, children at this stage of development may feel suffocated and are apt to become “terrible twos.” On the other hand, if the parent is distracted and uninvolved during a mishap, the child at this stage (not yet old enough to have developed strong self-support) may feel disoriented, overwhelmed or even abandoned.
This knowledge about what children need at different developmental stages is particularly important to keep in mind as you assist your child during times of stress and trauma. The idea is to give them enough support to be able to discharge their shock freely, but not too much physical holding such as clutching or squeezing. This type of overbearing attentiveness can inhibit the spontaneous release of the energy bound up in your toddler’s stunned reactions. It can also inhibit the child’s sense of autonomy and confidence in moving through such a distress cycle.
“Tug of War” with Your Three- to Four-Year-Old
By the time children are three or four years old, their capacity to physically engage in the world jumps to new heights. In addition, their facility to delightedly describe their new experiences of the world with seemingly endless stories and artwork begins to blossom. This is the “piss & vinegar” stage of development. Kids of this age are into everything. They are pulling and tugging, pushing and shoving. They are in a perpetual celebration of life. Even more curious than the two-year-old, with the added ability of being more agile, they will pull the dog’s tail or auntie’s leg just to see what happens. For them, life is a grand, ongoing, “tug-of-war.” Not surprisingly, this is the age at which our kids meet—head-on—the unforgiving forces of nature, especially of gravity and momentum. They trip on toys and hit their heads on tables as they run around the house in squealing ecstasy. Rude reminders of the laws of physics—a body in motion tends to stay in motion—are particularly common for this age group when the motion is stopped by a door, or worse, halted by a plate-glass window!
Commonly, kids in this stage of development are said to be “strong-willed.” This is because they are learning about power by confronting and overcoming obstacles. Thus the task at this stage is about developing a sense of initiative, power and mastery. However, when kids of this age take their inevitable spills, it feels like having their legs pulled out from under them. When they are overwhelmed, they temporarily lose the very skill that defines them—not only their task, but their very sense of self. If we are frightened, or we shame our kids for their spills, it’s all the more dreadful for them.
If the parent is overly protective, the child is doubly wounded: first for the injury itself and second by feeling disempowered and shamed. At the same time, if we just leave her to “stew in her own juices” then she may not regain her equilibrium. To be sure, it is a delicate and dicey balancing act for parents. The trick is to be solidly there for your child with your calm presence. This means standing side-by-side with him and resisting the temptation to scoop him up in your arms and hold him while crying out such things as “poor baby—now look what’s happened to you!”
Our kids seem to be without boundaries in their expressions of will and, therefore, do potentially dangerous things such as poking their sister’s eyes or sticking their fingers into fans and electric outlets. High-spirited with their tricycles, they delight in racing across the street to their playmate’s house. Their exuberance is so great while their sense of danger lags far behind. Children at this stage need parents who set clear limits, that’s for sure. And this is where shame comes in. Starting around two years old, shame is what parents (need to) engage in teaching kids what is dangerous and what is safe. It also makes it possible for them to learn what is socially acceptable and what is not.
When you scold your child, something profound happens in their physiology and brain activity. Combined, this makes them feel terrible—in fact, so bad they will not want to repeat the act that they were reprimanded for. It is essential that children get the message at once; their survival may depend on this. However, at the same time you don’t want to leave them stuck in shame. When children are regularly scolded, this horrible feeling of shame becomes habitual. There are two killers of vitality and joy; one is fear, the other is shame. The trick here is for the parent to admonish the child for their unacceptable action (for what they have done) and not for who they are. The way to accomplish this is through words like: “NO, you can’t ride your tricycle into the street, and you are never to do that again … and Daddy/Mommy loves you to pieces and doesn’t want you to get hurt.” They must feel your care for them in your tone and body language so that they can recover from the “shaming” experience. This provides a feeling of connection with you that will be more likely to help reinforce the correction you made in your child’s behavior.
This is a very different experience for your child than being banished from your sight with the last look he saw on your face implying disgust from an angry, “fed-up” parent. To be able to have the necessary finesse, parents need to take a deep breath and feel their own bodies first, before scolding kids. If you stay present within yourselves, then the corrective use of shame will add to your children’s growing sense of power, and will and exuberance won’t be stifled. This healthy use of shame without damage to the parent-child relationship is a potent weapon against producing a revenge-seeking child in later years.
Another developmental “task” at these tender ages is gender identification. Hence, if children are unduly and chronically shamed during this stage, a tendency may develop into a diffuse shame. This can be reflected in uncomfortable feelings about being a boy or girl, and in becoming a young man or woman later on. Hence, unhealthy toxic shaming can even contribute to gender confusion and deep feelings of being sad and uncomfortable.
Your Flirtatious Four- to Six-Year-Old Boy or Girl
In addition to gender awareness and identification, somewhere between the ages of four and six children feel a special bond and attraction to their opposite-sex parent. This is a normal stage. In fact, this phenomenon is so universal that the Greeks portrayed the unfortunate consequences of this unresolved dilemma in the plays Oedipus Rex and Electra. In popular culture we refer to hopeless romantics who have not detached from this childhood fantasy as having an “Oedipal Complex.” (Of course, with new, blended and same-sex households, these stages may show up differently.)
Daughters, especially around the age of five, routinely fall in love with their dads, as do little boys with their moms. Again, this is a normal, healthy stage of development. Kids of this age will “flirt” with the parent of the opposite sex. This is not flirting in the adult sexual sense, but rather a practicing necessary at this stage. In other words, the kinds of behaviors that will later form the repertoire of adolescent peer flirtations are first tested at home where it is supposed to be safe. This is the time when little girls might tell their father, “I love you, Daddy; I want to marry you and have a baby with you when I grow up.”
At this delicate, vulnerable age, what is needed to foster healthy development is for the father to tenderly say (and mean) something like: “I love you too, sweetheart, but Daddy’s married to Mommy. When you grow up you can marry someone special just for you, and if you want, you can have kids with him. But I’m so glad that you’re my little girl and I will always be your Daddy.”
Many times, what happens instead is that the child’s development may be handled poorly by misreading this truly innocent “practicing” behavior. Instead of the parent helping the child with her emerging sexuality, the response may be more reminiscent of that of a lover, promoting in tone, actions or words their “special” relationship. For example, playful flirtations such as “Yes, my little princess, I’ll always be your prince—but let’s keep it our little secret,” may result in further awkward and inappropriate responses. This “courting” behavior often feels overwhelming to the child and may be frightening to the parent as well. This fear can lead to a squelching of appropriate touch and affection so necessary for emotional maturation.
Well-defined generational boundaries are vital for healthy sexual development. Children are supposed to lose rather than win the Oedipal struggle, with the parents’ gentle guidance in accepting reality versus fantasy. They may not like giving up these romantic illusions, but they must! It is better that they accept this disappointment as preschoolers than to grow up romantic fools pursuing partners that are unavailable or worse.
Adolescent Development: Who Am I?
Teenage development, to say the least, can be a very difficult transition for both the teen and his parents. In addition to the emerging social needs of belonging and fitting in to larger groups, two of the earlier stages are re-visited: becoming autonomous (nine months to two and a half years) and seedling sexuality (four to six years), which have been lying more or less dormant during the elementary school years. The newly forming adolescent’s separation from her parents with the simultaneous blossoming of sexuality can be downright anxiety-provoking and frustrating for the whole family. Additionally, if these developmental steps were mishandled early on, the teen years can be even more tumultuous.
In the arena of autonomy, the “terrible twos” can come back with a vengeance. The teen who never achieved an initial, albeit immature, sense of self in early childhood may go to extremes of attitudes, risky choices and behaviors in a dramatic attempt to establish distance and distinction. Other adolescents, who were thwarted by early trauma or oversight of their developmental needs, may be too inhibited or shut-down to venture forth into the world, fearfully clinging to and alternately rejecting their parents instead. Lost and confused, both types of youth are vulnerable to substance abuse and promiscuity. They need guidance from their parents during this stage more than ever.
So what can concerned parents do to help their teens? The first step is to recognize and support the need for increasing independence, curiosity and discovery that first appeared in the toddler years. It’s never too late to help your child develop a sense of autonomy and mastery. Limits can still be set even though they are more difficult to enforce if they were weak during the toddler stage. Choices and freedom need to be given and expanded as more responsibility is shown by your adolescent. The rules need to be flexible and re-negotiated frequently as your teen matures. It’s not so much “laying down the law” as designing agreements that work for both parties. And, of course, the more you are emotionally available to listen to your youngster, the more likely he is to want to earn your trust. Your role is to provide encouragement, safety, choices and guidelines.
For those teens whose formative years did not provide optimum development in the area of healthy sexuality (whether due to sexual violation; separation from the opposite-sex parent due to divorce, military service, death or abandonment; or simply parental awkwardness during the four- to six-year-old stage), there is still a chance to repair gaps in growth. Parents need to be adults, not peers or buddies to their teens. Frequently sexual boundaries are weak in adults who were themselves sexually traumatized or undeveloped as children. In families where this is the case, a fracture of the parent-teen relationship can easily occur. In single-parent and step-families, much care needs to be taken to ensure that boundaries are not violated. Children need to remain children and not be burdened with taking care of the emotional well-being of a mom or dad without a partner.
During the teen years, your child revisits this earlier developmental period but with the raging hormones of bursting sexuality (rather than the sensuality of the four- to six-year-old). The dilemma for the parent-child relationship is even more salient as mom or dad is confronted with a blossoming young lady or man who looks like the spouse that he or she fell in love with some years earlier—but possibly even more beautiful or handsome! If the parents are not comfortable with their own sexuality and warmly erotic with each other, this sudden attraction to their teenager may cause “incest panic.” Particularly in the case of father-daughter relationships, the father is drawn to his offspring in such ways that the possibility of acting feelings out seems real and threatening. Out of this fear he may, consciously or unconsciously, suddenly cut off physical warmth, becoming distant and cold. In this typical scenario, the daughter feels not only abandoned but also rejected because of her new and fragile sexuality and delicate sense of self. Sadly, so often adolescent girls “lose” their father’s affection just when they need it most.
So how can these awkward but common sexual feelings be handled? If we neither wish to withdraw affection nor repress “unthinkable” feelings, what are the options? Held in, these powerful energies can easily build like pressure in a volcano—felt covertly as tension within the family dynamics. This dysfunctional undercurrent can lead to addictions and health problems, including eating disorders. Acted out in sexual ways, these conflicts become perverted, leading to frigidity, impotence and promiscuity. One solution instead of denial is to acknowledge that those feelings exist and are normal.
By coupling compassion with honesty, rather than indulging in denial and repression, you can regulate these forces. First of all, when these sexual sensations arise, notice them for what they are and try to accept them in a non-shaming, non-judgmental way as part of a shared (probably universal) human experience. Next, allow these sensations to move through as waves of pure energy. This vital energy can then be used in creative projects or to reestablish or enhance the erotic connection with your spouse or partner. Handled consciously, conflicts like these can be moved through in this transformative way in a surprisingly short time. Using the somatic (felt-sense) experiencing you learned earlier in this book, allow your sensations to move freely throughout your body as life force energy. If you still find yourself struggling with sexual issues, get professional help to strengthen your own boundaries so that you can model healthy limits, thereby transmitting healthy sexuality to the next generation.
It is very important to speak to your children candidly about sex and to help them form strong boundaries before they reach puberty. This will help them to be less vulnerable to group pressures, date-rape and other assaults. Because reducing the risk of sexual violation (along with early detection of problems) is so important, this topic is covered in more depth in Chapter VI.