The other evening, I was walking in the mountains. It was late in the day and the sun was shining in a slanted way, making the whole world look lovely. Great greens and browns filled the hills and valleys. The air was still, the land quiet. No wind stirred, the only sound was the crunch of scree underfoot, birdsong and the odd human voice echoing through the cool, spring air.
As we descended through forested paths we came upon a young family. From a distance I could hear the heart-wrenching wailing of a child. She was around two years of age. Her parents stood with her engaging in some kind of negotiation. As I approached and passed, I could hear the conversation between them. The mother had been leading the dialogue but now the father stepped in.
“Why are you crying for no reason?” he said in a dismissive tone.
“Will we leave her up here?” The Dad continued.
The little girl continued to wail. Her distress was palpable. Her cries seemed to echo out across the land to the blue sea on the horizon. Could the birds, the trees and the soil hear her suffering?
Both parents, in their interaction, stood tall, towering over the child. Neither thought to go to her level.
What is going on here?
Firstly, no one cries for no reason. Everything we do is a communication and every communication contains a message. When a child cries, they are signalling something. What might they be signalling?
Behaviours are driven by feelings, and feelings are driven by needs. We can safely say that this two-year-old is expressing a need, she perhaps does not have the capacity to verbalise. She wants her parents to decode her message.
When young children feel alone, they get distressed, and cry out for care. Humans possess a separation-distress circuitry then is activated to keep them safe. When we are very young, we are completely dependant on our caregivers so this PANIC or GRIEF/DISTRESS system is an adaptive survival response strategy to keep us close to our source of security. This system activates a huge amount of psychic pain because it is signalling that we are in mortal danger unless we re-establish contact with our caregiver. The pain is designed to create an urgency to re-connect.
So young children, when they experience separation (or the frustration of a need) cry out for care. When the expression of that need is met with dismissal, they become more distressed and protest more in the hope of getting that need met. The sense of separation-distress is only increased when the child’s communications are dismissed.
It is tempting to simply judge the father. On the one hand he is clearly demonstrating unskilful parenting. But how are we to understand his actions? The emotional pattern and style of relating he was demonstrating is most likely something that has been hardwired into him from an age earlier than the child he is now trying to deal with. His emotional style is, like for all of us, burnt into his brain from the earliest experiences he had with his caregivers.
He is not helped by what happens after that either. Our culture and education system offer no guidance to teach people about their emotions and the emotions of others. It teaches us nothing about how to regulate and relate. When it comes to emotions and relationships, arguably the most important skills we need in order to live well, we are left tragically to our own devices.
Without the intervention of education – perhaps through meditation, therapy or any other training in social and emotional skills, we simply re-enact what is encoded in memory from our earliest interactions. When it comes to emotions and relationships, the past is always present. The father above was most likely repeating the communication patterns that he received as an infant.
Early learning is lifelong. It can be altered but it takes effort. Changing these patterns is like turning the proverbial titanic. The process may be slow but it is a noble endeavour. It might be understood to be a labour of love, in every sense of that phrase.