“Watch your plants and see what they’re telling you” (Ollie Walker, Hosta grower, Gardeners’ World, BBC2, 14.6.19).
Ollie Walker has fallen in love with the diversity of Hostas and delights in watching them grow. This is some dedicated watching: the nursery he works at stock over 800 varieties. Noticing small changes in thousands of plants, he knows exactly which nutrients are needed for the healthiest growth.
Many babies are fortunate enough to be watched with arguably much greater devotion than this. For starters, the care-giver: cared-for ratio is much better – 1:1 attention at least. The sense of wonder surrounding a new-born breeds connectedness which begins relationship. It gives the baby an experience of felt safety, of being held psychologically as well as physically. This is just as well. We now know that early attachment relationships are a foundation for all forms of later development. As Winnicott said, “there is no such thing as a baby.” [i] Infants cannot exist independent of someone to look after them.
An attuned care-giver is open to a baby’s non-verbal communication -her cry, gaze, gesture, smell, touch or muscle tone – and finds meaning there. “Good enough” parents provide consistent, appropriate care and interaction enough of the time. Inevitable mis-attunements are further food for curiosity, opportunities for adjustment and repair which strengthen attachment and resilience. Toddlers and children of all ages, continue to require the mind of a benignly curious adult to scaffold development. Behaviour is a window to a child’s inner world of thoughts, feelings and body states.
All children, at one time or other, behave in ways which cannot be dealt with easily or quickly and might be perplexing, concerning, maddening or all three. Those children growing up in environments where their needs are not sufficiently met or where they are unsafe will be more likely to do this. We may find that even our best intentions and the most tried and tested behaviour management strategies are not effective. This is often because they have not evolved from a relational understanding of the child’s needs and what is being communicated through the behaviour.
Staying curious can be hard if there is pressure from friends or family to quickly stamp out unwanted behaviour. Or we may be driven by a need to make something better and hurry to provide instruction, fix a problem or eradicate pain without first considering what the matter might be. These can also be the behaviours which trigger our own vulnerabilities.
In addition to highlighting aspects of our own internal make-up, intense emotional experiences inside of us can be an effective clue as to what children themselves are feeling. This is central to Wilfred Bion’s development of Melanie Klein’s theory of Projective Identification.[ii] Bion proposed that not only can unwanted feelings be projected into another person, who then feels those feelings, but that this process serves the purpose of communication. For example, a looked after child who sabotages her own birthday meal after a lovely family day out may cause a foster carer to feel rejected and resentful. This could be thought about as the child (unconsciously) letting her carer know about both early experiences of rejection and how hard it is to believe in her own capacity or deservedness to sustain states of joy in the present.
For children with experience of trauma, challenging behaviour and Projective Identification may be the only means they have of telling the emotional story of what has happened to them. It can seem counter-intuitive, but we need to welcome this and, alongside setting appropriate boundaries, seek to find meaning in it.
Symbolism in the child’s play and other activity can be very revealing about a child’s inner world and language itself can be thought about beyond its literal meaning. For example, a child who repeatedly says she is hungry, when we know she has recently eaten, may be letting us know she is hungry for connection, as opposed to food.
It is the wondering process here which is as or more important than the resulting care itself. Through close observation and knowledge of the child and attention to his/her own emotional response to what is happening, a care-giver takes in the communication of discomfort, frustration, distress, fear and so on, reflects on it, digests it, and feeds it back in a more manageable form, often through words, as well as through tone/ gaze/ affect/ posture/ actions. Correspondingly, the child feels accepted, held and understood and receives a message that his/her care-giver is able and willing to be alongside and help manage emotional pain.
This is what Bion called “containment”, the parent as “container” the child as “contained” – in my view, one of the greatest gifts we can give to the younger generation. Through repeated experiences of this kind, children develop their own capacity to think about and process feelings.
In addition to patience, true curiosity requires flexible thinking, open to the myriad nuances of human behaviour. The same actions can have different meanings for different children or even for the same child, such as a troubled 7 year-old boy who would regularly take himself into the corner during a PE lesson and sit with his head in his lap. Over time, staff learned that he would do this both when he was hyper-aroused (worked up) and needed space away from others to calm down and when he was hypo-aroused (switched off) and in need of company and livening up.
In psychotherapy with children (and in therapeutic parenting work) we are often dealing with issues which have felt too difficult to think about and make sense of. The therapist’s task is to engage, observe, listen to, accept, be curious about and sit alongside a child, gently helping to make thinkable the unthinkable. This takes time. Emotional defences are there for a reason and require sensitive handling.
Holding steadfast to curiosity is one of our soundest investments with children. If we can start to wonder about a child’s behaviour, we stand a much greater chance of coming up with an effective way to meet his/ her needs. As Gerda Hanko (Educational Psychotherapist) and others have said: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
Michael Reeves is a Psychotherapist working with children and young people aged 4-18 and/or their parents/carers. He is available as a clinical supervisor for training or practising therapists and counsellors, whose work is primarily focused on children/ families/ parents. He is available at our Lewes Practice.
Further reading by Michael Reeves –
[i] Winnicott, D.W. (1960). The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 41:585-595.
[ii] Bion, W.R. (1962b). Learning from Experience. London: Heinemann