Wednesday, March 26, 2008

toddler needs impact adult needs

I wrote this piece ages ago and never posted it because at the time, it seemed too long for a blog post. But, it needs to see the light of day..... the timing is right.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson promoted his theory that at every stage of human development, we are confronted by a conflict we need to resolve through our interactions and actions within the environment we are born into before we can successfully move forward to tackle another conflict. If we for any reason the conflict is not resolved, Erikson believes we continue to struggle with issues pertaining to the stage and remain in a state of arrested development.
These stages continue on right through to old age, with the underlying presupposition that we are always working towards self sufficiency, independence, autonomy. If we are a healthy well evolved individual who has been successful in our relationships, productive in our work etc, we will eventually end up in our twilight years with a resounding feeling of self actualization. Or something like that.

The first stage human being newbies wrestle with is "trust vs. mistrust," and it is resolved through safe, secure, consistent care and unconditional love from the parents or caregivers. We all know that a baby thrives if their physical and emotional needs are met. They learn to trust and to feel secure knowing that their little world is predictable and stress free. They learn that their dependence on their Mom and Dad is healthy and expected.

What happens if a baby is not born into such an ideal environment? Most babies arent. What if the first couple of years of their lives are fraught with inconsistency in love and belonging and in the physical and emotional care needed to fully thrive? What if the baby feels abandoned all the time, or never has a chance to bond or attach with their primary caregivers? A wide range of consequences take place, and really depends on if intervention to rectify the situation happens quickly and on the level of abandonment and distrust that is instilled. A baby's temperment also plays a role. Some babies for whatever reason need more attention and reassurance than other babies............just like kids............just like adolescents............just like adults.

Many find it quite dubious that a bad start in life, even if it is just in the first year of life can affect a person for the rest of their life. Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes a person is not affected.. And yet, it can happen, and it most often manifests itself through the inability to maintain healthy relationships.

The second developmental milestone according to Erikson is Autonomy vs Shame or Doubt. Think of that toddler, who is playing just down the hall a bit from his Momma. He is an industrious little being, focused on the piling of blocks into a tower and knocking it down........trying to manipulate a telephone dial with his newly found fine motor skills. Comfortable and relaxed in his environment and seemingly oblivious of where Momma is. All of a sudden, his head comes up and he frantically looks for Mom or drops his toys and toddles off to find her...........just for reassurance. He's feeling independent enough to play for a little while, but then needs to know where the safety valve is.

We promote autonomy.........and for good reason. It is our social conditioning that also promotes independent thought and problem solving. Learning to be autonomous is a skillset all animals teach their young. It's a survival thing. If we are confident in our coping and problem solving abilities............if we can figure it out and rely on ourselves to look after ourselves we have a better chance of surviving. Autonomy vs. Shame or Doubt is where this skill begins to find it's foundation.
And if a baby has never felt a sense of trust in his world, how in the heck is he going to work on becoming autonomous.?? How is he going to learn to trust himself and others? There are many in our communities who struggle with how much to trust, and how much to rely on themselves. Decisions impacting the type of relationships they find themselves in and how they end up can sometimes be traced back to a rocky start like this.

If your first bonding experiences weren't healthy.......

Recently, I learned about a little boy who has serious attachment issues. He fights, bullies, acts out. He breaks into homes and makes big messes. He is rude and inpudent with his teachers. He even bad mouths police officers and any other people of authority. He doesn't give a shit.......or that is what his attitude and behaviour screams.........LOUDLY. Abused sexually, physically and emotionally.......neglected, and brought up in a violent yelling home....... surrounded by damaged adults who escape through drugs and alcohol...not one positive male role model in his life it any wonder???

He is now 11 years old. There are many professional people who could figure out how to save this little guy and yet he seems to have already been written him off with comments from them predicting he will end up in jail........he will do something really bad when he gets a little older.........he will end up incarcerated.

He needs a big brother ........ a strong male who can challenge, encourage, accept and teach........and who could love him give him the rules and structure he is so lacking.......and to role model goodness........ ONE Big Brother. I guess the waiting list is 2 years long!! Any takers out there????

Today, I spoke with a person who grew up in a similar environment.......never had a place to call home.....was moved from one foster home to another. Driven and determined was his temperment, however. He was able to maintain his focus on school and survival. Friendly and engaging he remained. He never acted out like this kid, so he ended up finding people who finally loved him unconditionally, who mentored him and never gave up. They also never let him down. The early damage was undone..............for the most part, thought he tends to second guess himself in certain situations, and needs reassurance on a job well done more than most. But apart from that? He thrives and feels a sense of belonging.

Autonomy only happens when healthy people connections are made and when one can RELY and COUNT on the people connections to be there. They aren't going away.......and they are there to cheer you on along your journey. Autonomy doesn't mean one has to take the journey all alone. In fact, our confidence to be autonomous and to be able to love ourselves enough to reach out to others in a healthy manner is fed by the love and unconditional regard we feel, see, touch and hear from others.

We all have the toddler in us. It reappears when we are unsure of our footing. We return to that saucer eyed stage when we are confronted by new, by uncertainty. Those times make us waffle and stagger a bit.....make us double check on our supportive people in our lives. And if we don't have someone just down the hall keeping an ear out for us in those challenging moments.......we all fall down...........

My heart goes out to the little bully kid who has been basically written off by the system. My guess is that he will end up in the court system for most of his life and still won't meet up with the help he needs. Where can he go to learn how to connect to his community? Who can he turn to if he EVEN knew he needed to turn to someone? One little kid whose barking out through his actions a cry for help and we are failing him miserably. He's definately not the only one either. I wish I could bring him home and be the one who is there to help him find his footing. What is so darn frustrating when you hear these stories........ you can't do a damn thing about it.


OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

Such a heartbreaking thing this...And as you said, what can you do? Sometimes the damage to a person is so great and from such an early early time---and on a cellular level, that it cannot be changed or fixed....(I am not so sure about Erik Ericksons theory's...) This boy....One hopes he is not lost forever already...But...But....Chances are, as you said, he is....Sad to say.

Dana...I will be answering your email in the next few days...I LOVED it! Tomorrow I have "visitors"--A "Ladies Who Lunch" with one Gentleman present,, and so I probably won't be able to get to it till Thursday or Friday....! I send you hugs, my dear.

Under there... said...

I spend a large part of my work dealing with issues that drive people into alienation from society. I also know that many of those issuse have been there a long time. No one arrives at the homeless shelter without a context of littered and damaged relationships. The most heart-wrenching thing is watching it unfold in the lives of the kids who stay at the shelter and feeling powerless to do anything about it. Clinical referrals and notification of the's never enough. We are working on people who now are in their third generation of staying at the shelter. It's always the kids that break my heart

Charles LeBlanc said...

My god???? Long winded blogs lately???

You sure you don't have ADHD????


Now don't walk 0ver me like in the picture I took of ya yesterday!!!

Baby-Sweet-Pea said...

Erikson's theory was one of the more interesting ones I studied in university. Some of it was a little "out there" but all in all...pretty much bang on. Your story about the young boy here is sad. Sad that it is happening to him and so many others like him. Thank goodness for the other boy who was able to get the love and positive environment he needed to change things. No doubt he will always need reassuring...who doesn't...

And our society is lacking programs; social, grass roots programs to help kids like this. See things all the time where the "system" does all it can but there are no community programs to assist in the transition from clinical to real life.

kenju said...

Luckily, I don't have much experience with kids like that. But there are two of those bully kids in jail here now, for murdering a beautiful young woman (pres. of her class at UNC) and a young man in grad school at Duke. The police think it was a gang initiation. Two wonderful people, who would have made great contributions to the world - cut down in their prime by the likes of two punks (one of whom is only 17.)

Awareness said...

Naomi.....glad you liked the email! I was a bit yappy wasn't I? :)

THE most difficult situations I encounter is when I am meeting with someone with a baby and I don't see the bonding or the ability to care properly for the child. I used to see more of that when I was in another division of my dept, and it took all my energy and fortitude not to take the babe and run the other way!!
Since my background and specialization is actually related to children, particularly pre-schoolers I often use my knowledge as at teaching tool, all the while I'm assessing the baby's developmental milestone stuff.....while chatting with the parent. If there is something VERY amiss, I pass on the information through to the proper channels for follow up.

Under there. One of the thoughts I have working in the field you and I do is that I may have studied child psychology, but more often than not, the adults I work with have an arrested development due to many many issues and life traumas. yes, like you I see it that was too. Homelessness, living off the welfare system is most definately a symptom of many deeper issues. No one chooses this's a result of very bad stuff happening. That's what has to be the focus.

Sobering up only works if there is a chance to allow a person to recognize the hurts and to heal from them before the self medicating can stop.

yes, I also see third generation individuals who have only known this has turned poverty into a culture. It's very very sad.....

Hey Charles! I had written this one a couple of months ago and had it all ready to go in my drafts. I thought I'd post it after I read TJ's blog post. :)

Awareness said...

Baby Sweet pea.....Erikson and Adler were the two theorists I liked best when studying. One of the aspects re: Erikson is the fact that his milestones continue beyond childhood.....and seem to be quite applicable. Gail Sheehy made a killing with her book Passages based on Erikson's work. As for Adlerian Psychology, I think if I was to pursue my PhD in Psych in my next life, I would venture into his world. I often find myself applying his thoughts and theory when counselling.... It just seems like a natural fit for me.

Community development related programs? We definately need more of them, but there are really great programs happening in the public housing communities....some of which I have been asked to write about for the paper....whether they will see the light of day, we'll see. :)

Judy.....such a sad sad story. It's always so tragic when this happens, whether it's through violent acts like the one you shared, or through senseless accidents. WE have so many wounded and broken and very messed up individuals out there. Lost in a sea........... one of the reasons why I am a firm believer in gun control. If we can help them heal, we should'nt be giving them carte blanche to sub machine guns. It makes no sense to me.