The morning sun streamed diagonal beams through the trees as I sat reading medical literature. Periodically I glanced up from my reading at the beautiful mountains. By some unknown signal mosquitos filled the rays of sun and I felt certain I was about to become lunch. I watched for their advance but instead saw something that amazed me. The mosquito mass in the sunlight wasn’t the disorganized swarm I expected. They hovered nearly equidistant from each other and, as if by cue, one mosquito would dart towards an adjacent pest and the two would rapidly circle each other. In response to this trigger the entire cloud would buzz with swift kinetic activity for a few seconds then settle back into the previous hover energy. This pattern repeated over and over until shadows replaced the beams of light – then they were gone.
What does this have to do with my last blog about the girl on the rope course? Glad you asked. The smallest of organisms on the planet have order through some unknown connectedness. One mosquito affects the behavior of another and the entire group. Methods of communication driving interaction are mysterious but real. The parent child relationship is a complicated dance requiring sophisticated maneuvering. Every dance is different. Some children are easy partners and some step on a lot of toes. Every child brings a set of temperament traits and capacities that alter the relational cadence. Some are exceedingly intense and some very mellow. Some are highly persistent and determined and some flexible to the point of lacking determination. Some embrace new environments readily and adapt quickly and some change slowly. Some children are very active and adventurous and some move slow with reservation. Some are extremely sensitive to stimulation and some highly tolerant. The child I described in last blog was a challenging companion, but the parents learned how to dance in synchrony with her needs.
Let’s explore the elements of the dance. We connect. Humans are hardwired to connect with other humans. This bond is neurological and real. Connection is not just a joyous benefit but an emotional necessity. Secure and deep attachment with others brings great satisfaction and happiness, while detachment brings pain and despair. Our young lady on the course appeared to have a very healthy bond with her parents and this bond was vital to the parents’ success in helping her achieve. Inherent in healthy attachment are times of deep closeness and moments of temporary separation. Feeling close to a child is a joyous and satisfying experience. Accomplishing closeness prepares for periods of transitory separation and separation is necessary for learning and progression. I’ll discuss separation in blog 4. The rest of this blog will be about attachment.
Scientists have discovered mirror neurons. These are nerves that are activated in response to other people actions and emotions. These nerves are not just sensory or perceptive but part of our mind that acts, plans, orchestrates and effectuates accomplishment. Nerves create memory and memory changes who we are, how we think and act. Other people change us – we are connected. Mirror neurons and our higher cognitive centers allow us to form theory of mind. Simply, this is the ability to construct a vantage point of the world from another person’s perspective. We can put ourselves in another person’s situation and contemplate decision making from their life construct. Children begin to do this around seven to eight years old. Adults can do this well but it takes effort. Theory of mind allows for attunement. Attunement is tuning into another person’s life experience and resonating your interaction with them. This involves perceiving their needs both physical and emotional. Attunement connects with emotional states of mind and reverberates harmonic emotions back to them. To be attuned requires observation, perception, empathy, and selfless energy to align yourself with another human being. It requires understanding others physical needs, emotional needs, desires for enjoyment and accomplishment, and presentation of their environment in alignment with their sensory preferences. Parent’s attunement and emotional reflection to the child helps build the child’s identity. Effective attachment takes work. People can attach but don’t necessarily attach. They can detach from a previous attachment with psychic distress. For most families a healthy bond is initiated at the first site of a new baby. The fetus has been part of the mother and physically connected for nine months. At the onset of life strong emotions of love drive the bond of attachment. Needs are fairly basic: physical care and emotional closeness – these needs are not always clearly communicated by the child. As the child grows, attunement needs become increasingly complex throughout the child’s development toward emancipation. Long term studies on attachment have proven that healthy attunement has a lasting effect on the mental and emotional well being of the person. Play time can be connect time. Children love to play and learn and develop through play. Children learn social skills, develop language, improve self-modulation, practice fine motor and gross motor abilities and connect with others through play. Adult life is enveloped in work to maintain the functioning of life. The burdens of responsibility can squash out the enjoyment of childhood play. Attuning to a child’s need to connect in play is crucial to healthy attachment. The key is to perceive how the child enjoys playing and to align ourselves with their play style however uncomfortable it may feel initially. Rewards of bonding will repay any efforts spent engaging in the child’s world of play.
Back to our example at the rope course. I observed a family of three set out for play, holding hands in closeness, sharing excitement as they approached the course. Clearly this day had been planned and the child was excited to enjoy this adventure with her parents. The parents’ emotions seemed to resonate with the child’s and they were physically close with signs of affection. Then it happened – a need for temporary separation – no detachment but brief separation. Mastering the rope course couldn’t happen without it. Moments of transient separation in relationships can be very challenging and even detrimental if not handled well. These parents handled it masterfully. I’ll explain more in the next blog.
John Bennett M.D. FAAP
Parenting From The Inside Out, Daniel Siegel
The Five Love Languages of Children, Gary Chapman
The Development of the Person, L. Alan Sroufe
Understanding Your Child’s Temperament, William Carey
Intentional Attunement: Mirror Neurons and the Neural Underpinnings of Interpersonal Relations
J Am Psychoanal Assoc March 2007 55: 131-175,