Attuned playWhen a baby is very small, before she has language, she is already investigating the world in which she lives and coming to conclusions about what kind of place it is. Most importantly, she is learning about the people around her. Who are these big people? How do they treat me? When one of them comes over to me, do I generally feel better or worse? At the same time she is learning about herself. Am I the center of any one’s universe? Do my needs matter? Am I important?

In good enough parenting, the presence of a person is usually associated with pleasure. I am hungry, someone comes and feeds me and I experience pleasure. I cry, someone rocks and soothes me. I am wet, someone changes me. The baby gradually discovers that she can do things to affect these people: she cries, they come; she smiles, they smile; and she enjoys many other positive interactions. Since the baby has no language at this point, she cannot create a narrative of these experiences. Instead the are stored deep in her body as a template, a pattern, a set of assumptions about how the world is. As the child grows older, she does not understand this view of the world to be an opinion based on her experience; she feels it as the truth about how the world is. These truths of course influence how she acts in the world.

Distressed mom and babyIf a baby is neglected or abused before she has language, she too forms a template about how the world is. She too knows the truth about other people: no matter what you do they don’t come; if they do come they are often harsh and angry ;they don’t understand what I need; sometimes they hurt me; they often seem upset that I need anything. I am not important, my needs do not matter, I am not special to anyone. This baby too grows up with deep unexamined assumptions about the nature of the world; this girl too acts based on those assumptions.

A person does act differently based on what they know about the world around them. Imagine that you have just started a new job that you are very excited about. On the third day you get an email from the CEO of the company asking you to meet with him the next day. You are scared and surprised, and you wonder what this is about, so you ask a co-worker. The co-worker says, “oh, don’t worry, he meets with all new employees. He is a great guy, he loves to help new people and make sure they have the resources to learn and develop in the company”. How would this influence your subsequent preparation for the meeting? How would it influence how you act in the meeting?

Oh the other hand, imagine that when you ask your co-worker about the meeting she says: “Oh my God, I’m sorry to hear that. The CEO here is a total idiot. He’s always yelling at us for something. When a new person is hired he always tried to intimidate them into performing well. He has to establish that he’s the boss and tell you what will happen if you do anything wrong.” How would this influence your subsequent preparation for the meeting? How would it influence how you act in the meeting?

We act differently towards people based on our unexamined, unarticulated assumptions about them.

We Can Change Templates

Luckily, even though these templates are formed early and stored deep in the lower part of the brain, they can be changed. Our central job in treatment is to change the child’s assumptions about people from: people are mean. You can’t trust them and they hurt you. Best to stay away from them and take care of everything your self. to: people can be nice. Some are trustworthy and will gladly help you. Some will love you. Connections with others will make your life better and easier. We will also be changing that child’s assumptions about them self: from I am no good, I am unlovable, I am not worth taking care of, I am worthless to: I matter, my needs are important, I have something to offer, I am worth while.

So how do we do that? We think about all the qualities we wish the child expected in other people. Then we ourselves exemplify those qualities. And we create positive, pleasurable, fun interactions for the child with adults. We include many pleasurable activities that involve physical activity, rhythm, movement, art, music, dance, etc. This will open the lower brain so that more change is possible. And we have to continue doing these things over and over again for a long time. The brain can change, but it takes many repetitions especially to change early templates stored in the lower brain.

So, that’s pretty amazing. It turns out that behavior will change not primarily because it is punished, but primarily because the child’s view of the world and other people gradually changes. As she begins to feel safer and to associate adults with pleasure she will no longer need to utilize extreme behaviors to push people away. Therefore, all people in treatment programs must emphasize having fun with the kids and making sure than most of their interactions are pleasureful. Sounds like a good job to me!

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