Emotional empathy is the basis of attuned attention to a child, which helps regulate the child’s emotions and establish a healthy and functioning brain, nervous system and immune system. It is vital for development. This article examines what it is, how to do it, and what problems arise when the right kind of emotional attention is lacking. It also looks at wider health and social implications of having an emotionally illiterate population, and what simple measures can be put in place to improve matters.
What do babies need?
Babies are like the raw material for a self, and how they are treated affects how they develop. This applies not just to food and clothing, but also to emotional responsiveness. In the early months of life a baby is establishing what the normal state of physical arousal is in terms of chemical and electrical nervous system signals. A normal range is established through social process, by the baby co-ordinating his systems with those of people around him.
Babies who are given an attuned response learn to expect a world that is responsive to feelings and that will help bring intense states back to a manageable level. It is only by experiencing having it done for them that they learn to do it for themselves. Baby’s systems are so sensitive that if early experience is inadequate, the stress response can be adversely affected, and brain growth and development may be hindered. Research indicates that the outcome seems to depend far more on how responsive the parents are than on the baby’s innate character or genetics. So parental ability is crucial in shaping the child.
Craniosacral is in effect a combination of extremely sensitive emotional empathy with empathetic touch. Therefore it connects with the being on more levels than just talk therapy, with the ability to influence the nervous system and brain directly. This makes it a powerful tool for normalising any developmental deficiencies in children, and helping them connect with themselves. It can also do the same for parents who had less than ideal upbringings.
What does emotional empathy do for the baby?
The most important thing for the baby is the degree to which the parent is emotionally available and present with him to notice how he is, because this helps him regulate his emotions. Regulation is about relieving the baby’s discomfort, since babies cannot do this for themselves. It involves tuning into the baby’s emotional and physical state empathetically, and calming him down or stimulating him to get him to a comfortable level. A frightened child, for exmple, needs to by soothed. This takes the sympathetic nervous system from a state of frantic flight or fight, back to the calming effect of the parasympathetic system. For many parents this is a totally natural, unprobelmatic and normal response to their baby, and happens without thinking about it. Touch, tone of voice, and feeling the parent’s calm nervous system all help the baby to get back to tolerable levels of stimulation in the body.
What an available responsive parent looks like in practice, is for example a father sitting next to the bath with the one year old being bathed, and looking into his/her eyes, observing their activities, just being there with them, without thoughts or expectations or judgements, or worrying that they need to go out in five mintues, or make a phone call. Just being there, feeling the child’s state and responding. Attuned attention or emotional empathy is the basis for regulation. For some parents who are always busy thinking or in their heads, being this present with their child can be a wonderful revelation. It is the only true basis for relating to the child. Fortunately it is a skill that can be learned by anyone – if you are interested in knowing more, please enquire about our Transformational Parenting course. We teach the basics of attuned attention, emotional regulation in self and others, relating and becoming aware of your own patterns.
Emotional regulation is often about responding to feelings in a non-verbal way – through touch, tone of voice, look. For example a mother soothes her screaming over-aroused baby by engaging her with a load voice that mirrors the pitch and emotion, and then gently calms her expression, taking her down into a calmer state. Or she might relax a baby by rocking him, or tickle and laugh with a sad, disinterested baby. This monitoring and adjustment needs to be a continuous task for many many months at the beginning of the infant’s life. Without it they cannot develop properly, phsically or socially, and suffer later on.
Differentiating and naming feelings
The next task is to help the child differentiate the basic states of eg. anger – into disappointment, annoyance, rage etc. and to verbalise these states, by copying the baby and mirroring states back with words and gestures. Identifying and labelling feelings is essential to teach the baby a sense of self, and of human culture and interaction. It’s the parent’s task to help a child to learn to identify their feelings, since they are unable to lable them on their own.
Getting or not getting attuned attention affects the growth and connections to the pre-frontal cortex, or social brain. In infancy and the toddler years, the part of the pre-frontal cortex involved in verbalising feelings may not develop adequately, and this part of the brain has been strongly implicated in depressino. Without the social brain connections, the child and later adults suffers in lacking external connection too.
Ideal regulation leads to feelings flowing freely through the body, whilst having the mental capacity to notice and reflect on them, and to choose whether or not to act on them. The individual with good regulation also has the ability to co-ordinate his or her states with other people, can adjust to their moods and demands, and can make his or her own demands on others. There is a flow within the individual and between the individual and others. In this way people can respond to what is happening in the moment with each other, helping each other process feelings. This is just what we do in everyday social interaction – understand how someone is feeling, helping them express it, and thinking about solutions with them. We are social animals, and we all need this experience to different degrees, and at different stages of life.
If parents cannot feel or regulate their own feelings, they will not be able to feel their baby, and so won’t respond to their needs for regulation. The baby will be left in chaos, without a clear sense of how to keep level, and maybe even thinking they shouldn’t have feelings, because they have been ignored. In this case these early experiences may lead to a child assuming that there will not be others emotionally available to help notice and process feelings, or to help them get back to feeling ok. So both regulating and labelling a baby’s feelings can be difficult for a parent whose own awareness of their states is impaired. And yet such family patterns of poor regulation need not be passed on to the next generation, because any adult can learn to provide attuned attention if they are willing, as outlined above.
Similarly, if an adult is not able to feel their own negative emotions such as anger or frustration, they will tend to try to supress or avoid them in their children. Often they will lash out at the child when the child is angry because they can’t control their own response. In that case the child will probably try to hold back their feelings, in essence to protect the parent from their own feelings. This is wholy inappropriate. The child then learns that they get no regulatory help, and will learn to suppress or switch off those feelings – which don’t go away.
One added complication is that the more sensitive the baby, the harder it may be for the parents to adapt to their particular needs. So sensitive children, who need the best regulation, in fact tend to get the worst. They are most dependent on their parents’ help, and also most likely to suppress their own needs to avoid strong emotions in the parents, that would disrupt their inner equilibrium. Sensitive children benefit especially from craniosacral treatment which can help re-establish important nerve connections and calm the nervous system when overwhelmed. Craniosacral practitioners are often also some of the few people with the capacity to form a good connection with such a sensitive child.
Feelings are all about survival and sustaining important social relationships. Anger indicates that something is wrong and needs urgent attention. If you ignore your own anger, you may get downtrodden by others. If you express it impulsively, you may disrupt relationships. A well regulated child can become an emotionally secure person who believes that their anger will be heard and responded too, and so they can manage it and express it in a controlled manner.
By age 1 these basic emotional patterns are recognisably in place. So proper attention in the first year can make a huge difference and supports the case for learning the basics during pregnancy before the child is born. Resonating with each other’s feelings is the basis of how we co-ordinate ourselves with others, and the degree of responsiveness and flexibility we have learnt determines the harmony and commmunication we can achieve, so it is a very important skill.
Identity and self-esteem
If we do not get the emotional regulation we need, our emotional systems develop poorly, we don’t learn to regulate ourselves, our brains don’t develop as they could, the stress responses are disrupted or set on constant alert, and as adults we may feel little confidence in coping as an individual or relying on others for help. At a basic level, if we can’t recognise our feelings or verbalise them, and have not learnt to value them as valid and useful direction for ourself, there is very little connection with the own identity. The consequent inability to regulate one’s own emotions can manifest as a profound lack of self-esteem, and is at the root of depression, addictions, failed relationships, and a variety of other social and work problems. Such people may retreat from life and focus on achieving rather than relating. But both neuroscience and phsychological research are indicating that relating is not a luxury, and having emotional needs met is essential for healthy human life. Lack of emotional attention in childhood can have severe consequences – hence it would seem to be equally important as food and shelter in the basic requirements for children.
Children simply need recognition of the psychological self – the thinking and feeling self. They need people willing to get on their wavelength, understanding how they are feeling, helping them express it, otherwise they can’t get a sense of themselves, or a sense of their own identity. Our sense of self is very dependent on this feedback from others. If there is little parental response at all, or it is negative, we can feel non-existent, invalidated and basically bad. It becomes harder to make sense of feelings without a framework of ongoing support and the sense of self becomes increasingly tenuous. And in practice this means that children need to relate to adults who respond to the actual present moment needs of the child, and not to their own idea, or an idea of what they think the child might need. They need adults who are really there.
You need a responsive and sensitive mothering experience to be able to apply this to yourself. Its not possible to generate an attitude of self-care without someone else first doing it for you. This reflection is how we learn our self-awareness. This is a genuine need, and children need to depend on adults as they mature. This is something that craniosacral and talk therapies can provide if you have not had the benefit of that experience.
Parents are often intolerant of dependency, which is partly cultural and partly the result of one’s own early experiences. It is often regarded with disgust and repulsion, however this often stems from fear of feeling one’s own hidden and deeply needy feelings. Other people won’t give what they are furious they didn’t get themselves as children. Either way, the effects can be very harmful for the child, who may be forced to be independent before their brains and emotions have developed the capacity to do so. This can cause severe stress to a child, or simply freeze and an inability to function at all. Even as adults, such children need to have a satisfying experience of dependency before they can become self-regulating and fairly independent. So there’s no way around the facts of how important attuned attention and emotional empathy are for developing self-aware, balanced and empathetic humans.
The good news is, that no matter what has been lacking in early infancy, as soon as people are given empathetic attention, they start to recover and grow. Children can improve very quickly, since the brain is still developing, and can learn to form healthy and secure attachments. With adults progress tends to be slower, nevertheless normal functioning and ablity to relate emotionally can be established, even though it may require more effort and determination. Human interaction can then begin to be a source of support and comfort, rather than threat and overwhelm.
When parents respond to a baby’s signals, they are helping grow the baby’s nervous system, so that it does not get over-stressed. They contribute to proper brain development and a robust immune system. They help the child build up the prefrontal cortex and their capacity to hold information, to reflect on feelings and to restrain impulses. This will be the foundation of the baby’s future ability to behave socially.
The qualities of good parenting (and also of close relationships) are essentially regulatory: the capacity to listen, to notice, and to restore good feelings through some kind of physical, emotional or mental contact, through touch, facial expression, and finding ways to put feelings and thoughts into words. To be able to notice and respond to to other’s feelings requires importance to be allocated to feelings, and a willingess to prioritise relationships. This is a challenge to a goal-oriented society. Feeling is much slower than the thinking modality.
Craniosacral therapy is a method which can both help parents to slow down and feel, as well as children to develop their own sense of embodied self properly. It can also highlight the relational dynamics between parents and children, and give parents the tools to change them successfully.
Relating through emotional empathy with each other is the essential ingredient not only that makes us human, but that helps socialize children who can regulate anger rather than drop bombs on others. Its refinement may be a crucial step in our survival and evolution as a species. The effects are far-reaching, not just in terms of saving on mental health and hospital bills, but also for creating a functioning, co-operative supportive social life rather than a competitive, aggressive and separatist culture. Paying attention to emotions is essential for our global society to move forward since the connection to self they provide creates stability and clarity. And for most, the organising principle in life is feelings, and the meaning we attribute to them. People need feelings and meaning in order to live. Without them, they cannot find the motivation to contribute meaningfully to society, and instead become either draining or destructive. Therefore it is in everyone’s best interests to prioritise the capacity to feel themselves and relate to others, and taking pro-active steps with infants and children to ensure a good sense of identity and self-esteem.