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Wednesday, 24 February 2021
Emotional Development; A Discussion of Abnormal Function Print
By Susan Scott, NW Neurodevelopmental Training Center

Normal Emotional Development Interrupted

Emotions are like a filter through which we experience the actions and events in our lives. Consequently, incomplete emotional development can misdirect the course of our lives by influencing our reaction to our experiences.

What might happen if our emotional development were interrupted at the stage where the infant perceives that he and the mother are the same? Since this infant has no reasoning ability and as yet no life experience upon which to make assessments, he lives in a world of absolutes: hungry/satisfied, cold/warm, alive/dead. The infant relies on mother not only to provide essential care, but also to regulate his own autonomic nervous system. To be separated from mother at this stage, through some separation event such as a medical crisis, is to have his very identity stripped away. Before the infant has even begun to integrate a sense of "self", the very basis for that sense of "self" is gone.

From this point on the infant's very sense of survival is compromised. Every moment will be focused on the question "Am I still alive?" "Do I exist?" (Keep in mind that this is not meant to represent a conscious thought process.) In life we must have a sense of "self" or of our actual existence in the world. If we don't, it becomes necessary to direct our efforts and attention to a) proving the existence of "self," and b) defending against perceived challenges from others to our "self." This vital and consuming task leaves nothing left over to devote to building and exploring relationship with others, let alone any enjoyment of life and its experience. For the infant this might manifest as constant crying, the baby's way of getting attention. As the child grows older, this attention seeking to prove his existence may take on other forms such as acting out, or whining and complaining. The most frequent challenge to our "self" that we encounter from others is to be ignored. For a child or adult with this type of emotional wound, being ignored is excruciating.

People in this state may be very isolated, and very defensive. They may have difficulty interacting with others on even the most basic levels. Interruption of emotional development at this stage leaves no opportunity to develop emotional maturity without significant outside intervention.

What might cause such an interruption? Clearly, we have already stated separation from the mother. This might occur due to a number of reasons, including health problems of the mother or the infant, family crises, neglect, or adoption. Regardless of the reason, it is imperative to address the resulting effects for the wellbeing of the child and for society.

Level two of emotional development occurs when the infant perceives that he and the mother are two separate individuals. After a short period of frustration regarding this fact, mother and baby begin a love affair that will form the model for every future relationship. Ideally, this first relationship that the baby has is one that is mutually satisfying, tender, and loving. This helps the baby form a sense of being welcomed in the world. However, if the relationship is disrupted, the baby may again be left with a sense of isolation.

The effects on the baby of separation from mom at stage two are similar to those at stage one. However, we might draw the distinction that separation from mother at stage two affects the baby's sense of "self worth" rather than "self", because at this stage the baby has already begun to develop a sense of identity. Consequently, what the child experiences as he grows older is a sense of abandonment. He may seek to validate his worthiness to be loved by trying to win approval from those around him through perfect behavior or anticipating the wishes of others. For the infant, having the nurturing contact with his mother cut off or limited is akin to a small boat being set adrift in the ocean. The boat may sink or it may not. It may run aground, or it may not. But, whatever happens is completely out of the control of the boat. Similarly, whatever happens to a baby set adrift from his mother is out of his control. The only emotional development that can come from this situation is learned helplessness.

What about breaks in the process of emotional development taking place at level three? At this time the baby is beginning to broaden his social sphere to include immediate family members and the relationships that he is forming are more complex. Opportunities for disruption are more diverse. This is a time for the baby to implement and practice the skills that he will use in interactions with others throughout his life. Consequently, failure to complete this stage of development may lead to the child being socially awkward or maladapted later in life. We have all met such people who get on other's nerves, who are unable to read social situations, and always seem to be on the periphery of groups. They do not doubt their right to be members of the group, but seem to lack the tools necessary to become integrated.

A variety of circumstances may compromise the development of these tools. People familiar with normal neurological development will be aware that neurological dysfunctions which inhibit our perceptions or expressions at the midbrain level can profoundly affect our ability to read or express such non-verbal communication as facial expression and tone of voice.

But what about other things that may interfere with emotional development at this stage? At this time in a baby's life, mom acts like an interpreter of a foreign language for the baby. Mom and baby have a common "vocabulary" of emotion based on the development they have already done together. Now as the baby begins to interact with others, he looks to his mother's reactions for clues about how to respond to new situations. If she is calm and open to the new contact, so will the baby be. If she is anxious or concerned, that is how the baby will read the situation. Therefore, if the mother is absent the baby will have difficulty decoding communication from others. If the mother is emotionally impaired herself, for example if she is depressed, this will color the way that the baby interprets social contacts.

Because the mother at first acts as an intermediary between the baby and his next ring of social contacts, the family, how she does her job can also influence the emotional development of the baby. If she is reluctant to relinquish her singular role in the baby's life, the baby may not begin to internally incorporate the tools of emotional interaction. If the mother is uninvolved or disinterested in her role as interpreter, the baby will not be able to recognize consistent patterns in emotional communications and may consequently become uncertain about forming future relationships. Or he may become inattentive and perhaps reckless about emotional communication.

If the baby perceives that the mother is not an active participant in emotional interchanges (that is, in control) he may feel a need either to regress to a more dependent state, as in stage two, or to strive to gain control himself, becoming manipulative. Here again, it is important to note that this does not imply conscious or reasoned choice on the part of the baby, but reactive responses to his perceptions. If the mother is in a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, she will certainly not be perceived to be an active participant in emotional interchanges. Even if the mother is not in a blatantly abusive relationship, but is herself emotionally retarded, she will not have the tools or skills to participate actively in relationships. Thus the cycle can be perpetuated, unintentionally, from generation to generation. In adulthood this problem may exhibit itself in a person who is either very emotionally dependent on others, or one who is very emotionally controlling.

If, on the other hand, the baby's efforts to expand his social world are met with resistance from those he is reaching out to, a different set of complications ensues. If the baby's efforts at emotional communication are not acknowledges by immediate family members, or are rejected, or are responded to inconsistently, the baby will have no opportunity to practice and hone his emotional communication skills. The baby may react to this by becoming unexpressive. As the child grows he may appear sullen, introverted, and passive.

It seems important here to clarify that we are talking about a developmental process that is taking place when the baby is about six months to one year old, and that the social environment into which the baby is moving is still within the family. A justification often used to excuse sending babies to daycare is that they need the opportunity to socialize. This is not true. If the baby is moved too soon into a wide social sphere, without having had a chance to develop and exercise his social skills in the family, he can be overwhelmed. The baby may become emotionally "hyperactive." As he grows older this might show itself in the inability to tailor his emotional expression to appropriately communicate with the person he is interacting with. Babies do not need to be pushed into social situations with peers, and are not prepared to do so.

Children begin to be ready to interact with the community they enter at stage four of their emotional development. This corresponds with the cortical stage of neurological development. In the same way that a child gains sophistication in his cortical function from about one year to eight years of age, he also spends this time gaining sophistication in his emotional function. He puts to use the skills that he has gained in the family in a wider social sphere.

At this time, the father serves as an interpreter in much the same way that the mother did in stage three. The father serves to role model emotional responses in community interactions. From the father, the child should learn such complex emotional skills as compromise.

At a later stage children do a great deal of role-playing with peers and with other adults. This affords an opportunity, with minimal risk, to try out more complex emotional interactions and learn the "what ifs." Each drama played out represents a potential scenario that the child will encounter in his adult life. Each "you be the mommy, and you be the baby, and I'll be the daddy" is an opportunity for the child to rehearse emotional interchanges that he will play out for real in the future. As the well-known adage states, "practice makes perfect." Without an opportunity to do this role-playing, the child may become maladapted at handling emotions as he grows older.

This practice time can be undermined by too much restriction placed on the child's social time either by parents, daycare providers, or schools. Left to their own devices, children's infinite imaginations can concoct and work through innumerable practice scenarios. If the nature and number of their social encounters is dictated or limited, children may fail to internalize the lessons that they would be learning at this time. For this reason, being in a daycare or school situation that is strictly regimented and does not make ample time for free play is detrimental to a child's emotional development. This is not to say that children at this age should be unsupervised or go without consistent boundaries. In safe and appropriate boundaries they should be allowed to follow their own internal guides.

This leads us to a discussion of the detrimental effect of a lack of adult participation at this stage. While children are role playing and experimenting with emotions, adults serve as referees or mediators. They help to resolve conflicts and model emotional problem solving. Without guidance and examples set by adults, children will find ways of resolving conflicts and problem solving but they may not be ways that we would find socially acceptable. How many of you have read The Lord of the Flies? In fact, this very problem is occurring now in overcrowded daycare centers and schools where there is insufficient adult participation. Children are turning to their peers for social guidance rather than to adults who are absent from their lives.

In his book, The Origins of Love and Hate, Dr. Ian Suttie traces these and other diversions from normal emotional development to their extreme consequences, which are various forms of mental illnesses. Of course, not everyone who experiences less than perfect parental guidance in his emotional growth becomes mentally ill. There is a spectrum of consequences ranging from mild to severe. The point of this article is to raise awareness of the fact that how we guide our children's emotional development does matter. It impacts the child, his family, and society at large. It behooves us to do the best possible job and to assess each decision that we make, both individually and as a society, in context of the impact on our children.


Suttie, Ian D., M.D., The Origins of Love and Hate, Agora, New York, 1966.

About the Author:

Susan Scott is Program Administrator at NW Neurodevelopmental Training Center in Woodburn, Oregon. Several families on A4everFamily credit Susan's skills with helping their children to recover from attachment problems.
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