Feeling felt

Extensive research in neuroscience indicates that relationships are crucial to brain development and neural functioning throughout the life cycle. Assuming that the relationship our children have with us, their parents, is the first and the most influential, we cannot undermine the effect it has on their brain development. This is remarkable stuff.

So how to ensure we are meeting their relationship needs?

Dr. Gabor Mate talks a lot about the importance of the “tuned-in” caregiver. It is not enough for a caregiver to be there physically- the caregiver must be engaging with, and tuned into, the child. This now-famous still face experiment on youtube demonstrates this point perfectly. To break it down, children develop best when they are around emotionally responsive caregivers (as we can clearly see in the video). Behind the scenes, that child’s brain, or more specifically, the pre-frontal cortex, becomes tuned in to the mother as she interacts with him. They enter into synchronicity with each other, creating the building blocks for attunement. However, the moment she stops being responsive (even though still physically present!), the baby becomes visibly distraught. In a toddler, this might look like a tantrum. In a teenager, aggression.

Mainstream parenting practices, such a sleep training, self-soothing, time out, or ignoring a child’s whines or cries, all have their root in isolation, at a time when that child needs connection the most. Often times, simply re-connecting with the child is enough to make the conflict go away. But if it isn’t, when our children are stressed, they need us to stay close and engaged in order to down-regulate their emotions, process them, and move on.

It is incredibly terrifying for a baby or a young child, who’s every last instinct is wired to protect the relationship between them and their caregiver, to be separated or shamed from that caregiver. Not only does it harm the relationship with the caregiver (making it even harder to parent in the future), but it also affects the way that child’s brain functions, now and later on in that child’s life.

I want to be clear about one thing here: I am not saying we need to be engaging with our babies or children every moment of everyday. If they are happily occupied with something, or if they are old enough to understand being told “I would love to come ____ and I will be there as soon as I finish xyz”, then this is normal and appropriate (provided you actually go when you said you would!). But in moments of conflict the tendency in mainstream parenting is to separate, when what we really need is to engage. This is crucial because children use us, the adults in their lives, to learn how to process their emotions. If we are not with them, or we are tuned out, their brain goes into survival mode. It focusses on shutting down, rather than building appropriate down-regulating strategies. Despite common belief, there is no such thing as a child learning to “self soothe”. A child learns to calm down when we are there to hold space for them and witness their emotions. What mainstream parents usually refer to when they say “self soothe”, is the child’s coping mechanism engaged in the process of shutting down to protect themselves.

Dr. Dan J. Siegal, a well known clinical psychiatrist at UCLA, pioneered the idea of “feeling felt”, based on his research on brain development. Feeling felt is a strategy that we, as parents, can use when our infant or toddler is making demands on us that feel draining, ridiculous, or impossible to meet. By shifting the perspective away from the behaviour you wish your child would change, to asking yourself “what is my child experiencing?”, we can come up with creative ways to handle the situation that support connection over separation and help resolve the conflict. This is empathy at it’s core, and giving it to our kids is an effective way of a) building a strong relationship with our children, b) enabling them to pass that empathy on to others and c) build up the brain circuitry required for resolving conflict.

A recent study has shown that empathy has dropped almost 50% in young people in the U.S. since the 1980’s and 1990’s. Incidentally, this is exactly when sleep training, self-soothing and time-outs became popular parenting techniques. Meanwhile, levels of narcissism have increased two-fold. To me, these numbers aren’t surprising. I, and I’m sure many others, can remember feeling angry and misunderstood when I was punished as a child. I felt like no one cared about my perspective, and was made to feel ashamed for my needs or wants. Using separation-based approaches to conflict rarely has the effect of helping children think about others. It usually just makes them think of all the way’s they have been wronged. Showing our children empathy, even (and especially!) when they are ‘misbehaving’, is the best way to teach them to think of the needs of others. Empathy begets empathy.

Here are Dr. Siegal’s 5 types of empathy:

Emotional resonance: where the caregiver of a baby or a child begins to feel the same way as the child. For example, if the child begins to feel excited and the caregiver, making eye contact and engaging with the child, will find themselves starting to feel excited too. This is truly the essence of “feeling felt”- when the person you are interacting with understands, and feels, the way you do. You feel the feelings of another person.

Perspective taking: let me put myself in your shoes. Let me see the way you’re seeing this right now.

Cognitive empathy: Similar to perspective taking, but taking that one step further. Cognitive empathy is more than just considering that person’s here and now; it also includes taking into consideration that person’s memory of previous experiences and how that is affecting them in the present. Memory, emotion and judgements that all work together to form this person’s present-day experience.

Empathic concern: a synonym for compassion. I feel your pain and I want to help you. I’m going to think about how I can do that and then I’m going to do it. In order to feel the suffering of another person, you have to have received that suffering. What that means is, that person cannot have shut down and hid their feelings. If they shut down, it is impossible to feel what they are feeling, because you haven’t seen or received it. The final aspect of empathic concern is actually doing something to help them-an action-oriented form of empathy.

Empathic joy: is getting excited about another person’s achievement, success or joy. One of the most under-emphasized empathic skills that we have. It is simply, but importantly, being happy for someone else.

How can we use this as a strategy with our babies and toddlers? We can try to put ourselves in their position. We can try to see the situation from their lens, and even if it is not possible (or we are not willing) to change the situation, we can empathize with their feelings. We do not have to give in to their every whim, but we can (and should!) acknowledge their feelings and either give them alternatives, or give them the time they want/need to be upset.

As Dr. Seigel puts it, “Empathy is not a luxury for human beings, it is a necessity. We survive not because we have claws and big fangs. We survive because we can communicate and collaborate.” Next time you are met with challenging behaviour from your child, try using empathy to help him or her ‘feel felt’. You might be surprised at the results!