By Paul C. Holinger, M.D., M.P.H.
Author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk
Human beings appear to have approximately nine built-in feelings at birth. These findings are based on the work of researchers such as Darwin, Demos, Ekman, Izard, Nathanson, and, especially, Tomkins. These feelings later combine with each other and experience to form our complex emotional life. Understanding these feelings and how they work can make a world of difference for you and your baby.
The two positive feelings are interest and enjoyment; the feeling which resets the nervous system and gets it ready for other stimuli is called surprise; and the six negative feelings are distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust (a reaction to bad taste) and dissmell (a reaction to bad odors). Each of these feelings is signaled by a specific facial expression in your baby. These facial expressions provide the signals which help you understand what your baby is feeling. These nine feelings operate on a scale from low to high: interest-to-excitement, enjoyment-to-joy, surprise-to-startle, distress-to-anguish, anger-to-rage, fear-to-terror, shame-to-humiliation, and varying levels of disgust and dissmell.
There are some easy ways to use this information productively for you and your child. We call it the five keys in infant and child development. These keys can help enhance potential and prevent problems.
Key #1 – Allow the Full, Reasonable Expression of All Feelings
Allowing – and encouraging – the expression of these feelings is one of the most important aspects of establishing good communication with your child and nurturing healthy emotional development. By encouraging the baby’s interest, you learn what your baby has passion for. Interest – or curiosity – is at the root of all our exploratory, learning, discovering processes. Understanding where his/her passions and interests lie will enable your child later to make decisions about education, career, and spouse much easier with much more self-awareness.
We also want the child to express the so-called negative feelings – distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, and dissmell. These signals are like an S.O.S. They tell us when a baby or child – or adult – is in trouble and needs help. If we somehow tell the baby or child not to express these feelings, the feelings will get bottled up and cause mischief inside, possibly resulting in a chronic sense of being misunderstood, not heard, not being able to trust the environment, angry, and despairing.
Key #2– Maximize the Signals of Interest and Enjoyment
It is especially helpful to recognize and support a child’s interest. In this way, you learn about your child, and your child learns about herself. Supporting a child’s curiosity enhances his/her exploratory and learning activities. Even if the child is interested in doing something disruptive – like noisily pulling out pots and pans and playing with them – there is usually a way to redirect the behavior to fit the child’s interest and the parent’s sanity. Remember, a child’s “misbehavior” may simply be the interest feeling at work.
Key #3 – Remove the Triggers for the Negative Feelings
The negative signals – distress, anger, fear, shame, disgust, dissmell – are simply S.O.S. cries that something is wrong… “please help!” By responding reasonably to these signals, you show your baby you understand him/her and that help is near at hand. This enhances tension-regulation. The major triggers of the negative signals in babies are hunger, fatigue, and pain (e.g., dirty diaper, illness, etc.).
Key #4 – Use Words, Even with Newborns, to Express Signals
By using words early to label feelings, you give your child a head start on the important process of putting words to action. This allows for greater awareness and thoughtfulness and decreases impulsivity. “That car horn surprised you, didn’t it?” “You are angry, aren’t you?” “You sure are interested in this.”
Key #5 – “Be Aware Your Child’s Desire to Be Like You”
Infants and young children are eager to be like Mom and Dad. This is a powerful tool in helping your child with tension regulation and polite conduct. Speaking and acting calmly, putting feelings into words, not hitting or spanking under any condition, saying “thank you,” “please” and “I apologize” to your child – all this will result in your child following your lead.
These are the five keys of infant and child development. They are based on the nine signals. These easy keys will help enhance your child’s potential and prevent problems.
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