By Ron Huxley
The first two years of life are the most important time for children, emotionally and developmentally. It is during this time that children form attachments with parents or caregivers. Attachment is a special tie between parent and child, laying the foundation for all of a child's future relationships and behaviors. A strong foundation will provide a stable base for healthy, productive relationships and behaviors. A weak foundation leads to broken children with unhealthy relationships and difficult behaviors.
A child's first year of life is centered on getting needs met. To his or her parents, the infant commands: "I am wet, fix it. I am hungry, fix it. I am uncomfortable, fix it. And if you don't, I will let the entire universe know my dissatisfaction." At this age, this is a perfectly normal behavior from an infant. Physically speaking, the infant is a helpless and powerless creature, making it totally dependent on its parents to meet his or her needs. Crying for help or screaming in rage is a necessary survival trait, and perhaps the only one available, for the infant. Developmentally speaking, the infant is taking in the responses to his or her cries for help and deciding if the world is a trustworthy place or not. Parents who are able to meet (at least, most of) the child's needs will install a sense of security that will carry over to other relationships and tasks throughout life. Secure children are more confident, successful, and popular at home and school.
Within the first week, most parents are able to clearly interpret the cries of their child. When the infant needs its diaper changed, many parents understand and immediately respond. To the rest of us it just sounds like "Waaah!" This is one reason that children who have undergone multiple foster care placements, during the first year of life, are so disturbed. New caregivers who haven't mastered the subtle language of the child, may inadvertently cause the child to feel insecure about the worlds ability to meet its needs. This message translates into a deep seated feeling of anger and resentment toward the world and everything in it.
The most successful foster parents are able to analyze the infants language by intently studying his or her eye movements, facial expressions, movements, and vocal tones along with a experimental trial and error of needs. They have a mental checklist of infant needs: Is the child hungry? Try a bottle. Not hungry. Better try the diaper. No? Check to see if he needs some snuggling. That did it! In this way, foster parents are able to quickly break the baby code of communication. But, even this effort, often leaves children feeling anxious and angry. Many older children don't know why they feel so anxious and angry. They just do.
Another way of looking at the first year of life would be as a time for ENTHRONING the infant on the seat of personal mastery and emotional control. In contrast, the second year of life could be described as a time for DETHRONING the infant through consistent limit setting by the parent. Limits teach the child how to be an independent human being, following rules rather than making them. For example, a now mobile, free wheeling two-year-old wants to touch the knobs on the television and is told "no" by the parent. If the child obeys, the parent rewards the child with a hug, smile, and a cheerful voice. If the child doesn't obey, the child is removed from the situation or the television is removed as an object of temptation. The television is not returned regardless of how "royal" a tantrum the child performs. This is how limits are taught.
Many toddlers are able to wear their parents down with their stubborn persistence. They go back to the television over and over again ignoring mom's commands. Who is in control, after all? Mom? Not in the child's mind. Children who haven't bonded during the first year of life, will test a parents limits to the point of exhaustion. These tests are uncomfortable (for parents) but necessary ways (for children) to determine who and what is trustworthy. The toddler doesn't have the internal security that comes from having their needs met early on in life and, therefore, are unwilling to leave the situation to chance. They will continue to test the parent to see if they mean what they say.
Parents fail this test when they allow the child to get away with inappropriate behavior or inconsistent set limits. Unfortunately, children fail too, as they are not taught the skills they need for life. Children can be taught these things later in life but it is a much harder lesson, for parent and child.
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