Cultural Humility as Listening: The Power of Not Knowing

As a physician in training, I learned the concept “cultural competence.” The term suggested that by acquiring knowledge and information we could become experts in people different from ourselves. The current term “cultural humility” reflects a kind of humbleness of not knowing; a necessary time when we feel awkward and uneasy.

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Celebrating Pediatricians’ Embrace of Early Relational Health

The Frameworks Institute (that also developed the term “toxic stress”) wrote in a recent report: “Early relational health, although a new term, does not designate a new field nor a series of new discoveries. In fact, early relational health builds upon decades of research from the fields of child development, infant mental health and neurodevelopment that has established the centrality of relationships between caregivers and very young children for future health, development and social-emotional wellbeing.”

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A Child’s Joy in Growing Up: A View from the Pandemic

Typically, the process of separation of child from parent takes place both gradually and relentlessly. The pandemic put a long pause on this natural progression. As we begin to resume “normal” life many will manage re-entry without significant difficulty and get back on track. But for those with a variety of vulnerabilities, the expanse of time to live in the ambivalence may lead to developmental derailment. Whether 2, 12, or 20 these children and their families will need an extra dose of listening and support to find their way forward.

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Creating Space to Discover a Baby’s Intentions

In a fascinating book Becoming Human, research psychologist Michael Tomasello sees the ability to recognize each other’s intentions as central to our humanness. He proposes that “the ontogeny of human cognitive and social uniqueness is structured by the maturation of children’s capacity for shared intentionality.” To highlight the significance of the process he writes: “Social Bonding via the sharing of emotions, attention, actions and attitudes is an evolutionarily novel phenomenon: individuals feel closer to others as they share experiences with them. This is foundational to virtually all forms of uniquely human cooperation and shred intentionality.” He names the age of nine months, when this behavior first becomes easily observable, the “birth of shared intentionality.”

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Sensory and Emotional Experience: Linked from Birth

Recently in my role as faculty with the University of Massachusetts Boston Infant-Parent Mental Health Program I had the privilege to learn from Erna Blanche, a leader in the field of occupational therapy who trained with Jean Ayres, the mother of sensory processing theory and sensory integration therapy. She described the connection of movement with many different sensations: body position, internal workings of our bodies (interoception), and even the pull of gravity. A number of the fellows, who come from a wide variety of disciplines and from all over the world, expressed a wish to “be an OT in another life.” Since I first became aware in my journey from pediatrician to infant-parent mental health specialist of the depth and breadth of knowledge in the field, I too have had the same thought.

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There’s Something Wrong with My Baby: Beyond Reassurance

A great teacher once said to me, “Reassurance is an assault.” When a parent worries something is wrong with their child, reassurance that “everything is fine” can feel dismissive, producing a sense of being misunderstood and alone. Behind the worry lies a story. With protected time for listening, meaning can come to light.

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What Babies Can Teach Us About Repairing the World

Recently I was asked to give a presentation for an audience of early childhood educators about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. I jumped at the opportunity to frame this powerful research linking early adversity with long-term health consequences into a message of both hope and action. Thus I was particularly pleased to receive an email from an audience member with the following message: “Thank you for your work, the workshop left me with hope. It makes me think of tikkun olam.” I looked up this familiar phrase from Judaism to find its exact meaning: “World Repair.”

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The Forgotten Appointment: Mismatch-Repair and Therapeutic Change

Now over a decade since my therapy ended, I understand that its enduring impact on my emotional wellbeing lies not primarily in the story I told in words but in the countless moments of moving from misunderstanding to understanding strung together over time. The microscopic mismatches in interactions contained in the office space, the larger disruptions of days between appointments and vacations, as well as some massive ruptures, including the forgotten appointment, all contributed to the process. They changed the nature of my sense of self and my relationships with people close to me.

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The Exquisite Pain of a Child’s Sadness: Finding Confidence to Bear It

Toni held the drawing up to the Zoom camera. for me to see A stick figure stood in the middle: big blue tears the size of her head lined the page reaching from her eyes to the ground below at her feet. Even through the screen I could feel the heart wrenching pain portrayed in the picture. Toni surprised me by then saying, “I want her to be able to feel sad.” I asked if she would tell me more. She vividly recalled experiences from her own childhood when she sensed that her parents could not accept her feelings. Sadness transformed to anger and then uncontrolled rage. The frustration of not being seen felt alive in her now as she held her daughter close.

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Parenting and the Stigma of Emotional Suffering

Families who struggle with substance use disorders can face enormous obstacles in their recovery. In caring for Leila and her parents I felt license to talk openly about stigma as a well-recognized part of the problem. Perhaps this experience can offer us a lesson for all families with young children.

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