When our children struggle, an urge to fix the problem is a natural response. But psychoanalyst Sally Provence wisely offered a more appropriate stance: “Don’t just do something, stand there and pay attention.”
When we don’t listen, whether as a parent, friend, or professional, most often it is because we are overwhelmed. The part of our brain needed to reflect on how to help may shut down in the face of distress. We want to help, but we feel helpless. We want to “do something.” But without listening, these jumps to action may inadvertently close off, or silence, a child’s communication. When we pause for a moment of human connection and communication, we discover a path to healing.
In a recent visit to my office, Jennifer, mother of three-month-old George, described such a situation. She and her husband were fighting all the time. He worked long hours and had little left to offer her at the end of the day. She was struggling with feelings of anxiety that had plagued her much of her life, but which had worsened during her pregnancy. Although she felt her milk supply was good, George’s pediatrician had suggested she supplement with formula, as at the last visit George had not gained sufficient weight. This ran counter to Jennifer’s own intuition, as she observed what she felt to be a robust and healthy baby.
The pediatrician, suspecting a possible connection between poor weight gain and Jennifer’s emotional struggles, had referred the pair to me. Jennifer exuded anxiety. She held her body tensely, speaking in clipped, terse sentences while her long hair partially obscured her face. After we spoke for a while, George, who had been sleeping in his carrier, began to fuss. She looked at me uncertainly. “Should I give him the bottle now?” she asked. I responded with a question, asking her what she thought was best for George. After a moment of uncertainty, she said she would nurse him. When I nodded, she brought him to her breast. Over the course of the next forty-five minutes, as she shared more of her story, she saw him through nursing, fussing, burping, and more nursing, until he was quiet and calm, offering me a delighted smile as he sat comfortably on her lap. Jennifer swept her hair from her face and looked lovingly at her baby, her whole body relaxed in pleasure.
As our visit came to an end, Jennifer’s overwhelmed feelings reemerged. “What do I do to protect him from the stress, from my anxiety?” We agreed she needed to continue treatment for her anxiety, and she and her husband needed to work to reconcile their differences.
But she answered her own question. She looked at her peaceful, content baby and said, “I want to focus on being with George. He seems to be doing well.” “Yes,” I replied.
A few weeks later Jennifer came with George and her husband, Eric. Motivated by the growth she saw in George—he was now gaining weight—she wanted her husband to join her in supporting his healthy development. Our first visit had demonstrated to her just how connected George was, and she was able to demonstrate this to Eric. The three exchanged grins of delight as George, so sensitive and attuned to their emotional state, cooed happily while kicking his legs from the blanket on the floor. At his six-month well visit to the pediatrician, George was thriving. Jennifer’s anxiety had abated; her mood and spirits were much improved.
Connectedness regulates our physiology and protects against the harmful effects of stress. Charles Darwin, in a work of great observation and insight, though less well known than the Origin of Species, addresses the evolution of the capacity to express emotion. He identifies the highly intricate system of facial muscles, and similarly complex systems of muscles modulating tone and rhythm, or prosody, of voice that exist only in humans. These biologically based capacities indicate that emotional engagement is central to our evolutionary success.