Great Kids, Great Parents

Infant/Child Development and the Importance of Children's Feelings

Nature's Gift

Seeing and understanding feelings

In this series of newsletters, we are focusing on what we call The Revolution in Infant and Child Development. We are exploring the three pillars of this revolution: Feelings, Language, and Intelligence. We are in the midst of examining the first of these—feelings.

Happy Parenting!

Dr. Paul

Feelings:  Nature’s Gift  

Feelings are remarkable. They truly are nature’s gift. They provide us with a tremendous opportunity. Feelings provide communication and motivation. We now can “see” feelings and understand how they work.    

Communication

Feelings help us communicate—with ourselves and with others. Babies express our primary, built-in, inherited feelings—through their facial, bodily, and verbal expressions. Babies are like a dictionary of feelings.  

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These primary feelings combine with each other and experience to form our more complex adult emotional life.    

Motivation

Feelings are the most important things in our lives. Why? Feelings make up our sense of “self.” Feelings motivate behavior. Behaviors are the result of feelings. Feelings lead to actions.  

Now we can focus on the feelings which cause the behaviors. We can teach about feelings in our schools, to new parents, to our medical professionals, to politicians. This is being done through work on social-emotional learning in schools as well as books, such as Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and How Children Succeed by Paul Tough.    

We Can “See” Feelings

Now we can “see” feelings. We can link the facial expressions of the baby or adult with the inborn feelings. Many of us can name the eight or nine feelings which human beings are born – the basic feelings which then combine with each other and experience to develop into our more sophisticated adult emotional life. Thus, we can “label” the feelings of the young or the adult… and therefore have that help in understanding others, ourselves, and aspects of interpersonal relationships. This opportunity occurs because of the work of Darwin, Tomkins, Ekman, and others.    

We Can Understand Feelings—And How They Work

Thanks to recent research, we now understand feelings—the answers are right in front of us. We know what the basic inborn feelings are, how they develop over the human life span, and, most importantly, how feelings work. This knowledge has emerged with Darwin’s work nearly 150 years ago, Freud’s work about 100 years ago, and more recent neurobiological and psychological research, particularly that of Tomkins and his colleagues. I would suggest we are especially helped now by our ability to see and understand two feelings in particular:  interest and anger.    

What Happens When We Do Not Understand How Feelings Work?

What if we do not use this opportunity, this “Nature’s Gift”—feelings?  

Consider the following. Many parents still hit – or, euphemistically, spank – their children in order to achieve certain behavioral compliance, not understanding how feelings and behavior work.  

Intimate adult relationships are often marred or ruptured due to a lack of understanding of others’ as well as one’s own feelings – in the United States, approximately 40% of marriages end in divorce.  

Millions upon millions of children are on amphetamines (Adderall) or amphetamine-like drugs (Ritalin, Focalin) due to the diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—a disorder which in many cases results from early misunderstandings and mismanagement of feelings.  

The amount of violence in our society – homicides and other violent crimes – and the numbers of incarcerated people speak at least in part to traumatic early environments and character structures which were adversely influenced by poor understanding of development and feelings.  

International relationships are frequently problematic due to misunderstanding of emotions and signals. Religion and racism disrupt our societies because the feelings underlying them are not understood. And teaching and education suffer because of a failure to understand how feelings work.  

Next Steps

So how might we address this issue of feelings? Let’s first take a very brief look at the history of feelings, and then move quickly to the past 150 years or so and people who have opened our eyes. People such as Darwin, Freud, Tomkins, and various neurobiologists – those who, like van Leeuwenhoek, taught us to see.  

Then we will explore feelings at their origin, in infants and young children, to help us understand how feelings really work. Finally, we will take a look at how understanding feelings may help us comprehend such issues as education, religion, and politics.

 

News from Africa...

Trying to Halt Physical Punishment: http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/pages/frame.html      

 

References for Interested Readers:

  • Darwin, C (1872). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Third Edition, P. Ekman, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Goleman, D (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
  • Tomkins, SS (1991). Affect Imagery Consciousness Vol. III: The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.
  • Tough, P (2012). How Children Succeed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Paul C. Holinger, M.D., M.P.H., is a psychiatrist and adult and child/adolescent psychoanalyst. He is author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk.

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