Great Kids, Great Parents

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

Our Earliest Feelings: Exploring Questions of Temperament

How understanding our feelings puts a light on human experience

We are continuing our discussion of the three main aspects of development: feelings, language, and cognition. The last several newsletters have dealt with our earliest feelings. This month we explore questions in this area.

We also have a Guest Column this month by Daven Morrison, M.D., who examines feelings in the context of the workplace.

Have fun!

Dr. Holinger

Questions Our discussion of innate feelings raises a host of issues. For example:

  • Why do there appear to be more negative than positive affects? This probably has to do with evolution. It is more important for self-preservation that the infant be able to signal when she is in trouble than when she is not. In this sense, negative affects are like SOS signals. The baby is saying, “Help! Something is wrong here.” This idea of SOS signals can be useful in helping parents focus on the causes of the infant’s distress or anger—thus fixing the problem, rather than being sidetracked by the behavioral manifestations.

 

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  • Why do some babies seem to be more sensitive to changes in stimuli than others? Why does it seem to take more sustained light or noise to trigger distress or anger in one baby or another? Why are children born of the same parents often so different in these ways? The answer to all these questions is essentially the same: the inherited neurobiology differs from one child to another. In other words, each infant enters the world with the nine responses to stimuli, but at different levels of sensitivity.

This brings us to the concept of temperament. Temperament refers to various aspects of the infant’s innate neurological responses, e.g. greater degrees of activity or passivity, levels of sensitivity to stimuli, and so on.

In actuality, things are a bit more complicated. Because the environment has such an impact on the infant right after birth, it is very difficult to sort out what contributions are made by nature and what by nurture. As Demos, Stern, and others have shown, early parental responses to the baby’s feelings or signals influence how the baby regulates these feelings.

  • What is the relationship between one’s internal world and the environment? Tomkins and Stern balance them, stressing the significance of both. In Tomkins’ model, fear and interest are triggered by the rapidity of incoming stimuli (the environment)…But at exactly what point fear and interest are triggered depends on the individual’s sensitivity (internal world). Similarly, distress is triggered by a quantity of stimulation (environment) above the optimal stimulation zone of the individual (internal world).
  • How do these earliest, innate responses relate to later emotional life? As we get older, these feelings combine with experience and with each other to form our more complex emotional life. These various feelings also modulate other feelings. For example, interest can attenuate fear or distress. Or remember, for instance, Dr. Seuss’ book Green Eggs and Ham. As psychoanalyst Michael Basch has noted, the underlying theme of that book is the shift from the feelings of disgust to the feeling of interest.

As mentioned earlier, there are many different ways to think about and understand feelings. Other questions exist. What is the relationship between these feelings and biological drives (e.g. hunger, sex)? In an integrated system such as we are discussing, affects are amplifiers of drives; that is, they increase or decrease the power of drives. Is sadness a basic, innate feeling? Sadness seems to be a later derivative of distress, when distress is linked with the experience of loss. Some suggest there are fewer than nine innate feelings, with, for example, surprise, disgust, and dissmell considered differently.

These discussions are complex, interesting, and important, and references to them can be found in the bibliography. But when one steps back and looks at the larger picture, various sources of data support this notion of built-in feelings, or “categorical affects”—that is, a discrete number of innate, universal feelings which combine to form our complex emotional life. Neurobiological research, infant observation studies, and clinical work all tend to support the basic idea of innate universal feelings. With this foundation, let’s now look at how understanding these feelings puts a light on human experience.  

References for Interested Readers: 

  • Basch MF (1988). Understanding Psychotherapy: The Science Behind the Art. New York: Basic Books.
  • Stern DN (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View From Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.  
  • Tomkins SS (1991). Imagery Affect Consciousness (Volume III). The Negative Affects: Anger and Fear. New York: Springer.

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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