Sam burst into the office, a two-year-old wild bundle of energy. Squealing with delight — or was it distress; it was hard to tell — he ran from toy to toy not looking at me or his mother, Jane. He was unable to engage with anything. Jane had brought him to see me in my pediatric practice because, “he hits me, has explosive tantrums, and I can’t take him anywhere.” She sank into the couch. I sat on the floor, wanting to listen to Jane, but also to include Sam in the visit. At first, I focused my attention on her story, while Sam continued his frantic exploration of the room.
Jane described a scene at the playground. The other mothers had been engaged in easy conversation, but she was on edge. She knew Sam was “inflexible” and at any moment could go from happy play to a full-blown tantrum. Sure enough, as she tried to join in the group, she saw him getting upset because his toy car was stuck. She rushed over to calm him, but his crying escalated. As the other kids and moms turned to look, she quickly went from embarrassment to rage. She yelled at Sam to cut it out. This only made him scream more. Finally, she grabbed him, her bag and his toys and ran to her car, where she collapsed in tears of helplessness.
Things had not been easy for Jane. Sam’s father had abused her and was in prison. She was afraid when she felt Sam’s anger that he would turn out like his father. Of her own mother she said, “She was never there for me.” Jane was frustrated and bewildered by the fact that Sam could relate to other people, yet reserved all his difficult behavior for her.
At the beginning of the visit, Jane made several awkward attempts to interact with Sam, but without success. She was anxious and her body language felt intrusive, which seemed to cause Sam to withdraw. As she opened up and shared more of her painful feelings with me, however, an interesting transformation occurred. Sam began to engage in more focused play. Mom and I talked about what Sam was doing, observing together how he was calming down. At first he talked to me, bringing me toys and naming them and describing what he was doing. But then he spontaneously ran over and gave his mother a hug. Her whole body relaxed, she leaned forward on the couch toward him, her pleasure and relief palpable in the room. Sam began to engage her in his play, and to communicate with her. Jane told me that she had been reluctant to come for the appointment, but was glad she had.
Being a parent of such a child is a hard job. Raising a child alone, without support from extended family or a spouse, is even harder. In our culture of advice and quick fixes, in seeking help for her problems with him, Sam’s mother would find many who would offer “expert” advice about how to manage her child’s behavior. An increasing number would recommend some type of medication to control his “hyperactivity.” Helping her to be fully emotionally present with her child — supporting her in the challenges she faced as a mother — is not a common approach.
Yet current research at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and behavioral genetics is showing that it is just this type of intervention that will help children like Sam to manage strong emotions and relate to other people. A child’s mind grows and develops when the people who are most important to the child are able to think about and understand a child’s experience from the child’s perspective, without being overwhelmed or shutting down.
A parent’s capacity to “hold the child in mind” leads to a child’s increased cognitive resourcefulness, greater social skills, and better capacity to regulate emotions. If we -pediatricians, teachers, therapists, grandparents, neighbors — can help a mother like Sam’s to join her child, to accept his “low frustration tolerance” as part of him, not a reflection of her own failure as a parent, then she can help him regulate his frustration. He can then learn to manage his feelings on his own. Most important, if she can do this, she may actually change the way his brain handles stress and strong emotions.