Capacity 2: Engaging & Relating

Capacity 2: Engaging & Relating

Along with interest in the world comes a special love for the world of human relationships. But not just any relationships! The infant wants her primary caregivers or parents. She has singled them out as the most important aspect of her world, and she lets them know they’re special. When they enter her field of vision, she brightens, she looks them in the eye, she smiles. And in those moments of shared smiles and joy, parents and baby continue to fall in love. Together they discover and deepen their intimacy.

The ability to be intimate forms the basis of all future relationships. It teaches a baby that warmth and love are possible, that relationships with people can be joyful. A child who has learned this with her parents has built a foundation for continuing to learn about loving relationships throughout her life.

Mastery of this milestone also cements motor, cognitive, and language skills. The infant learns to use her body to seek out the face and touch of the parent, whether through eye contact or snuggling. She learns to scan her world for familiar objects and faces and to pay attention to them for 30 seconds or more. She learns to recognize the sound and source of speech, especially the speech of her parents. All these skills provide a foundation for her later capacity to move, think, and talk.

From birth, Jenny was oversensitive to sound and touch. (Doctors later found that she also had a severe auditory-processing problem.) A ringing phone, a barking dog, her brother’s cry would set her off. Even her mother’s soothing voice irritated her. When her parents picked her up, stroked her, or sang to her, hoping to calm her down, the combination of auditory and tactile stimulation would cause Jenny to become more confused or to lose control completely. Jenny’s parents didn’t know what to do. Their first child had been so easy; he’d cooed and laughed and smiled with little prodding from them. What was wrong with this baby? What was wrong with them? Feeling terribly rejected, they gradually began spending more time with their older child and less with “angry Jenny.” They didn’t mean to ignore their daughter; they just didn’t know what else to do. More than anything they wanted her to look at them and smile, but that was the one thing she seemed incapable of doing. At seven months, well past the point when most children fall in love with their parents, Jenny still wouldn’t easily smile or be joyful.

Jenny’s grandmother lived close by, a remarkably patient woman who was willing to spend long hours with the fussy baby. She would put Jenny in an infant seat, set her on a table, and play little “I see you” games in which she would come into Jenny’s world from the left or right, from below, from behind a napkin. She showed Jenny toys or picture books while humming softly. She sometimes put the infant seat on the floor and rocked it gently with her foot as she sat on the couch and knitted. While doing so, she’d gaze down at Jenny with loving eyes and make happy, silly faces at her. Jenny responded to these gestures. She was calmed by the gentle motion of the infant seat; she liked her grandmother’s silly faces and brightly colored pictures. Her grandmother intuitively used simple vocal rhythms, repeating simple sounds, such as “bababa,” rather than more complex sounds of songs. As time went by, Jenny began to look her grandmother in the eye for longer and longer periods, and soon she began to smile. By stimulating Jenny’s stronger senses and avoiding her hypersensitive ones, her grandmother wooed Jenny into intimacy. She had instinctively found ways to work around Jenny’s sensory difficulties to help her master the second emotional milestone. Watching Jenny respond encouraged her parents to persist in similar efforts, modeling their approach after that of Jenny’s grandmother.

It is not only babies who have to learn intimacy. Many older children fail to master this skill because processing difficulties have made loving contact with their caregivers confusing, scary, or painful. Regardless of a child’s age, patient work by caregivers can help woo a child into closeness.

At age two and a half, Jay seemed to love playing with trucks—as long as he could play alone and repetitively. He wasn’t talking yet, and his parents were understandably worried. Whenever Jay’s father tried to join him, Jay grabbed the trucks from his father’s hand and defiantly turned his back. Jay’s dad, understandably upset, reacted by forcing his way into the game. He’d build bridges and tunnels for Jay’s trucks to negotiate, or he’d issue directions such as “Drive it here!” from the sidelines. Jay rebuffed his father’s advances. The harder his father tried, the more Jay closed him out. Eventually Jay began avoiding his father altogether. At an initial evaluation, he was diagnosed as having pervasive developmental disorder.

Part of the evaluation included trying to figure out why Jay was so avoidant and defensive. Careful observation revealed that Jay was extremely sensitive to touch and had motor-planning difficulties and mild auditory-processing difficulties. He was trying desperately to remain organized and to keep himself from being overwhelmed by controlling and avoiding interactions. Various interventions were suggested to help Jay and his dad begin relating.

Rather than force an interaction, Jay’s dad need to make it safe for Jay to approach him. First, Jay’s dad had to learn to watch quietly on the sidelines while Jay played with his trucks. He could make an enthusiastic comment or two and gesture with his own car, but he was not to issue directives or take over. He was to woo and entice. Jay’s father learned that it was best to help Jay do what he wanted to do by anticipating what objects Jay would need and handing them to him. After a few weeks, Jay began facing his dad some of the time while he played. Then his dad used a truck to encourage interaction. He played with it himself, imitated Jay’s movements, or made nonintrusive comments such as “Can my car go along with yours?” Jay looked over at him from time to time but continued to play mostly by himself. Slowly, however, Jay moved his car nearer his dad’s or let his father’s car follow his own. Then one day Jay sat near his father as played. Toward the middle of the play session he leaned on his father for a few moments. Jay’s father was thrilled, but instead of reaching out and touching Jay, which would have caused him to retreat, he merely smiled and said, “Hi.” Over the next few weeks Jay continued to lean on his dad sometimes, and he occasionally showed his dad where to move his trucks. Then one day Jay suddenly took his own truck and banged it into his father’s. An invitation! His father took his truck and banged it into Jay’s. Jay laughed. Then his father did something unexpected. He rolled his truck toward Jay’s, but at the last minute pulled it back. Jay laughed again. He liked that surprise. After a few months of playing this way many times each day, Jay tried to surprise his father; he rolled his truck and stopped it, hid it behind his back, then pulled it out. Several months later, Jay’s father held a truck out to Jay and to his surprise, instead of taking the truck from his hand, Jay climbed into his lap to look at the truck. As they sat together examining the toy they experienced their first real moment of intimacy. By being patient (painfully so at times!) and by following Jay’s lead, his father had made it safe for Jay to come to him. By working around the boy’s reluctance, he had helped his son experience the second emotional milestone.

Jay had other challenges. He required speech therapy to help him with is language difficulties and occupational therapy to help him with his motor planning. Helping him become more regulated was a critical first step in mastering his developmental challenges and sensory-modulation challenges.

From Theory to Practice: Tips to Help Your Child Master Stage 2

Stage 2: Engagement & Falling in Love

  • Following your child's lead, regardless of where his or her interest lies
    • Why? Because your child's interests are the window to his or her emotional and intellectual life! Through observing your child's interests and natural desires, you will understand what he or she finds enjoyable, what motivates her. Your child has real feelings, real desires, and real wishes. Your child will feel closer to you if he or she can see that you can respect and participate in what interests him or her.
    • But what if my child's interests are unusual or peculiar or are not things we want to encourage? This should not be a concern at this point, because the only way you can engage your child at the beginning is by joining his or her interests, regardless of how unusual they are. Assume that whatever your child is doing is bringing him or her some pleasure, and then see if you can deepen and widen that pleasure and make it part of a human relationship.
    • Following your child's lead does not limit you to doing only what your child does! After joining him on his or her interests, after doing the same thing next to him or her, and entering into his or her world, you can entice him or her into an interaction. The key to expanding your child's ability to be secure, calm, and regulated in the shared world is to meet him or her first at the level of his or her ability, and then gradually expand out from that base of security. Anytime your child becomes withdrawn or overexcited and irritable, you need to go back to the baseline and expand more slowly, and have FUN together!
    • You will know when your child is fully engaged with you when you see the gleam in his eyes!

Goal: Falling in love with each other

Throughout this stage your child becomes more and more focused on you and other persons and things outside herself. Your delightful task during this stage will be to promote pleasurable feelings between you and your child.

Emotional engagement and attachment is important because as your child relates to you and expresses loving feelings, various motor, sensory, language, and cognitive achievements are also often taking place. The milestone of falling in love usually gives purpose to these skills. For example, when your child is physically capable of reaching out and grasping something, she will more often attempt to reach for something that she is interested in and takes delight in. There’s nothing more interesting in her world than you, and her love for you will continue to spur her on as she learns to reach, grasp, and eventually come toward you, the object of her affection.

How you know your child is falling in love with you:

  • Responding to your smiles with a big one of his own
  • Making sounds and or moving her mouth, arms, legs, or body in rhythm with you as you move in rhythm with her
  • Relaxing or acting comforted when you hold her or rock him
  • Cooing when he is held, touched, looked at or spoken to
  • Anticipating with curiosity and excitement the reappearance of your face and voice
  • Looking uneasy or sad when you withdraw in the midst of playing with her

There are many ways to fall in love. Sometimes it takes a while for love to blossom, sometimes there are lots of bumps along the way. What’s important is that your shared intimacy is gradually growing. You have plenty of time to cement a loving relationship with your child, as long as you stay emotionally involved.

Your child may have individual preferences regarding what is pleasurable to her, and radiate excitement when you amplify her pleasure by:

  • Talking to him, using a variety of high and low pitches and soft to loud tones
  • Offering him a range of different facial expressions while talking
  • Touching or massaging her, using gentle touch while telling her what you are doing
  • Gently moving her arms and legs while talking to her and looking at her
  • Moving him horizontally or vertically fast and slow, through space while beaming at him with big smiles accompanied by lots of sounds and words

Games to help your child master Stage 2:

The Smiling Game

Enjoy using words and/or funny faces to entice your child into breaking into a big smile or producing other pleased facial expressions such as sparkling or widened eyes. You can chatter about the spoon you’ve stuck in your mouth, or the rattle you’ve placed on your head, or simply about how “bee-you-ti-ful” her hair is!

The “Dance with Me” Sound and Movement Game

Try to inspire your child to make sounds and/or move his arms, legs, or torso in rhythm with your voice and head movements. You might say, “Are you going to dance with me, sweetheart?” Oh, I bet you can – I know you can!” while looking for a gleam of delight in his eyes.