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IQ is Only Half the Picture: Cultivating your Child's Emotional Intelligence

The First Rite of Passage: The Right to Exist

What is happening:

This developmental stage spans the second trimester in the womb, through birth, and the first six months of life. Recent research published in the Journal of Perinatal Research and The Secret Life of the Unborn Child (Thomas Verny, 1994) demonstrates that the fetus is surprisingly aware of, and responsive to, its mother's feelings, as well as to a range of stimuli in the nearby environment, such as bright lights, loud noises, music and even the quality and tone of other people's voices. From within the womb - before an awareness of "self" has emerged - the fetus is profoundly affected by the emotional environment surrounding it, since it is constantly linked to maternal mood states and attitudes via hormonal ebbs and flows. The fetus responds to stress with visible signs of agitation, while settling peacefully in response to favorable emotional climates. How the parents feel about him sends ripples through the baby's primitive consciousness - he records and senses their joy at his coming, or ambivalence or even hostility to his presence. Neither the fetus nor the neonate have a capacity for boundary formation: mother, environment and self are one, with no differentiation. Consequently, the baby is highly absorbent of parental emotions; he feels and becomes identified with what the parents are feeling, about themselves and about him. In this innocent and permeable state the baby registers how his parents feel toward him as the very nature of his own being, and begins to form around this experience his deepest attitudes to himself, and to human life.

At birth, and for months afterwards, the baby is extremely vulnerable, and so aloneness or lack of human warmth can bring about the deepest of terrors and despair. The imposition of regimented feeding and sleeping routines is experienced by the baby as a shattering break from her own natural inner rhythms.

Optimal developmental experience:

The ideal situation is one in which both parents long for the child from a position of organic, emotional and financial preparedness. Both parents are sufficiently emotionally fulfilled and ready to give and love selflessly, and are able to pleasurably meet the enormous demands of the helpless infant. Ideally, help is at hand from a supportive family and community (it does take a village!) when the parents are otherwise occupied or feeling exhausted.

Non-traumatic birth is free of emergency or defensive obstetrics, which the acutely sensitive newborn experiences as violence and shock. Unfortunately, modern labor ward birthing methods focus on emergency measures while severely ignoring the emotional and psychological needs (and fragility) of both mother and child. The unnecessary physical separation of mother and baby soon after birth constitutes a brutal discontinuity from the intimate contact of the womb. The transition into the outside world is critical in giving the baby information about the nature of the environment he has entered. Therefore, his arrival needs to be extremely gentle and sensitive, into a warm, holding and non-violent world where the child will be joyously welcomed (see Frederick Leboyer's Birth Without Violence, 1995). The parent's joy at receiving the baby is the essential ingredient of his spiritual nourishment. Ideally, baby and mother need to remain constantly physically together in order to foster bonding and healthy attachment. A warm, soft, supportive and constant holding bathes the baby in feelings of contentment and security, which orient her toward emotional balance and well-being. Both mother and infant require protection from conflict or intense disharmony during this fragile time.

Loving eye contact and tender vocalization satiate the baby's hunger for human sustenance, and provide a subconscious reference for loving and empathic relationships later. It is vitally important, around the dawn of life, that the child's few and simple physical and emotional needs be met on his terms, according to his own organic rhythms, rather than according to the parent's (and society's) needs for routine, peace and quiet, etc.

Millions of years of evolution have fine-tuned the human organism in such a way that a baby's cry always signals the need for some kind of attention. The emotional equanimity and vitality of the baby rests in the parents' responsiveness to these needs. The baby thrives best in constant physical contact (carried in a sling during the day, co-sleeping at night). Liedloff (The Continuum Concept, 1975) aptly refers to this period as the "in-arms phase". The last thing a baby needs is a separate bedroom! Such is the pace of transition, which we have evolved to biologically and psychologically require, from one-ness with mother's (and after birth, also father's) body to gradual and gentle separation.

Developmental task:

The most primal emotional competencies are learned earliest in life. The way our passage through this stage unfolds imprints upon the basic sense that: "I have the right to be here" and that "I am welcome in the world". The emotional cornerstone of inner security is positioned at this time, as are the basic building blocks of healthy self-assertion and of trust in one's own feelings. The right conditions engender deep feelings of belonging and of being intrinsically connected to community and Nature.

The main wounding experience:

A baby's natural experience of pleasurable and blissful connectedness is sabotaged by schedule-based rearing methods. Enforced and imposed routines disconnect the baby from her organic, natural rhythms long before she is ready for self-containment and bring about an early interruption to the flow of feeling. Parental non-responsiveness, cold or mechanical handling, insufficient holding or frequent abandonment, are all shocks to the crystalline sensitivity of the baby. An insensitive, rough or violent environment is experienced by the baby as utterly shattering and even annihilating.

Regrettably, our culture - backed by mainstream pediatrics - has tended to deny the emotional acuity and receptivity of infants under two, which has given rise to their tragic isolation in bassinets, cribs, and playpens, and the disregarding of their cries for touch and nurturing. Deep feelings of alienation, separateness, unworthiness and even hostility can result from these earliest and most primal needs not being met, feelings which, even when masked much later by superficial functionality, manifest in disturbances of relationships or intimacy.

Emotional function and core beliefs:

Some core beliefs arising from injurious experiences during this stage include: "I don't belong", "I am worthless or loathsome", "Life is dangerous or terrifying", "I am alone in the world".

Some core beliefs arising from a positive experience at this stage are: "It is safe to be me", "I belong here", "I have the right to be here", "I have the right to show the way I feel", "It is safe and OK to feel my feelings", "I can accept conflict as part of life", "Life is essentially safe and nurturing". A healthful passage through this stage enables people to feel secure, connected to their feelings, practical and realistic. Thinking and feeling remain in harmony with each other, rather than becoming opposed and separate faculties. The opportunity exists here to prepare the groundwork for a strong, core sense of Self.

Potential adult manifestation of injury:

Withdrawal is the only psychic defense available to the baby at this time, and therefore shocks experienced here can lead to a demeanor of remoteness or aloofness. The movement is away from contactual relationship with others, toward excessive intellectualization; a state of analytical detachment from life, or a tendency to reverie. The adult becomes uneasy in the unpredictable world of feelings and emotion, and therefore over-emphasizes the "reasonable", the "rational", the "logical" - or the "abstract" and the "philosophical". A fragile countenance or hyper-sensitivity to hurts and slights are also legacies of wounding during the first rite of passage.

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