Astri Lindberg is an acknowledged child psychologist in Norway. She is also the partner of my wife’s father. Recently they came to stay for a few weeks to help us out after the birth of our second child. I took the opportunity to sit down and have an informal chat with her about some issues of early childhood, particularly from the perspective of a new father – Neil Young
Neil: What can you tell us about how important the father’s role is during early childhood, when nurturing, which is naturally a female characteristic, seems to be the most important factor – what role does the father best play at this stage?
Astri: I think in very early childhood, the father has an important role in supporting the mother and to make her feel safe and comfortable. We know that if this relationship is difficult, then the mother is more likely to suffer from depression after birth. However, I have seen in some families when the mother is severely depressed that the father steps in and takes over the role and has done a great job with nappies, bottle-feeding, putting to sleep and all the nurturing – in some of these cases the mother goes back to work early which can make her more healthy and the father is the one closest to the baby. In other instances, when the mother is treated for depression and getting better, she can take over the main care of the baby again. It isn’t that the father is not able to do the nurturing work, but when she is healthy the mother gets lots of help from hormones, from oxytocin, which is released when she is breast feeding. It’s interesting that oxytocin is also excreted through comforting and touch, so it is important for bonding between father and child that the father also stays close to the baby, to get these ‘relationship hormones’ to flow in him too.
When does the father become important as a separate entity? Fathers I’ve spoken to say that from their perspective the baby becomes more interesting at around two or two-and-a-half years because then they start to interact with you.
The father is important from the beginning, but if you ask mothers and fathers, when the mother is pregnant, how they visualize their child, the father very often visualises a bigger child, around two or three so that’s how he sees it. When the mother and child are very close at the beginning, I think the father is very important interacting as a third person, relating to the mother and to the child in a triangle. And it’s important for the child at an early age to fall in love with both the mother and the father and also to understand that it’s the mother and the father that belong together in a couple relationship and therefore not winning the competition in that relationship. The parents need to work hard to demonstrate a good relationship so the child sees love and understanding and the father and mother interacting well together.
What do you think about routine for a baby? Obviously consistency is good between parents but we assume, and baby books tells us, that babies respond well to routine and feel comfortable and safe within boundaries of regularity of going to bed and getting up, etc. But there is also a school of thought that you should let the child guide you and not have a routine and let them find their own way.
I’m in both camps; I think you need to let the child lead in some way and then you adjust. Starting right from newborns, you make a compromise by finding a routine through reading the child’s signals and then taking into account what the family needs. This way the child gets the feeling that they are important and are able to influence the world but also that other people matter too. This way they learn to take a ‘we’ position – but to do this best they also need an ‘I’ position too. Most important is that the child can get a secure attachment through getting the experience of a psychological connectedness that is based on their signals being heard and understood. This is the basis for the attachment theory. Research over the last 50 years shows that attachment is a very important psychobiological phenomenon. The reason we survive is the capacity to be attached to our parents as children. As soon as a baby comes out of the womb they seek relationship attachment while at the same time looking to explore the world on their own. To fully understand how to help the child’s development we need to understand how mirror neurons work in the brain. Around 10 years ago in Italy research was being conducted on apes. Electrodes were connected on their heads to see what part of their brain was firing when doing different tasks. During a break the apes were looking at the researchers sitting having lunch when a researcher put a peanut in his mouth. The ape brain was firing in the same neurons as if the ape himself had eaten the nut. They discovered the mirror neurons and started research into these neurons which we are all born with. They learned that when as a young baby we look at an adult, parts of our brain fire that show we copy expressions and actions. The researchers started to wonder if this was the way we learnt about the world – by looking into another’s eyes and face, our brain reacting and learning and then getting the same feelings and repeating the same expression or actions ourselves. So parents are able to get the baby’s feelings inside themselves through their mirror neurons, and in that way they can understand and tune into the child. In this way we get the baby’s mind in our mind and can give it back to the baby as something that is tolerable and understandable. We give the baby the understanding of the world, they read our signals and make the connections in their own brain – this is very important. The parents need to have the babies mind in their mind, consider what the baby feels and wants and then put that into words and actions. You can start with the baby’s situation then widen it to include others – parents and siblings – this supports their education in the feeling of ‘I’ and through that developing a deep feeling of meaning. Depression on the other hand is experienced as a feeling of being without meaning.
So baby is looking and copying and learning by making connections in the brain?
Yes, in the first years the baby is making a lot of connections in its brain and if the connections the child is making are about a dangerous world where they are helpless and incompetent, this can influence their whole life in a negative way. Many problems start before we communicate with words – feelings and emotions are especially important to mirror, including the physical display of emotions. This makes the baby (and growing child) conscious of how they feel and how they relate to the world. They understand that their parents are able to understand and ‘be with’ their feelings and they begin to regulate their feelings based on responses and eventually regulate them on their own. It’s taken quite a while for psychologists and the wider world to take this psychobiological research into account. In the beginning the baby does not know if difficult states they experience come from inside or outside. When parents mirror their feelings and mind states, then the child starts to learn to know and tolerate their own feelings. They also learn about other people’s feelings. By moving away and discovering the world on their own, they will at periods need to return to those nearest persons to get a ‘fill’ of closeness and validation. If this person then reads the signals and gives the answers to the babies own inner state on their return, it is called ‘in-tuning’. In a slightly older child, for instance when a little girl comes with a flower and shows interest and joy, it’s important that parents share this and show and communicate the feeling. The child then gets their own state validated and security confirmed. This is very important for difficult feelings too – like crying, the parents can empathise and show they understand, not only with words. It seems to be important to interact at their level, to show with your voice that you are with them, not an adult ‘I understand” but in-tuning by showing focus and concern at their level. This is mirroring their feelings and helps them process and understand the feeling.
Here is a model that I use to demonstrate this:
It shows the child needs to go out exploring the world on their own, supported by the parents delight, and they also need the security of being watched over and helped when they are not managing themselves. Then they need to be welcomed-in when they are feeling overwhelmed, or they are hungry, tired, hurt or perhaps they just need to feel close. Research shows that comforting a child is the most important factor in developing the child’s security. If an older child says, ‘I’m worried about my looks’, the parents often answer ‘it’s nothing to worry about.’ But instead they could tune into and try to understand it, saying, ‘oh, that is not a good feeling to have, let me hear about how you feel’, or something like that – this calms and regulates the child’s feelings. This is also often true between partners in a relationship too. It’s particularly difficult because of our own childhood, it’s always difficult to grow up, and we are all defined by the way we were taught and brought up. In this model it says grown-ups should always be ‘bigger, stronger, wiser and kind’ but we are often bigger, stronger and wiser but not kind, or kind but not bigger, stronger or wiser. The child either gets insecure with no ‘bigger stronger wiser’ or frightened with no kindness. Sometimes we need to take charge, by leading the child to go to bed or not having a cake immediately, but often we get into fights with our children. Their feelings and wants need to be evaluated first. Then they very often will cooperate and we can get them to listen to our demands. We should use ‘time-in’ rather than ‘time-out’ – after tantrums I think you should stay with them not isolate them, take them out of the situation of discomfort, but help them to calm down by being with them and understanding their feelings not punish them.
This seems a great way to build confidence and self-esteem. I read recently that traditionally it was thought that bullies were children with low self-esteem, but now recent research shows that this isn’t the case, and bullies can actually be those with high self esteem. An idyllic childhood consisting of constantly been told they are perfect, fantastic and every drawing they do is magnificent is not necessarily a recipe for success.
I’m not familiar with that research, but I think it makes sense. After the strict upbringing of the fifties, the next generation was eager to be freer and more generous, but it can develop narcissism if we give the child the feeling of being better than everybody else by praising them all the time. We must help out children to see and understand other people’s feelings.
A healthy childhood starts with the regulation of feelings, and as the child develops they become better able to regulate themselves, but will always need the help of others – as we all do, even when we are older. It’s a big lesson when a child can learn to reflect on other people’s mental states, and can see for instance that others are sad. Reflecting is a very good skill to show and teach, and reflecting on how others feel is very useful. This of course is a problem in adult relationships too, lots of adults aren’t good at this. When a child is with other children, if they can recognise the emotions of others (using their own mirror neurons), and can name it, and know that feeling themselves, then it is much harder for them to be bullies.
Also we should always consider our own childhood perceptions and fears. We talk about grown-ups’ ‘shark music’. This is a concept derived from the film ‘Jaws’. If you show a film clip of someone swimming in a deep blue ocean with beautiful classical music it’s a wonderful experience. But then you show the same visual image with the soundtrack of Jaws and the same picture can give the feeling that it’s dangerous to go swimming. It’s a good metaphor for how we project our own feelings onto our children and we don’t understand it’s really from our childhood, we see it just as a dangerous feeling and we shut down emotionally – then we are not able to see our children’s needs. This is true for every situation your child may be in; in the playground; in their relationships, etc. – we must develop our own consciousness of how our own shark music plays. And both parents carry this, so both must learn to know their own shark music in every situation for the child – and for each other.
Of course, when we don’t live up to our own expectations and make mistakes we get disappointed and think we have let our child down. But if we strive to do the right thing, constantly share ideas and reflections with our partner or close friends in order to be more able to see our own shark music, then we are more able to tune-in, and if we remember to be bigger, stronger, wiser and also kind – research shows that getting it exactly right 30% of the time is a very good result and we will have a good chance of giving our child a secure attachment. This is like a vaccination against depression and other psychological problems later in life.
Thank-you, and happy Father’s Day in Australia for 2nd September.
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