Lord knows what incommunicable small terrors infants go through unknown to all. We disregard them, we say they forget because they have not the words to remember, because they cannot torment our consciences with a special recital of their woes. By the time they learn to speak they have forgotten the details of their complaints, and so we never know. They forget so quickly, we say, because we cannot contemplate the fact that they never forget. We cannot stand the injustice of life, so we pretend that baby can forget hours spent wrapped in newspaper on the floor of a telephone kiosk, the vicious blows of the only ones that might have loved it, the sight of its elder, unsaved brothers in a blazing mass of oil stove flames. Like Job’s comforters, we cannot believe that the innocent suffer. We see, but cannot believe.
(Margaret Drabble, 1964, The Millstone)
We all have difficulty in acknowledging the reality of children’s mental pain and in understanding the ways in which they manifest distress. Our children can, in turn, feel in a lonely predicament, misunderstood, unable to communicate or themselves understand the nature of their problem. Intense feelings are frequently, if temporarily, overwhelming and this is probably never more so than in infancy. When distressed we look to others for holding and comfort, for help in bearing what has become unbearable. How frequently do we find ourselves urging our children to bear up, to dry their tears, to be strong? “Never mind,” we say, “never mind.” At worst that part of ourselves in distress gets abandoned as the ‘strength’ of a tougher, less caring self is called into play.
In order to begin to manage these overwhelming emotions, to be able to be ourselves, we need, from the beginning, repeated reliable experiences of having our primitive, inarticulate, unmanageable, feelings held by another. When feelings that are too much for us are experienced by an empathic understanding other and responded to in ways which enable us to feel held, understood and relieved then they need no longer overwhelm us.
In circumstances of ‘good enough mothering’ (Winnicott, 1971) “there, there, never mind,” becomes “give it to me, I will take it in and sort it out.” This maternal containment (Bion, 1965) offers the child an experience not only of having their distress relieved but, more importantly, of being understood. Emotional experience begins to be rendered meaningful as it becomes food for thought. The experience of this emotional containment (Bowlby, 1969) provides a secure base from which we begin to be able to contain ourselves and achieve the capacity for affective attainment (Stern, 1985). In this way we learn to bear the experience of being ourselves.
When children are deprived of a nurturing emotional environment capable of taking in, containing and thinking about the part of the child in distress, then personality development and emotional growth are distorted. Sinason’s pioneering work with mentally handicapped children who had been physically and sexually abused has produced convincing evidence that once the reality of the abuse can be recognised and fully acknowledged by another person then a significant improvement in overall mental functioning occurs (Sinason, 1992). She suggests that the truth that cannot be told, cannot be told because psychologically there is no-one to tell it to, and perhaps no-one willing to hear it and no-one can bear the pain of it. The unclaimed feeling is likely to be disowned and thrown out with a consequent impairment in the sense of self.
A child who has not had sufficient experience of this kind of emotional containment may spend the rest of his or her life burdened with a sense of something terribly wrong and with an undeveloped, or underdeveloped, capacity to make sense of his emotional experience. Action is likely to usurp thought in the management of internal conflict, leading sometimes to self-harm and failure to thrive, sometimes to delinquency and the enactment of conflict in the external world. Deprived children learn to NOT MIND in order to bear mental pain. Kraemer (1993) pointed out that, without a secure family base, a child is cheated and can feel entitled to help him/herself by stealing, or, even worse, feels angry and envious and wants to spoil the good things around him by vandalism. Passive suffering is turned into active cruelty.
Bion, W. (1965). Transformations. London: Heinemann.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss. I. Attachment. London: Hogarth Press.
Drabble, M. (1964). The Millstone. London: Tavistock Publications.
Kraemer, S. (1993). Address to the Child Psychotherapy Trust. Scotland.
Sinason, V. (1992). Mental Handicap and the Human Condition. London: Free Association Books.
Stern, D.W. (1985). The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books.
Winnicott, D.W. (1971). Playing and Reality. London: Routledge.
Crawford, G. (2000) On minding and not minding. Providing a therapeutic space for children and young people. Child Care in Practice: Northern Ireland Journal of Multi-Disciplinary Child Care Practice Vol. 6(4), pp. 317–8