Sunday, January 12, 2014

Child's justice

Any therapist or good parent knows it’s destructive to tell a child not to have a feeling that he has.  Active listening and empathy show respect for the ultimate, idiosyncratic legitimacy of the child’s emotions.  If a youngster “hates” his teacher, there is some real, even physiological, meaning to his expression.  If she is uncomfortable around her uncle, hopefully her feelings are not minimized.

Not only do we respect the child’s feeling, we also help him discharge it with congruent meaning.  If he is angry at his teacher, he rails against his teacher: We don’t tell him to erase the content-target of the anger and substitute a safer one: “You shouldn’t be mad at Mrs. Hull.  Why not instead get mad at that bully who moved away last year, or at this ball or this punching bag?”  What we do is follow some unarticulated law of human nature that says to honor the child’s core “selfobject needs” (Kohut) for relationship we must deplore their breach.  Consciousness has a connection to other consciousnesses that it doesn’t have to nature.  We must call the wrong to task – the wrong of someone who hurt us, the wrong of someone who wouldn’t hear us decry the wrong.  If we don’t, we dilute the meaning of positive human connection for the child, and abandon him with injustice in his mind and heart.

But what if the child doesn’t know or remember what she is frustrated about, carries a faceless rage?  The relationship breach or disappointment has been lost to mind.  It may have been subtle – a parent’s promise that couldn’t be kept and therefore couldn’t be expressed by the child.  It may have been a conversion of emotion, hurt to anger – a role model older brother joining the military.  Or parents failing to perceive, and therefore encourage tears about, the tragedy of loss of a pet.  The feeling can’t find its true target.  But does that mean it can now be deflected, or “corrected,” or outlawed by the parent?  Aletha Solter talks about “pretext” or overblown feelings in her “broken cookie” idea.  A toddler may wail to the heavens over a small upset.  We must not condemn this exaggeration: It is appropriate to some inner truth.  The best we may be able to do, barring sophisticated recall by the child, is assume a true reason, which Solter says is the accumulation of past breaches, unexpressed hurts, that in their build-up explode in a cookie.*

A final puzzle piece to our child is that loss of emotional justice is loss of self, a painful splinter of the lost.  One can feel it happening: I remember repressing (not merely suppressing), as a youngster, pain of dejection when promises weren’t kept, and the slipping away of my meaning and value that accompanied it.  If we are ever to be enlightened enough to banish the phrase – “Get over it” – from human thought, this is where it should start.  The child cannot get over “it” because it has made her a hollower person.  And if you believe she has gotten over her loss, this is because you believe you have gotten over yours, and are passing on the lack of compassion from “I to thou.”

Interestingly, we see the adult, twenty or thirty or forty years later, and we want her to “manage” away her anger.  The dark side of the moon – all the unexpressed, faceless breaches in her young past – is unseen, doesn’t even exist.  We want her to flow in the upper atmosphere of her adulthood, when she needs to find the splinters embedded in her childhood home, pull them out, send them to their long-delayed target.  That is justice, and some peace.


* Aletha Solter at The Aware Parenting Institute --  "Broken cookie" idea, from her article "Understanding Tears and Tantrums."


  1. Thank you for your comment. While I doubt that I'm writing "over your head," it is probably difficult to push through the murk. Re: advice for prospective clients. Janov said something like, ‘You can only heal where you’ve been wounded. If you break your arm, you don’t bandage your leg.’ If your heart has been hurt, you can’t stay in your thinking brain. As the essential injuries happen in childhood, we must get some access to the child’s pain, which brings us to a place of great vulnerability. So the paradox – As adults we must challenge our soothing defenses and have the strength to be weak, the courage to be afraid in order to outlet pain and have some degree of healing.

    1. (And yes, please feel free to "link." -- Fr.)

  2. I think I've found that the level the 'core level' of an emotion that is repressed is directly proportional to how deep of an effect it has on us as well as how invisible it will seem to us. The stuffing of the very emotion of fear itself, such a low-level emotion, may lead one to fake he is fearless and can take on anything. After that lie is repeated enough, it will become "reality." The reality may have ended up something more like a fairly numb individual, disconnected from much of actual reality, who is highly driven by anxieties they have long removed from their conscious mind. Of course the self doesn't forget, but will defend itself, as the child core self still believes it is in the best survival interest of the person to be anxious and not know why. The harder they try to stuff, 'fix', or intellectually analyze the anxiety, the worse it will actually become. Until one can *believe/feel* that it is OK to be afraid, it is OK to feel the fear, they will rarely be able to see the fact the anxiety even exists, or even if they know it does, how deep it really might go and how solidly it flows through every little thing in their life. Really though, that's just my own experience, your mileage may vary :). RL


Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.