By Gerard Molitor
Children’s nervous systems have evolved to closely monitor their caregivers’ emotional states. A caregiver’s facial expressions, vocal tone, and body language provide information about her or his mood. Mood operates as a signal, a piece of information that tells the onlooker something about the other person’s sense of wellbeing and about that person’s felt sense of power relative to their environment.
For children, because of their fragile state in the world and their almost total dependency on others for survival, these signals are vital. The caregiver is the most important locus of information in the child’s world. If the caregiver appears strong, happy, or content, the child will be relatively carefree and generally focused on play and exploration when not hungry or tired. The caregiver’s behavior and body language will be giving the child the all-clear signal. The message is: yes, the world is a safe place and there’s nothing to worry about, go ahead and have fun.
Conversely, if the caregiver appears stressed, troubled, or anxious, the child’s nervous system will go into a heightened alert status, trying to determine where the danger might be coming from and when it might arrive. The caregiver’s nervous system is signaling that something is wrong. The child reading these signals may go into an adrenalin-fueled state to be better able to respond to danger when it comes, or may become more dependent, clinging to the caregiver in an attempt to enhance their sense of safety. Either way, the child is now in a stressed state. Play and exploration are compromised as attention becomes focused on potential dangers. As the carefree attitude that accompanies the sense of safety evaporates children tend to become more difficult to deal with and less likely to cooperate. And they won’t be able to differentiate whether the caregiver’s distress signal applies to the past, to the immediate present, or to some vague sense of the future. For the child the prudent course is to take these signals at face value. The nervous system’s motto, like the Boy Scouts,’ is “be prepared.”
It’s likely that over tens of thousands of years the children who were better able to read these parental “signals,” especially those signals related to safety, and adapt accordingly, would have been surviving to maturity at a higher rate than children who were less attentive to this information. Some of these good signal readers would eventually have become parents and some of their offspring would likely have borne this enhanced ability to attend to and decode safety information from their caregivers. Thus, it’s likely that there has been a selection process going on over thousands of generations that has favored offspring who are good at reading parents’ “signals” relating to safety over those who are less good at this. So going far back in time, the little ones who were alert to dangers, to predators, to unsafe terrain, because they were good signal readers and their caregivers were good signal givers, were more likely to survive to adulthood and have children of their own.
The point of all this is to say that our children are watching us. They’re listening to the tone of our voices. They’re reading our facial expressions. They’re monitoring our behavior. They’re attending to our mood. And this is a good thing.
Whether we know it or not and whether we want to or not, we are always tipping them off to what’s going on in our world, and to how confident we feel in relation to the challenges and opportunities it presents. It’s probably better for them to “be prepared,” in some way, for whatever might happen, than to be oblivious to it. Our children are always in the business of adapting to the signals we’re sending. They’re almost always in a strategic set, albeit one they’re not consciously aware of, that’s a response to how their nervous systems are evaluating our mood and behavior.
So this is why, when we’re struggling with our children, it’s helpful to stop and examine what’s happening on our side of the equation. What is our mood telling them? What have we been signaling? What are they primed for? If we don’t like what’s going on with them, often the most effective thing we can do is to see if we can review and possibly reset the signals we are sending. Our children are doing the best they can to adapt and adjust to the clues we are providing.
Children are much more aware of their social environments than we tend to think, and they are much more active strategists than we give them credit for. But they are largely, or almost wholly, unaware of their awareness, and of the strategies they’re adopting in response to this awareness.
Our children are dependent on us for direction, but they are often following the larger directions, the ones that we send without knowing, that emanate from our unconscious processing of our sense of safety and power and viability, the directions that are conveyed through our behavior and our mood.
As Jaak Panksepp, one of the founders of the field of affective neuroscience, says:
Emotional feelings (affects) are intrinsic values that inform animals how they are faring in the quest to survive. The various positive affects indicate that animals are returning to “comfort zones” that support survival, and negative affects reflect “discomfort zones” that indicate that animals are in situations that may impair survival. (1)
Mood seems to reflect our nervous system’s ongoing, broad, and largely unconscious assessment of how we “are faring in the quest to survive.” At the same time mood appears to reflect a strategy, or a stance our nervous system assumes, in relation to its perception of our odds of success or failure. And because we’re such an intensely social and interdependent species, mood is clearly a communicative act. Our mood is meant to inform others: it says to come and enjoy, to keep your distance, to come and offer comfort. I believe that much of what’s really important in family life revolves around the significance of mood as assessment, strategy, and signal in daily life. Mood is a nonverbal language that tells a powerful story about the wellbeing of the family and its individual members.
Looked at this way negative mood is not a defect. It’s just an assessment that a person’s current course of action, whether child or adult, isn’t particularly likely to succeed. If we’re going to hell in a handbasket, we’re less likely to notice it and have the ability to change course, if we’re in a celebratory mood. As mood researcher William Morris says: “It is only when demands exceed available resources that one might expect mood to deteriorate.” (2)
Humans survived until now because our fragility as individuals was more than offset by our strength as collaborators. That we are able to rely on others, from the time we are tiny, allows us to survive. When we have trouble keeping our moods positive, it’s because our nervous systems have determined that the odds appear to be against us, that demands appear to exceed available resources. And that’s very often an indication that we are operating outside of supportive relationships.
A couple of my favorite attachment researchers, Mario Mikulincer and Philip Shaver, created what they call a “relational prototype or script,” that presents a simple strategy that any of us, child or adult, can use when we experience difficulty. It goes like this:
If I encounter an obstacle and/or become distressed, I can approach a significant other for help; he or she is likely to be available and supportive; I will experience relief and comfort as a result of proximity to this person; I can then return to other activities. (3)
When stressed parents have access to adequate and appropriate support over time, their nervous systems begin a process of recalculating the odds. Resources gradually begin to exceed felt demands and their nervous systems begin to predict positive outcomes again. Their moods eventually signal to their children that all is well, that survival looks good, that the world is a safe place. As the children’s nervous systems register this information, their bodies begin to relax and their energies turn again to play and exploration. Their nervous systems register that their parents are available and supportive and that relief and comfort are present if needed.
Much of the work I do with families revolves around helping parents to be able to implement Mikulincer and Shaver’s prescription. It’s the core mechanism of the attachment process and the critical element in our ability to successfully regulate our own moods and to help our children to regulate theirs. When that’s working well, difficult behavior is seldom present.
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(1) Panksepp, J. (2010). Affective neuroscience of the emotional BrainMind: evolutionary perspectives and implications for understanding depression. Dialogues In Clinical Neuroscience, 12(4), 533-545. P.533
(2) Morris, William N., (1999). The mood system. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, and N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-Being, The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology (pp. 169-189). New York: Russell Sage Foundation. P. 179.
(3) Mental representations of attachment security, Mikulincer & Shaver, in Interpersonal Cognition, Mark Baldwin (ed.), NY: Guilford Press, 2005, P. 238