Rio Chama Publications

The Rio Chama Blog

The blog page offers holistic information regarding all facets of healing—be it emotional, spiritual, mental, or physical. We welcome your participation: email us your questions and comments regarding posted information or add a comment to the blog.

The How To: Continued

What about discipline? How can parents effectively handle unacceptable and even perilous behaviors that children sometimes demonstrate? For example, when parents forbid a toddler to run out in the street, play with knives, or turn the knob on the stove, Mom and Dad shout or they physically remove the child from imminent disaster. The child feels shame. But wait. Aren’t we supposed to keep children from feeling shame?

Surprisingly enough, research suggests that the disciplining experience when properly handled helps the frontal lobe of the brain develop an internal adaptation to negativity. Just as the child can call on a positive memory to self-soothe, he can bring to mind the memory of Mom’s reaction to forbidden behaviors. He can then curb his impulsive behaviors by anticipating his caregivers’ reactions to them. This is a necessary move toward social adaptation–it’s time for the toddler to learn the world is not always his oyster. Not only are there dangers out there, other people have needs and feelings as well.

But this is only half of the story. When researchers speak about the proper handling of shaming experiences, they have something very specific in mind. Stretching of the brain into an adaptive pattern means that soon after feeling shame the child has a reconnecting experience with his caretaker. Here’s how it works: the caretaker reinitiates eye contact and engaging behaviors after a misattunement, temper tantrum, or other disrupting event. These repeated “reunion experiences” of talking, hugging, and soothing ease the overwhelming isolation surrounding shame and allow reconnection. In other words, the child learns that while risky activities and emotional fracases, may result in disconnection, the disconnection is not permanent. The links he had with others are supple, allowing for the humanness of emotion and frailties of behavior.

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The How To

Each of us has our own story as to the amount of nurturing we received very early in life…from parental separation and/or abuse to consistent loving emotional interactions. The fledging ego, like a plant in the seedling stage that is the fortunate recipient of the right nutrients grows into healthy expression. But when the seedling is either denied what is needed for its growth or is actually assaulted in its vulnerable plight, the internalization of nurturing experiences does not occur and the child does not know the repair of shame. Such a child feels separate and disconnected. However, given the right conditions, the ego can and will grow. Here are four behaviors parents can employ in promoting secure bonding with their infants.

Touch and Holding

b2ap3_thumbnail_17317890_s.jpgDecades ago psychologists advised parents not to touch and hold infants more than necessary. In fact they told parents to not rock infants; to not pick them up when they cry; to feed them by the clock; and not to spoil them with too much handling. Quite to the contrary, behavioral research now shows that to foster secure bonding infants need to be held, touched, rocked, and cradled to the heart’s content of anyone within their reach.

Mirroring

When we look down at an infant in her crib with the understanding that she uses our facial expressions as a way of learning about herself, we are involved in what researchers refer to as mirroring. When an infant sees Mom smile, mirror neurons in specific brain regions tell her to imitate and smile back. By the same token when Mom is irritable or sad, the infant takes on a worried look and tenses her body. Imagine Mom looking into the infant’s eyes, her gaze communicating the wonder she feels for this little being of hers. This infant takes this in, and in grown-up language the printout reads, “I belong. I have a place. I am irreplaceable.” Similarly, the cooing, singing, and soft words spoken by caretakers cushion her world, adding to the experience of her sense of belonging and being valued for exactly who she is.

Attunement

As the infant learns to sit and crawl mirroring expands into attunement. This powerful dynamic is present when the exchanges between the infant and Mom and Dad become increasingly emotionally interactive and contingent. A contingent response occurs when the quality, intensity, and timing of the infant’s signal or communication are reflected back to her. In other words, her parents align their emotional states with hers. What parental behaviors actually occur when the infant “feels felt by the other?” Eye contact, tone of voice, facial expression, body gestures, posture, timing and intensity become a gestalt as moment-to-moment feelings and sensations are echoed back to her. The infant clasps the rattle, gives it a shake, and grins.  Dad pretends he has a rattle in his hand, gives it a shake, and grins.  A smile is met with a smile, a frown with a look of concern, a funny face with a funny face and tears with soothing sound. The effect on the infant? “Mom and Dad are getting it. They understand what I feel. We’re connected.” Through the juice of parental contingency, the infant comes to know her emotions are part of human experience, that feelings are natural, and that she lives in a world of feeling shared by others. The richness of these emotion-filled-resonant moments not only fire connections of new neural cells within the infant’s developing brain, they bring balance to her body, emotions, and mind states as well as coherence to her sense of self.

Self-Soothing

The infant thus internalizes her relationship with her caretakers which then establishes an inner base of consistent nurturing. What this means is that her maturing brain organizes her experience of being soothed and held so they live inside her. More and more as her mental powers expand, she begins to draw on the memory of those experiences, turning to them when Mom and Dad are not immediately present to comfort her. This experience of self-soothing, with whatever sensory components and imagery overtones it carries, anchors the ego with an essential touchstone for the rest of life.

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Parent-Infant Attachment Styles

In studying infant-caretaker interactions, behavioral researchers have classified attachment styles into three main categories:

(1) 65%  of infants fall into the secure category. These infants had caretakers who were sensitive and responsive to their needs.

(2) 21% of infants fall into the avoidant category. These infants had caretakers who were rejecting and did not respond quickly to infant distress, seemed uncomfortable with close body contact, and were somewhat rigid and minimally expressive.

(3) 14% of infants fall into the ambivalent or resistant category. These infants had caretakers who sometimes engaged with their babies and other times were ignoring and insensitive.

Fortunate are those who begin life in a secure environment. That doesn’t mean the ego is home free in its growth. Even in the best of settings, periods of parental fatigue and stress interfere with parent responsiveness. Nonetheless, it’s important to know how research shows that infants of the secure category have a much better chance of growing up into emotionally secure adults. And it’s also important to understand that infants who fall into the avoidant and ambivalent categories will be more challenged in achieving an emotionally secure adulthood.

Do you feel confident and secure in your interpersonal relationships? Or do rigid and minimally expressive behaviors characterize how you relate to people? Or do you sometimes engage with others while at other times you ignore and dismiss what others are trying to share with you?

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Your Ego and Your Emotions

From the get-go infants can show interest, surprise, happiness, and even distress. This was made very evident to me when I was a nurse assisting at the birth process. What a delight to watch when a newborn nestled into Mother’s arms in total comfort or looked into Dad’s face with wide-eyed interest! We now know that infants’ facial expressions are the first signs of their emerging egos.

Because the ego is the system of our personalities that both helps us survive and give us a sense of self, it fulfills its needs through connecting with people. The connections between an infant and her caretakers are emotion laden–an infant cries when hungry, smiles and coos when talked to in a pleasing manner, and can actually mimic emotions displayed by others.

Each interaction with each caretaker carries an emotional flavor. . . the stronger the flavor, the more likely there will be an imprint on the infant’s malleable sense of self.  If caretakers habitually ignore the infant’s cries of distress, she learns she cannot expect to have her needs met. Unable to develop trust, development of her emotional life is greatly impaired. What do you know about your arrival into this world? Do you have the sense you were lovingly welcomed? Are the stories told about your infancy and early childhood filled with pleasurable words? Or, do they reflect annoyance and impatience with your behaviors?

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Is Your Ego Too Big? Should It Be Gotten Rid Of?

The answer to both questions is no.  Behavioral research now shows that the ego not only is real but is also responsible for two very important jobs. It keeps us alive and gives us a sense of self. Just as we physically grow up, our egos have to grow up as well. When the growing doesn’t happen, the ego unable to cope with life’s contingencies, resorts to detrimental behaviors and emotional mayhem. On the other hand, scientific data solidly indicates that as the ego emotionally matures, spirituality emerges as its natural companion.

Nonetheless, the mythical ego is often viewed as a spiritual culprit. Early on in my clinical practice I was surprised by the number of clients who came to my office confused about feeling depressed after months and even years devoted to one spiritual practice or another. I had naively figured that those who pursued such paths had built in constitutions suited to the task. Even more distressing were those who came after the downfall of a guru. Burned by the aftermath of a leader gone wrong, too often the client’s focus turned to “getting rid of ego.” Reactions of feeling bummed out, disappointed, or angry were considered ego bound and did not pave the way to enlightenment.

This is not to argue with the way in which Eastern philosophies speak about the ego or refer to its demise. This is about what psychological theory and research from the Western perspective have to say about this important facet of our psyche that shows itself from the moment of our births. And the purpose of this blog is to show how solid investment in ego growth can change your life for the better including having loving relationships that support your individuality. Being spiritual is not equivalent to a monk-like sacrificial existence.

Recent Comments
Super User
It has been a lifelong habit to believe that when things get tough, such as distress in relationships, people’s egos can take over... Read More
Tuesday, 16 October 2012 14:24
Super User
What can parents do to help children develop a healthy sense of self?
Tuesday, 16 October 2012 14:26
Super User
Excellent question! #1 The more you learn about growing up your ego and apply what you know to yourself, the more you will advance... Read More
Tuesday, 16 October 2012 14:26
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