Three Ways for Babies, Children and Adults to Return to Presence

By Marion Badenoch Rose, Ph.D.

Aware Parenting

Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting has a unique way of looking at us humans – as beings whose true nature is presence and awareness, and who naturally and joyfully want to connect, contribute and cooperate with one another.  

If we parents, or our babies or children, are not present and aware, or not wanting to connect, cooperate or contribute, then there is a reason for this:

We have an unmet need; or
We have some learning to do; or
We have some painful feelings to express.

What does this look like in action?
Whenever we are in a state that looks very different to loving presence, and we want to return there, we can review this list.

For example; Perhaps you are feeling fed up and frustrated when your two year old keeps saying “NO”, when you ask her to put her shoes on before you go out…

You can ask yourself:
“Am I needing something here?”  It could be for connection, rest, ease, co-operation….

If you uncover an unmet need, you can give yourself some empathy, and look for ideas for how to get those needs met … perhaps you may notice that you can meet that need simply by being present with yourself in a different way.  Once you have done this, you may find the emotional charge gone…

If not; you can enquire of yourself,
“Do I have some learning to do?”  Such as finding out about the developmental abilities of two year olds, or about different styles of parenting, or how to change limiting beliefs, or how to align (see or how to stay connected to yourself through being aware of your breath and the sensations of your body.

If so, you can start researching how to do this …

You can also connect with yourself and ask,
“Am I feeling upset and needing to express what is going on for me?”  

The feelings may or may not be related to what is going on in the present moment.  If you are needing to express your feelings, you could go and have some quiet time, or phone a friend and express those feelings.

Once you have worked out what was going on for you, you may find yourself returning to a more present place, and thus able to look at what might be going on for your daughter…

Does she have an unmet need?  Perhaps she needs choice or fun or connection?  

Then you could find a way of meeting that need as well as the one you discovered of your own – such as by asking her which shoes she would like to wear, or what toy she would like to take with her.

You can also think about, “Does she need to learn something before she is willing to say yes?”

Perhaps she wants to learn how to put her shoes on, or to understand where you are going?

If so, you can help her with those.

Lastly, ask yourself, “Does she have some painful feelings to let out?”  Such as about how she felt when we went out yesterday and saw a big dog barking?  

Then you could give her some listening time where you find out what she is feeling and give her your loving support whilst she expresses her feelings.

Babies – needs and feelings
Whilst we may associate babies with natural presence and awareness, and a willingness to connect, we may not think of babies contributing and cooperating. Yet, they are very cooperative in that they are willing to change their behaviour, feelings and beliefs depending on what they learn from their parents, and they also often want to cooperate – for example, when they see us smile, they will often smile too.

With babies, we can go through a similar process to the one above.  However, they have a more limited range of ways to tell us what is going on for them.  We can go through all three steps although the focus is generally more on the 1st and 3rd questions.  Babies cannot talk in words, but they do express themselves, and when they cry, they either cry to:

Express an immediate need (such as for closeness, food, a comfortable temperature, etc.
Express some painful feelings related to stressful or traumatic happenings.

What causes stress for babies? 
Things like; stress in utero, a traumatic birth, separation after birth, over-stimulation, developmental frustration, frightening events, stress in the parents, physical pain, and big changes.  

Babies are highly sensitive, and even if we do everything we can to prevent stress (such as a calm pregnancy and birth, baby-wearing, co-sleeping, a baby-moon, sensitivity to cues, and so on,) they still experience stress.  This is because life outside the womb is so different to life inside, and because us parents sometimes inevitably experience stress, which they pick up from us.

So, we can aim to prevent stress, and meet our baby’s needs as much as possible, but he will still, at times, feel uncomfortable feelings that he needs to express to us.

Babies need to be held when they are crying
So, once a baby’s immediate needs are all met, and he is still crying, chances are that he is crying to let out those painful feelings.  But in order to make those feelings safe, he needs to be held in loving arms with our full presence.  When he lets them out, he releases the stress from his body, he is heard and understood, and he returns to a place of calm awareness.

Why do some babies never cry?
Most parenting models do not see the need for babies to express painful feelings.  So any crying or “fussing” is interpreted as a cry for an immediate need.  This leads to feeding for comfort, rocking, jiggling, sshhing, patting, and dummies.  

Babies learn quickly.  This is because they have two strong inbuilt mechanisms;
- To heal from stress and trauma through crying with loving support (for babies this is always in arms)
- To fit into the family and culture they are born into – (remember cooperation!).

So, however his parents respond to his feelings, a baby learns to respond to them in the same way.  If he is fed when he is upset, he soon learns to ask for food when he is upset.  If he is moved in some way when he is upset, he soon learns to move when he is upset.  If he is left alone when he is upset, he soon learns to cling on to, or suck something, and if he is given a dummy, he learns to suck on that when he is upset.  Babies are such quick learners that even after a few months, these learnt behaviours become very strong (although they can always be changed if his parents begin to give him loving support to express his feelings – it’s never too late to start to heal!)

What is a control pattern?
These learnt behaviours are called control patterns and they continue into adulthood, although they may change form – for example, breastfeeding for comfort may become eating food for comfort in childhood and drinking alcohol when upset in adulthood.  Jiggling an upset baby may mean a toddler who can never sit still, and an adult who is a compulsive exerciser.  Dummy or thumb sucking may turn into nail biting in childhood and smoking in adulthood.  These are only suggested pathways – I am not saying that every baby who is breast-fed when he is upset will turn to alcohol when he is upset – these are simply illustrations to indicate that babies and children learn ways to deal with their feelings from us, and that the outer form of these change as the child grows.  The intensity and severity of the control pattern depends on the sensitivity of the child and the amount of stress and trauma that he has experienced, as well as how much opportunity he has had to express his feelings with loving support.

Stress accumulates in the body
In addition to the development of control patterns, when babies are not given the opportunity to express their feelings, the tension they hold within gets bigger and bigger over time with each added stress.  This means sleep becomes difficult, and may lead to more frequent waking with time rather than less, or frequent clinging behaviour or whining in toddlers, or frequent “fussiness.”  

A baby who is given the opportunity to express his feelings sleeps easily simply with closeness.  He does not need anything else.  Because tired babies and children (and adults) cannot repress their feelings so easily, the time before bed is ideal for crying with support.  When a baby cries in arms before sleep (when all his immediate needs are met) and lets out a chunk of painful feelings, he returns to a calm state and sleeps restfully, and peacefully and for longer periods.

How do children get emotionally hurt?
Children experience lots of hurts, such as wanting more connection when we are on the phone, or hearing parents speak in upset voices to each other, or having other kids do things they don’t enjoy.

Accumulated feelings and control patterns explain why toddlers and children do all kinds of things that we don’t enjoy when they are upset.  

“Misbehaviour” – or trying to meet needs?
All the things that some other parenting styles call “misbehaviour” are either due to an unmet need, a need for information, or most usually, a chunk of painful feelings to be let out.  And although toddlers and children will still sometimes want to be held in our arms when they cry, the healing process often takes other forms at these older ages.

Because most children have learnt that their upset feelings are not very welcome, they do things to indirectly tell us that they need our help.  

They do things we have asked them not to, or they ask for lots of different things but aren’t happy with any of them.  They don’t cooperate, or walk off when we talk to them.  They hit or bite or throw things or swear or won’t eat.  Instead of seeing any of these things as problems that we need to fix, by punishing or rewarding or teaching, instead we can remember that our child’s true nature is to connect and cooperate and contribute, and that he is trying to tell us in his own language that he needs our help to return to that natural state.

We can remember that what he wants most is love and connection, and support to let out those feelings.  Sometimes a warm hug, or some empathy, or getting down to his level and asking him what is going on, is enough to get the tears rolling.  Unlike when he was a baby, he can walk and so we can trust him to choose how close he needs to be to feel safe.  It may be in our arms, it may be next to us, or it may be further away.  However, if he tries to go really far away, or tells us to go away, Aware Parenting suggests that we stay relatively close – the closeness is helping him feel the feelings, and is what he really wants underneath his emotional pain.

Loving limits
Sometimes the feelings are locked in a little more and we need to provide the emotional equivalent of loving arms.  So we may choose to set a loving limit.  Loving limits are totally different from harsh limits, because they are given in a warm, loving voice, with eye contact, and the desire to connect with our child and help him let our his feelings.  

If he has asked for three types of biscuits and doesn’t like any, and asks for another, we can warmly say, “You really want another biscuit, and I’m not going to get you another one at the moment,” and wait for the tears to come.  He may start to get frustrated, and we can just stay with him, “I see you are feeling really frustrated and I’m not going to get you another biscuit.”  The combination of the loving limit and your presence makes it safe enough for the torrent of feelings to come.  

Sometimes the limit may need to be physical too – for example if one child is about to hit another, holding her hand and saying, “I won’t let you hurt Rebecca,” will provide the necessary limit.  There is no need for shaming or punishing – she does not want to hurt Rebecca, she just doesn’t know how else to give vent to her feelings.  You can stay with her and say things like, “I see you really didn’t enjoy it when she went to play with Amy…”  

Or if a child is grabbing a toy from another, you can hold on to the toy whilst they both have hold of it.  No need to take it away, as that models grabbing and doesn’t give them the opportunity to let out the feelings that are behind the taking, such as sharing mummy and daddy with a new sibling.  Keep hold and tell them you’ll keep hold until they find a way to work it out.  Sometimes they’ll come up with a strategy, or one will be willing to give it to the other, or one or both will start crying.  All you need to do is be there, and be empathic.  

If one has the toy and the other wants to take it, tell the second child that the first will get to keep it until they are ready to give it, and you’ll be with the second child.  Your loving presence will help him feel safe enough to express how painful it is to want something and not get it.  Once he has cried that pain away, he will be quite happy doing something else.  It wasn’t about the toy in the first place.

Babies and children are like us
So adults, babies and children aren’t all that different.  When we aren’t feeling warmth and the desire to contribute to our kids, it doesn’t make us a “bad” parent; it just means we have some unmet needs, some learning to do, or some painful feelings to express.  If our babies are doing things we’re not comfortable with, like not sleeping much, or being “fussy”, they are not being “difficult” or “manipulative” or “high need”, they just have some immediate needs, or some learning to do, or some crying in arms to catch up with.  If our child pulls the cat’s tail or shouts next to his sleeping baby sister, he isn’t being “naughty” or “bad”, he also has some unmet needs, some learning to do, or some crying or tantrums to express.

With this way of looking at ourselves and our babies and children, we become more compassionate and understanding with ourselves and with them.  We no longer need to resort to things like sleep “training” or rewards or punishments or time outs.  We can stay lovingly connected, being present to ourselves and them, so we can both return to feeling most truly ourselves.   

My gratitude goes to Aletha Solter, who inspired me from her original model of this in Helping Young Children Flourish.

Further reading:

Solter, A.  Helping Young Children Flourish.
Solter, A.  Tears and Tantrums.
Solter, A.  The Aware Baby.