Presence in Babies and Children - and the withdrawal or hyperactivity that can replace it.

The simple formula for understanding the complex process regarding presence in babies and children looks like this:

STRESS (stress + trauma + over-stimulation)
EMOTIONAL RELEASE (crying in arms for babies, or crying/tantrums with support, and laughter and play for children)

A child’s degree of presence will vary over time, with more presence where conditions of safety and warm connection are met, and less presence when in stressful situations. 

Stress and tension accumulates in the body of a baby and child, and leads to less presence in general.

However, their presence will vary between two points, depending on how much stress they have experienced in the past, and how much support they have had to express and release the feelings stimulated by that stress.

Met Needs
As a parent, the ideals to strive for are to meet their baby or child’s needs as much as possible.  Traditional cultures and modern research tell us that this is through:

- Plenty of close, warm connection, empathy, support, acceptance, freedom from punishments and rewards, with needs met for autonomy and choice;
- For babies, closeness is the primary need, met by baby-carrying and co-sleeping, plus the nurturance of full-term breastfeeding.  Empathic responses to their needs, as well as protection from over-stimulation are vital;
- For children, respect, attentiveness, connection, and play, are highly important.

However, despite the most perfect parenting, all babies and children in the West experience some stress:

- Simply being born into the world, with all the inherent new experiences, is overwhelming;  
- All babies and children experience developmental frustrations as they strive to learn new skills and become more competent in the world;  
- All babies and children engage with parents and family members who have feelings resulting from old hurts, which impact in stressful ways upon them. 

In addition, there are stresses unique to modern cultures, such as
- A disconnection from the cycles and energies of nature;
- A lack of community which brings meaningful activity, where children and parents are central parts of life, and where children learn from their elders and mix with other people of all ages;
- The over-stimulating effects of EMR, noises and lights from electrical devices such as lights, phones, tvs, the speed of cars, and the stimulation of shops – the mass of products inside them, as well as the large numbers of people in the streets.

Emotional Release
Babies and children release stress and trauma from their bodies through several ways, depending on their age.  For this to happen, the baby or child needs loving connection and support, and a safe container for their feelings.  Babies release tension by crying in arms, which may be accompanied by sweating and vigorous movement. 

As they get older, crying remains an important way to let out stress (although after they can crawl, they may not always choose to be held whilst crying); and added to it are: tantrums, laughter, and play.  In order for the emotional release and play to be healing, there needs to be a precise balance between the safety provided by the adult’s presence, and the stimulation of feelings in the present.

This is a sense of calm, engaged connection with oneself and others.  Behaviours that indicate a sense of presence include easy eye contact, calm concentration, and an engaged interest in connecting with others and the world.

The more stress, and the less emotional release, the less available presence a child has.  Instead, there will be either a turning inwards, or a turning outwards.

Turning Inwards - Withdrawal / Dissocation
This is indicated by a spaced-out look, passivity, glazed eyes, sucking on something, or tensely clutching on to something.  The baby or child is unavailable for connection with people or the world when in this state.

Turning Outwards - Hyperactivity / Acting out
This is also indicated by an avoidance of eye contact but accompanied by lots of movement, a frantic search for outside action and distraction, making loud noises, shouting, screeching, banging, hitting, etc.  The baby or child is unavailable for connection with people and himself.

Presence, stress, release, and turning-in or turning-out - these are all ways of looking at the behaviour of babies and children.  This model gives us the framework to help babies and children grow up with presence and awareness, and relative freedom from excessive turning inwards or turning outwards.  In other words, available for true intimacy with themselves and others.

This table below shows some of the behaviours indicating presence in children, and those which occur when a child is feeling stressed and upset and has not had the opportunity to heal from this stress.

Children will move in between these states – at some times they may show more presence, at other times more indication of unhealed stress. 

Children will tend to either dissociate (space out) or act out although it is possible that a child will do both of these at different times.

Control Patterns

Inner World , or "Turning inwards" Control Patterns:
Sucking on something, which creates dissociation; (breast/bottle/hand/dummy/blanket)

Clinging onto something;


Repetitive movement;

(pinching/rocking/flicking, etc.)       

Presence - the interaction between inner world and outer world
Has no control patterns

Outer World , or Turning outwards" Control Patterns:
Vigorous movement;

Frantic search for activity, moving quickly from one activity to another;
avoidance of the present moment and the feelings that lie there;

Loud noises;


Behaviours that characterise "turning in":
Withdrawal from connection with others and with the world;  
Tense body (patterns of tension);
Glazed look in the eyes, or avoids eye contact;
Whining voice, or mute silence;
Clinging, holds on with tense hands;
Reluctant to try new things.

Behaviours that characterise Presence:
Available and eager for connection with self, others and world;
Relaxed, vital body;
Relaxed eye contact;
Calm voice;
Moulding body contact, relaxed and vibrant;
Interested, alert, curious to learn and try new things.

Behaviours that characterise "turning out":
Disconnection from self through frantic acting out in the world; 
Tense body (patterns of tension); 
Avoids gaze;
Shouting, screaming;
Wriggles away or avoids body contact or moves a lot when held;         
Tries new things without awareness of body – often hurting self and quickly moving to another thing.