Six Stages to a Strong Self-Image

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Six Stages to a Strong Self-Image

In the early years, your child gets her first lessons in feeling secure, establishing loving relationships, and feeling good about herself. This early emotional development is basic to all learning.

In the first days of life, your child starts to make patterns out of the flood of sounds, sights, smells, and tactile feelings he is born with. His earliest sense of security is built upon his loving relationship with you.

As a toddler, the relationship becomes delightfully give-and-take, and he experiences the bliss of feeling close. As time goes on, his sense of self becomes molded by his interactions with loving adults, and he increases his capacity to feel many different kinds of emotions. Emotional development, which is basic to all learning, takes place in six developmental stages.

baby watching toy1. Regulating the Mind

From the hodgepodge of sensory data that a baby experiences, patterns begin to emerge. Sounds become rhythms; sights become recognizable images; and the ability to control movements makes it possible to cuddle, follow an object, or stand up in Mom's lap.

Every individual has a personal version of the world, and that version is the one that counts. Most people assume—and for many years clinicians and scientists believed—that the experiences of hearing, seeing, touching, and moving are pretty much the same for everyone. But now we know that each child's sensory universe and ability to plan actions in response to that universe are uniquely her own.

If loud noises or bright lights or soft touches irritate a child, it makes no difference if others find them pleasurable. If an infant cannot organize what she sees well enough to make out her mother's smile, it makes no difference that another child can. When children develop the ability to organize and regulate their sensations, they then use that ability to gain experiences on which they will build individual identities.

Basic security is grounded in a child's ability to decipher sensations and to plan actions. As sensations are exchanged between you and your child, you both experience pleasure and joy. Loving adults offer not only pleasure and excitement but also relief from distress and a safe haven from which infants can make bold declarations of anger and rage.

baby smiling2. Establishing Relationships

From the rapturous attention you give him, which baby lovingly returns, emerge radiant grins; a chorus of purrs, coos, and giggles; smiles and whoops of delight. Out of this first immersion in delirious relating sprouts a sense of shared humanity that can later blossom into the capacity to feel empathy and love. As your baby begins showing his preference for the people who regularly care for him, his sense of self seems more focused on the human world.

An infant is now becoming more distinct and discrim- inating—taking delight in Mommy's attention and knowing when the source of that delight is missing. If Mommy becomes distracted, sadness or dismay may ensue. Even fear can now show up in a baby who has been traumatized or seriously frightened.

Without some degree of ecstatic wooing by at least one adult, a child may never know the powerful intoxication of human closeness, never abandon himself to the magnetic pull of human relationships, never see other people as full human beings. Such a child is at risk of becoming a self-centered, aggressive individual who can inflict injury without qualm or remorse.

baby gesturing3. Buds of Intentionality

In the second half of their first year, babies begin using gestures and expressions to participate in a preverbal dialogue. Relationships become truly interactive: Baby looks at a toy, Dad reaches for it, and baby gurgles with delight.

A child is beginning to define the boundary that separates "me" and "you." Children are now able to show emotion, perceive and respond to it, and turn experiences into exchanges. Even seemingly trivial gestures serve to anchor human relationships and delineate the borders of who we are.

Your child has become a willful self with a budding sense of intentionality. But these first tiny shoots will begin to grow if—and only if—children live in an environment that responds to their overtures and encourages them to make use of their new power.

Go to Part 2 of Six Stages to a Strong Self-Image

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About the Author

Written by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D.
Scholastic's Parent & Child Magazine

Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., is co-author, with T. Berry Brazleton, MD, of The Irreducible Needs of Children (Perseus Press, 2000). Dr. Greenspan is a clinical professor of psychiatry, behavioral science, and pediatrics at the George Washington University Medical School.