Written by Lindsey Moss, MSW, LCSW and Unit Supervisor, Mecklenburg County CDSA
As a parent of a young child and an early intervention professional, I am reminded daily that being a parent is quite arguably one of the hardest jobs. Parents have the awesome responsibility of not only keeping another human alive, but they are also charged with raising children to become productive members of society. That consumes the thoughts of most parents from the moment their child is welcomed into this world. New parents are often bombarded with “advice” from well-meaning family members, medical professionals, friends, and at times complete strangers, all who are sharing wisdom into what it takes to be a “great parent.” While the sharing of advice and recommendations is usually full of good intentions, it can also be quite confusing.
As early intervention providers, we have the unique opportunity to meet with families in their most natural environments, and sometimes at their most vulnerable moments. We are often asked questions about parenting to support the parent or caregiver in gaining knowledge or understanding about their child. While we all have our own opinions or experiences with our own children, we want to provide suggestions to families we serve that are helpful, while at the same time acknowledge that being a parent is difficult and a learning process. In thinking about several recent interactions with parents and discussing cases with my coworkers, I wanted to share some common myths that we routinely hear within the community. As you read, think about how you can support families to debunk these myths.
1. Picking up your baby when she cries will spoil her and make her cry more.
It is important to understand why babies cry. Babies cry to communicate their needs. The way we respond to their cries lets them know if their needs have been heard and whether or not they can trust that someone is going to provide for that need. When parents go to their crying baby, they are saying, “Hey, I hear you,” “I realize you need me,” and “I am going to hold you to let you know I am here.” Babies do not cry to purposefully annoy their caregivers or manipulate a situation. Sure, after the fifth night in a row of being up with a crying newborn, many parents may begin to think that the crying is an intentional ploy to deny them of sleep. You may be thinking, “What kind of a parent would think that about their child?” but in a state of sleep deprivation and frustration, we can place all kinds of unrealistic expectations or responsibilities on little ones. The reality is that babies cry to tell us that they need something, even if it is just to be held close so they can feel safe and secure enough to finally fall asleep.
2. Picking up your baby when he cries will make him less independent.
Research shows that babies who can count on their parents to respond to them when they cry will actually cry less and are more independent as preschoolers because they gain confidence in themselves and others. As babies get older, they can then begin to explore their world, knowing they have someone that will be there for them. Because infants prefer human interaction over everything else, they are learning what it means to trust their caregiver. The caregiver then becomes a “secure base.” Remember playing hide and seek and how awesome it felt to reach “base?” That’s how children feel when they are picked up and held by their caregivers after venturing out to explore the world around them. Babies that are not picked up will eventually stop crying to get their needs met, but not because they suddenly do not feel the need to cry. They stop crying because they realize that, no matter how they cry, no one is going to come and provide them with the security they need.
3. A quiet baby is a good baby and should be left alone.
We all know children who are naturally more quiet or reserved. They are considered to be “easy” children to care for because they typically “go with the flow.” Sometimes, these children are overlooked by caregivers and classroom teachers because they tend to blend into the group. It is important to remember that all children need their parents’ attention. When they are exploring their worlds, playing, or asking questions, it is important to attend to them. This is how they learn that they matter in the world. When children are perfectly content playing by themselves, we can help parents and caregivers look for opportunities to engage in those times of independent play by talking to the children about what they’re doing and being involved in things that their children find to be fun and interesting.
4. They are too young to understand.
Children depend exclusively on their primary caregivers for survival and protection, and traumatic events can have an impact on how they see the world and their security in it. This can include a car accident, separation or loss of a loved one, domestic violence, etc. When gathering information from families, we often ask questions such as, “Is there anything that you have noticed to be different?” Many parents respond quickly by saying, “No.” This is often because we, as adults, expect children to respond to trauma in ways that we do, such as talking about the incident. Adults and children view situations differently, and children may show different behaviors such as hitting, kicking, yelling, etc. However, other children may internalize their feelings and appear more withdrawn and quiet. Still others might become more hyperactive or struggle to pay attention. When trauma also impacts the caregiver, even the relationship between that person and child may be strongly affected because the child often needs help with regulating their strong emotions. Children may experience overwhelming stress with little ability to effectively communicate what they feel or need. It is imperative to work with caregivers and ensure that children are receiving the nurturance and responsiveness they need, as well as close physical contact (cuddling or holding) that is so important to help them feel secure and comfortable enough to cry out or ask for help. When we think of holding or cuddling, we often think about babies; however, this is sometimes necessary when working with older children who have not been afforded this bonding experience as a baby.
Here in Mecklenburg County, we have developed a team to work specifically with families involved with the Department of Social Services (DSS) because we know that there is the potential for additional and more specific support to help these families be more successful. The children referred from DSS have experienced some kind of substantiated abuse or neglect, and we work directly with their social workers to determine ongoing supports as a team. One thing that we often discuss is that supporting children is about more than just meeting basic needs, which leads us into our last myth….
5. If children have food, shelter, and clothing, they should be fine.
Meeting a child’s basic needs is vitally important to their physical well-being. However, that is only part of development. It is imperative that we support all families and caregivers to meet the basic needs, but also empower families to meet each child’s social-emotional and other developmental needs. At times, we see children who have been abused or neglected that appear to be overly compliant, not because they have an “easy” temperament, but because they have learned that crying or verbally expressing themselves is not productive and can place them in harm’s way. For children involved with DSS, we often hear from foster parents or kinship caregivers (relatives or family friends) that they do not want to establish an attachment to children in their care because they know that the plan is reunification with the child’s biological family. I completely understand this statement. It is emotionally draining to develop a bond with small children, only to then have them leave your home. However, young children naturally develop some kind of attachment to the person involved in their daily routines. It is critical that we strive to ensure these are healthy attachments through a responsive, nurturing caregiver because these relationship are the foundation for all future relationships that child will have.
The area of social-emotional development is often overlooked, and yet has the biggest impact on the way children behave, interact with others, and learn to manage their emotions. All social-emotional development happens in the context of a relationship with primary caregivers because their responses to their children have a big impact on how children feel about themselves, how well they will do in school, and how competent they will feel as adults. From prenatal development to age five, the brain is most open to outside influences. Warm interactions with parents and caregivers during this time can build the brain in healthy ways and help children develop a sense of trust, a positive self-image, and a sense that they are worthy of care. As providers, it is also important that we understand how trauma, abuse, and neglect can impact young children and provide supports in natural routines that include the primary caregiver. You can also visit the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for more information on trauma and young children.