A Persistent Myth: Responding to Distress

basic trust in infant gerber

One of the most frequent misunderstandings of the Visible Child approach is that some people somehow think that we advocate for not picking babies and children up and comforting them when they cry, that we advocate “ignoring” their distress. This is, of course, not true. We never advocate for ignoring a child’s distress, and never would–Visible Child is an approach that believes deeply in emotional responsiveness as the centerpiece of respectful parenting.

So where does this misunderstanding come from? I suspect that it comes from:

1) our insistence that it’s okay for babies and children to cry, that it’s not damaging to them, and that there is no urgency to try to “calm them down.”

2) our suggestion that parents slow down and “wait” and use a range of ways to check in with the baby or child to observe and listen closely to what THEY are asking for, wanting, or needing, not leaping to what we think they need, and

3) the way in which we ask or challenge parents to consider and be mindful about the possibilities that when our babies and chldren cry or are distressed, and we rush to soothe them, it is OUR feelings and discomfort that we are serving, not necessarily theirs.

One easy way to understand this is to draw a familiar parallel. If you were in a grocery store with your parent or grandparent, or traveling with a frail or elderly relative and on the way into the store, they tripped and fell in the parking lot, or you were walking in a busy airport and an older person fell just ahead of you,  what would you regard as the best thing to do?

Would you think it would be best to rush over to them, and perhaps with an “Oh no!” — or even without a word–  immediately lift them up on to their feet or move them immediately to a sitting position or pick them up (perhaps with another adult’s help)?  Pat them on their backs repeatedly saying “You’re okay, you’re okay.” or “You’re fine, that was just a little fall?”

I am going to go ahead and presume that you wouldn’t do that–most of us would not.  Why not?  Well, it might startle them unnecessarily.  It might frighten them.  They might not be ready to move their bodies yet.  They might be catching their breath and need a few minutes before they’re ready to be helped up.   We might not know how or if they are hurting, and what sort of emotional or physical pain we might cause by moving them into positions quickly or without their consent.  And perhaps most importantly, because we don’t physically move other adults without checking with them.  In short, we all recognize those choices as disrespectful of that person’s autonomy and personhood.

Rather, I’m guessing you would go over to them and get down on their level, sit down next to them on the pavement, ask them if they’re okay, wait patiently, ask if there is anything you can do to be of help or support, maybe ask if they’d like to hold your hand (perhaps while they are waiting for professionals to arrive), let them know that if and when they’d like to sit up or stand up, you’d be happy to help, stay with them, let them know that you’re there and they’re not alone.

All those things sound pretty rational, don’t they?  Maybe you’d do something slightly different, of course–these examples are not exhaustive.  The point is that most of us would be responsive without making assumptions or acting quickly to rush them through their process or impose some sort of soothing that we feel is necessary or called for.

Why do we do this with older people and consider it kind and respectful and responsive, and yet the same respect and kindness and responsiveness (without rushing into our own agenda) cannot be offered to babies, toddlers, and children?  Why do some people call it “neglectful” or “ignoring” if we show babies the same respect that we do adults?

This is at the core of Visible Child’s position.

It’s okay for the older person to cry.  Maybe they’re hurt, maybe they’re frightened, maybe they’re embarrassed, maybe they’re shocked, maybe they don’t know what they feel yet and they’re overwhelmed.  Same for babies and children.

We don’t ignore or “not respond” when an adult is in distress of any kind.  We are there, with kindness and patience, and compassion, and patience, respecting consent.  Same for babies and children.

We wait, we ask, we pause, we allow the older person to decide in their own way and time what they need and how they want to be moved or whether they want to be spoken to or whether they’d like help up or what sort of comfort or soothing they might like to receive, either from us or from someone else.   Same for babies and children.

And yes, even young babies can communicate these things, even without speech–if you slow down and observe babies enough, you can learn their language.  They are capable of communicating the same things, but we have to pause and put aside our own needs and impulses and discomfort to attend to and listen to what they are saying.

We listen.  We trust.  We respect the autonomy and bodies and speed and preferences of older people, without acting from our own discomfort.    We are mindful about the boundary line between responsiveness and projection of our own discomfort.  Why do we have such a hard time offering the same thing to children?

All people need and deserve the same thing.  Respect.

How can you help?… First, do accept that you don’t understand instinctively what exactly makes your baby cry, nor what to do about it. Next, rather than responding mechanically with one of the usual routines of holding, feeding, or changing your baby, to stop the crying, try quietly talking to your baby.

Remember, crying is a baby’s language—it is a way to express pain, anger, and sadness. Acknowledge the emotions your baby is expressing. Let him know he has communicated.” 

For example, you might say, ‘I see you’re uncomfortable. And hearing you cry really upsets me. I want to find out what you need. Tell me. I will try to understand your cues…’… Then think out loud. ‘Could it be that your diaper is wet? I don’t think you are hungry because you just ate. Maybe I’ve been holding you long enough and maybe you want to be on your back for a while.’ This is the start of lifelong, honest communication”

– Magda Gerber

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