Robert J. Burrowes
In an article I wrote a year ago, the following words appeared:
‘If a child is crying and you comfort them, you will (presumably unintentionally) scare them out of feeling their sadness when, in fact, their crying is a functional response to something not working out as the child wanted and for healing from this event. The same applies to fear, anger and all other feelings. Unfortunately, if we scare a child out of feeling their natural responses to events (by ignoring, comforting, reassuring, distracting, laughing at, ridiculing, terrorizing or violently controlling them when they express their feelings), the child has no choice but to unconsciously suppress their awareness of these feelings and they will not be able to identify the appropriate way forward: this reduces their power to respond functionally and powerfully to events in their life.’
I recently had an exchange with a correspondent who had just read this article and sent me a series of three brief questions. The first question was simply: ‘You shouldn’t comfort a crying child?’ I replied:
‘That is correct. A child that is crying (or angry or scared or ….) is having a natural emotional response to an event in their life. Comforting the child frightens them out of feeling this response and this contributes to them unconsciously learning to suppress their awareness of their feelings generally.
‘In essence, calm, fearless listening while the child cries (or feels whatever other emotional response they are having) will allow the child to feel (and express) this for as long as they need. As a result, they will heal, learn what they were being taught by the emotional response to the incident and also learn what they need to do differently in future. (This is often — unconsciously — frightening for parents because the child might learn that they need to do something differently to what the parent wants.) Any form of interference, including comforting, interrupts all three of these beneficial responses which evolution gave us.’
I added that there was more information in the source document — ‘Why Violence?’ — with the suggestion that they specifically check out the section headed ‘The Spectrum of Utterly Invisible Violence’ starting on page 9, mentioned that there was a very brief summary in the article ‘Time to End the Adult War on Children’ and more information in ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.
My correspondent responded to my email 24 minutes later (which, together with the phrasing of the question, clearly told me that they were scared by my previous response and had not read the other references I had cited for more information): ‘Do you at least I dearly hope have in mind older children. It sounds like at least children capable of speech ???’
I responded again:
‘No. All children. All ages. No comforting.
‘It is possible to be with a child, to hold them lovingly in some cases (which might be all that the child needs in a particular context), and to listen, fully, attentively, compassionately, while not interfering, in any way, with letting them feel all of their feelings.
‘If a one day old baby is not allowed to cry when they need to, the baby will not fully heal from whatever caused them to cry and this will form part of their suppressed emotions that will adversely interfere (to a greater or lesser extent) with their behaviour for the rest of their life (or until the suppressed emotions are felt later, assuming an opportunity to do so arises). The fact that the baby cannot speak is irrelevant: the baby can feel and this is what the baby needs to do. Feel sad, presumably, and express this by crying. That’s it. (Although, in some cases, a highly aware adult might discern the cause of the sadness/crying and remove it: for example, there is a flea in the cot biting the baby and this needs to be removed. But if teething is causing pain and crying is a way for the baby to heal from this pain, then it is better to let the young child cry as much as they need to.)
‘Of course, if the baby is aware of a loving, preferably fearless, presence, presumably while being held, they will know intuitively that they are being supported to feel things just as they are. It is a safe and powerful healing environment.
‘To not let a child feel all of their feelings in the mistaken belief that this is wrong, or out of our own fear of letting them do so (because it sounds/looks “painful” for some reason or, more likely, because it triggers suppressed feelings of our own) will frighten them out of feeling and interfere with them reaching their full evolutionary potential.
‘And, given the pattern of adult behaviour of which this comforting is usually a part, it will contribute to them becoming violent to themselves, others and/or the Earth. The unique combination of “visible”, “invisible” and “utterly invisible” violence that each person experiences throughout childhood will determine precisely how their violence manifests (which is why not everyone will end up like Adolf Hitler). But, if the other explanations in the references I mentioned didn’t help, perhaps this one will: ‘The Destruction of Barack Obama’.
‘I am well aware that this is a difficult (and usually frightening) message to grasp (which is why it is an extraordinarily difficult message to find ways to communicate) and I sincerely appreciate that you are grappling with it so conscientiously.’
The next response came 43 minutes later: ‘what’s the difference between comforting and holding lovingly?’
At this point I fully recognized that my correspondent was terrified and now, it seemed, trying to console themself that their ‘comforting’ and my ‘holding lovingly’ were the same thing. I decided to discontinue the discussion and write this article in the hope that others would be able to make use of this information and a distinction I made above which I believe is quite clear as long as you are not too terrified to consider it.
I will elaborate one point in the hope of making it even more clear. A baby has the capacity to communicate from the moment of birth. Any aware parent, and even those who are completely unaware, will know that crying has a meaning and they will respond to this communication. An unaware and frightened parent will probably comfort the child (assuming they do not hit the child to silence them). An aware parent will listen to the tone of the crying and learn to interpret different ‘types’ of crying. Some crying is less or more urgent. Some contains elements of screaming and will obviously include anger. And so on. The crying might simply mean that the baby wants to be fed or have their nappy changed. But it might mean much more and any adult willing to learn to listen well will soon be able to interpret the meaning of different types of crying.
Apart from the expression of feelings and talking, there are many other types of communication. Most of us use unspoken (or spoken) hints of various sorts, facial expressions, body language and gestures. And most of us learn to interpret these, to a greater or lesser extent (perhaps depending on how well we know the person). Apart from expressing their feelings in order to communicate, a baby will quickly develop means of communication such as facial expressions and body language, and an aware parent will notice and be able to interpret these. And respond accordingly.
Anyway, if the information above hasn’t frightened you as well, you might also be unafraid enough to consider signing the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.
In essence, the expression of feelings is a vital means of communication, for babies, children and adults. Interfering with the expression of feelings, by comforting for example, simply destroys a means of communication and virtually guarantees a dysfunctional behavioural outcome. If we are not afraid to listen, just because someone is sad, angry or frightened, then we will help them to communicate (and get) what they need, heal (if this is necessary), learn and move on powerfully.
You just need to be unafraid to listen to someone expressing how they feel. And if you are afraid to listen (because it triggers your own suppressed feelings), you need to feel your fear (and any other feelings) until you are no longer afraid.
If you want a powerful adult, do not frighten a baby or child out of expressing their feelings.
Biodata: Robert has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is here.