If you spend anytime with a five or six year old child you will begin to realize that they speak in bold and italics all the time.
“But Mom I need to have another cookie because the one on my plate is lonely!”
“What?” “Are you kidding me?” Mom thinks. “Aww, how cute.”
It does end up being rather cute in the end. Here is a sweet example of a child experiencing deprivation and learning about want and need. At this stage of development the brain is beginning to quiet down after the marathon growth spurt that began when the child made it’s way to the outside world at birth. The emotional centers of the brain have a bit more connectivity to the clever medial prefrontal cortex (go see Dr. Dan Siegel here for more) region of the brain. However, the child is really just beginning to practice integrating their inner emotional signaling within their self system let alone a master then communicating their needs in interpersonal relationships with others.
Their emotions run high and sometimes when the need is desperate they lose their newly acquired ability to reflect. So the result is, “But Dad I have to watch my animal show now or I’ll be letting down my entire generation’s effort to be more mindful of the plight of endangered species!” I can hear Calvin’s Dad from Calvin & Hobbes supplying one of his witty and off the wall tongue and cheek answers to a demand like this.
The history of bold font begins in the mid 19th century during the industrial revolution when advertising was becoming an instrumental way to do business. The bold typeface was intended to catch the attention of readers or potential readers passing by. Italics is generally used to identify a word in text that is particularly important or special in some sense.
Put together we get a device for commanding attention and highlighting what is important. Maybe this is why our children’s demanding behaviors can seem so humorous and cute at times. They draw our attention out of the everyday and place it on them most fantastical approximations of need that a young “brain on training wheels” can come up with. With so many really important things on the minds of adults, keeping a cookie company is a welcome relief!
In the case of young children they are getting used to using their higher cortical powers of the brain to interpret what is going on inside and outside of them and integrating that information into something usable in their social environment. In other words, “My sadness tells me I’m going to be deprived of another cookie and the resulting anger tells me I’m pissed at the adult who could prevent me from being deprived of this morsel and save me from the anguish that my distress is sure to turn into if left unabated! However, this parent figure is someone I need to work with to secure future abundance and sources of sustenance so I will respectfully negotiate how to meet both of our needs.”
To shape the relevant neural circuits in the brain that will allow for this type of thinking and responding in the future requires many hours of interacting with adults and other children who are able to do this. In the best case scenario (see Dr. Ed Tronick’s video on this here) the child learns how to experience their emotions within a range of intensity that allows them to make sense their needs and how to work collaboratively with others to meet them.
As we mature into adulthood we might have left behind a trail of experiences that included feeling those intense feelings and what it was like not to get an adequate response from those around us. Namely, when other adults and peers were overly angry, anxious, or absent (non-responsive) during our moments of need we did not get an adequate response. Sometimes memories of these experiences are not fully processed and lead us to feel ashamed and panicky because we have interpreted that having needs is a bad thing that may even drive others away. There are subtle and not so subtle versions of this.
The emergence of these memories when we deal with adult relationships can have the same BOLD and Italic effect on our conscious experience of ourselves and the world. We may find that our internal response captures our attention and places it on what was important in the environment in the past. That is the awareness that we are being deprived of something.
In this case we have an adult brain version of I NEED! With the fully functional medial prefrontal region of the cortex we adults might notice in these moments that the command of our attention we are used to having has been suspended. We become more focused on our mis-perception and/or overemphasis on signs that we are being deprived and less likely to see collaborative solutions to our predicament. This can be like the “tractor beam” in science fiction movies that locks on to objects in space and pulls them in. Our history commands our attention and locks on to a select group of objects and awarenesses while neglecting others. I call this orientation of awareness “extra-personal attunement” (EPA). It’s like our brain can’t update its internal representations of what is happening and it leads us to become more and more rigid in our thinking, feeling, and behaving. With EPA we become preoccupied with what others are thinking, feeling, and doing at the cost of our own intrapersonal attunement & the interpersonal attunement we might have with other people. It’s like we are asking someone to make up for what we didn’t get in the past and are unable to see whether or not our needs of the present can be met in collaboration with others. What others might call “needy” or “demanding” behaviors represent our own overly angry, anxious, or absent emotional state that reflects what was once the response we received in the past.
When our history gets in our way like this we may find that our ability to collaborate with others in getting our needs met becomes a problem. Sometimes we take a “if you want something done right do it yourself” approach and other times we just compromise our own needs and go along with others to not “make waves”. If you spot yourself feeling like your needs are demanding at times to the point of distraction making it hard for you to actually meet them, then you may want to consider those bold and italicized phrases as signals that you are mixing past deprivation of needs with the present situation.
There are several excellent approaches to psychotherapy that can help you sort this out and regain command of your attention when you deal with having your needs frustrated. Like the motley band of collaborators from the 1980’s hit t.v. series, “The A-team”, you can team up with a professional and your friends and loved ones to strategize how to solve problems and achieve goals. Going solo can be a lonely and ultimately unfulling journey. There may be people around you that have skills and talents you could use to move your life forward. Your brain is designed to make the necessary connections that pave the way for personal and interpersonal connectivity. Like George Peppard’s Character “Hannibal” used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together!” Sometimes psychotherapy can nudge things in the right direction.
Among the psychotherapy approaches that include the processing of past experience and an appreciation for how interpersonal relationships shape the brain are: Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR), Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), Sensorimotor Psychotherapy , Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) and Developmental Needs Meeting Strategy (DNMS). These approaches to psychotherapy have a biopsychosocial scope and can help us tone down the italicized and emboldened communications that make our relationships more muddled while allowing us to more clearly identify and communicate what we need. Check them out!