Connecting With Teens Starts When They Are Infants

Dr. Michelle Deering

For those of you who are parents of infants, you may be wondering, “What do any of the ‘parenting teens’ pointers have to do with me?” Well, I am glad that you are wondering about those things because much of what you do during infancy lays a foundation for later dynamics during the teen years.

Infants are dependent on their caregivers to provide them with (physical and emotional) nourishment and a sense of safety. Infants need their caregivers to be attuned to their bodily needs and “mirror” (reflect) back to them their emotional and facial responses – “putting words” and “tone” to it all. This helps them learn to understand themselves and the “world” outside of themselves.

For example, imagine you are at the park with your infant who is on his back in the stroller and staring up at the sky. He’s smiling, the birds are chirping, and you are either quietly walking or talking to him about all the things he may be observing. The wind blows and a piece of pine cone unexpectedly falls in the stroller right next to him. Suddenly, his countenance shifts to that of “horror,” and he begins to cry. The crying has interrupted (“ruined?”) what may have seemed to you to be a picture perfect outing. Or, if the outing was done in a rush or was an attempt to have him be in a different setting to have him calm down from being in the house all day, then you may have interpreted the crying as a “failure.” So, it is understandable if you try to immediately smooth over the crying turmoil with placating words like “It’s OK” or “It’s alright.”

However, from your son’s perspective, “something” unknown to him – from the “world” outside of himself has invaded his world (his immediate personal space) – and his crying his is only vocabulary for communicating with you. From his perspective, things are not OK or alight. So, a parental response of “It’s OK.” or “It’s alright” actually unintentionally negates your son’s experience and emotional response and offers him no education about himself, his feelings, the world around him, or what language to use to express himself to you (not then and there as an infant but, if the pattern continues, later on … as a teen).

While this scenario is only one of a myriad of situations parents have with their infants, it is offered as an example of where there may be opportunities to connect with your infant differently. It is important to connect with your infant in a way that is intentional and keeps the bigger picture in mind – that your infant is growing up and that you are preparing him for future encounters with things that are unexpected in life. So, with that in mind, in the above scenario you could stoop down to his eyesight level and in a soothing melodic voice (if you’re female) or empathic but strong assuring voice (if you’re male) say something like, “Oh my, are you startled? … did that scare you? I know, I know,” followed by reassuring words that he is safe where he is with you. Again, with infants, it’s about empathizing with them from their perspective, mirroring/reflecting back to them what you are seeing them express, and then giving them words for those feelings. This helps your (growing) infant make sense of all the new experiences that he/she is having.

The process of “mirroring” to an infant is the precursor to the “stopping and observing” of your family’s flow and your teen’s flow in it which I have mentioned in a prior guest blog. Mirroring involves being present in the moment and noticing what is going on with your child. When you’ve done this and attempted to understand from his/her perspective can you then really listen from the heart and respond in a “reflective” way in which they will feel heard and understood.

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