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Processes In The Context

The inescapable circumstances of development for the ordinary child and the intense feelings which accompany interferences with his demands for expression or satisfaction provide countless occasions for the intensification of guilt. Guilt must, of course, be more pervasive and inescapable where the child, rather than his actions, is consistently identified as bad or deserving of punishment and rejection. Under particularly trying circumstances, and especially under circumstances where shaming for failures has been a consistent parental performance, the child may deal with his inner experience of guilt by placing this experience in a different context, denying the inner distress and stating, in effect, that he is not bad or naughty, but only that "they" think that he is naughty or accuse him of unacceptable activity. This maneuver permits him to displace and transform his shame into anger and resentment toward another, whether that other be parent, teacher, baby sitter, or older sibling. Such a transformation always creates a more tolerable circumstance and condition, at least on a strictly private level.

The spectrum of normal defensive mechanisms is indeed broad, all devoted to the alleviation of anxiety or the relief of guilt. Among these, in addition to the ones already discussed, are reaction formation, substitution, sublimation, imitation and identification, and, under certain specific environmental circumstances, somatization or translation of inner distress into physical symptoms and somatic disability.

Epochal Regressions

To repeat a central fact of fundamental importance, each of us is born in a state of total and abject dependence from whence we pursue during the first 12 to 18 months the slow course toward autonomy in the midst of myriad somatic experiences. This experience of abject dependency provides the foundation, as well as the mooring site, for regressive sorties throughout life. Maturation involves progressive approximations and shaping. Certain activities are strongly, if briefly, maintained by reinforcement during the maturational experience. Others are developed because they postpone punishment successfully. Many of these behaviors, however, must be extinguished or partially extinguished by more discriminating reinforcements involving more precise environmental stimulus control. Under seriously threatening or guilt-provoking circumstances, previously extinguished or partially extinguished activities may reappear. As mentioned, this is most likely where the immediate circumstances of environmental reinforcement are suddenly altered. The reappearance of more primitive or immature modes of gratification during periods of special stress is universally recognized. It is important to review certain common circumstances in childhood which occasion such regressive phenomena. The identified conditions themselves are, as previously mentioned, not sufficient alone for the generation of grossly regressive behavior. The common denominator in all such activities would appear to be a change in the current environment making contemporary repertoires inappropriate. Those responses which are next strongest in strength in the individual's repertoire then are most likely to occur. This is particularly true if some of these regressive activities have enjoyed historical reinforcement from time to time. For example, the lisping baby talk of a two-year-old is commonly shaped into the lisp free, more mature mode of communicating, but such immature behaviors may, on occasion, be reinforced even in the later life of a child by a rarely visiting relative or grandparent who may find such evidences of slowly passing time quite reassuring. Common precipitating circumstances which occasion epochal regressions include the absence from home of significant parental figures for hospitalization, a business trip, pregnancy, under circumstances of marital discord, or even death. Another typical circumstance which provides a threat to the child in the otherwise secure domain of the home is the appearance of a new individual in that environment, as, for example, the birth of a younger brother or sister. The appearance of a parental substitute or competitor may provide such a favorable circumstance. Quite obviously, the appearance of a new parent following separation and divorce commonly serves as an occasion for regressive activities. Physical illness or trauma, especially illness which limits usual behavior, may occasion severe regression in a child at any age. Clinical experience confirms that such an event also provides an occasion for regressive activity in adults and in the aged. A change in the consistency of the environment provided by a parent or parent substitute under the stress of financial worry or preoccupation may occasion such activity. Temporary isolation from the security of the home not infrequently provides such an occasion as can be observed in the regressive behavior of certain children during the first days at nursery school, during the first visit to a physician or dentist's office or to the hospital, or following prolonged visits of the child with grandparents or doting relatives. The analysis of specific environmental conditions which are capable of eliciting more primitive forms of activity in children is of fundamental importance for any individual who is professionally responsible for their care and treatment. Only a precise investigation of all relevant current circumstances in the context of the individual history of the child can provide sufficient answers to the problems posed by such activity. In the absence of such a systematic analysis, regressive activities in children appear irrational or, more often, malicious. They can generate not only concern but even anger or impulsive retaliation in parents who are not sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate the sources of such activity or their common behavioral representations among growing children.


Additional topics

Human Behavior