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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Slapping, Teasing,and Play

An interesting story came up the other day at a discussion on childrearing sponsored by the Delaware Valley group of the World Association for Infant Mental Health. One participant told a story that’s quite relevant to some of the recent discussion on this blog of punishment as a parenting technique, modeling of aggressive behavior, and so on.

Her story was this: a young mother played roughly with her year-old son, slapping him lightly but repeatedly until he became distressed and frustrated. The mother was amused by what she was doing and by the child’s frustration and attempts to fight back. If he slapped back at her too much, though, she became infuriated and beat him. When the child got a little older, he went to live with a relative, and there he showed that he had learned that exchanging slaps was “play” and the right way to interact with older people. The relative tried to teach him not to slap, but to use some other form of physical contact like tickling or kissing, and this worked to some extent, but the toddler would still occasionally approach an adult with a slap. Within the family, people understood the background, but his behavior was not welcome in out-of-home child care and early intervention settings.

Because of the physical force involved, this sounds like an extreme case, but it’s certainly common for adults or older kids to tease young children unmercifully, to justify their actions by saying they’re “just teasing”, and to become angry and even punish the child who displays distress when teased intensely. School-age children exposed to this treatment usually learn how to evade the adult’s attention, but younger ones naturally respond to distress by approaching the people who ought to be protecting them--  the very ones who are tormenting them.  We’ve all seen this at the beach, as screaming toddlers and preschoolers are carried to be thrown into the water, or in other situations where an adult picks up a child and won’t put her down, or threatens to throw away a toy or harm a pet. These situations often conclude with some type of punishment of the child, who is then characterized as a “wimp” or a “sissy”.

Infants too are teased, although their language and cognitive development is not good enough for them to understand most threats or insulting words. Even actions that an older person might think of as potentially threatening--  like an adult pretending to drink up a baby’s bottle--  may just seem funny to the baby, who doesn’t envision a world without milk. Some play sequences seem to verge on teasing while never really getting there--  for example, holding out a toy for a baby to grasp, pulling it away, holding it out again, and repeating this several times before letting the baby take the toy. When this stops before the baby gets distressed, it’s certainly play; when it’s pressed until the baby reacts with fretting or tears, it’s turned into teasing.

Most adults who play with or mildly tease babies will stop when the game goes too far, or when the child is old enough to be disturbed and confused by the adult’s ambiguous behavior. But others, like the mother mentioned earlier, will escalate their teasing as the child gets to the toddler stage. Little boys, especially, may be encouraged to get angry and “fight” with other people, then be punished if their fighting gets too intense, or ignored if the adult is suddenly bored with the whole thing.

Why is being teased so disturbing for toddlers and preschoolers? The basic problem is that the adult’s communication is so ambiguous. If the person is friendly, why is he threatening or frightening the child? If he is hostile, why is he smiling and laughing? All of us find these mixed messages confusing and concerning, but young children have developed little skill in understanding how apparently contradictory emotions and facts can exist side by side. They have not developed much ability at what the psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (yep, Sasha’s brother) and others call Theory of Mind--- the ability to make accurate guesses about other people’s knowledge, beliefs, and intentions.

Children under the age of three can already figure out certain things about what others know or want, but they are not clear on whether people can deliberately “trick” people or tease them by feigning a belief or intention. In a study by Vanderbilt, Liu, and Heyman (The development of distrust.[2011]. Child Development, 82,1372-1380), children watched an actor who pretended he did not know where something was and misled another person who was looking for the object. Three-year-olds trusted information from that person as much as information from an actor who helped another person. Four- and 5-year-olds trusted the “tricker” a bit less than the “helper”, but only 5-year-olds said the helping person was “nicer” than the other. This suggests that the toddler I mentioned at the beginning of this post would not have been able to interpret some of his mother’s slapping as teasing play, and other slaps as seriously meant. For him, slapping became just another mode of interacting with adults, even when they appeared not to like it (after all, his mother seemed not to like it sometimes, but then she would start it up the next time).

Why did the mother behave this way? Not surprisingly, the discussion of this point began with a suggestion that has appeared often in recent comments on this blog: that she was repeating what had been done to her when she was a child. This is certainly a possibility, and I would not want to reject it without evidence. However, I’d  like to point out that this is not the only possibility, nor is it likely that such a complex behavior would have only one cause. I would suggest also that the mother saw friends and relations “play” with their children and even with each other by pretending to fight. In addition, her slapping play may have been one of the few ways of playful interaction with a child that she was aware of. All of us initiate play with children because we enjoy the way they respond to us--  for our own fun--- and we often carry out that play in stereotyped ways like rolling a ball or playing tickling games. The issue may not be so much what the mother had done to her, but what she did NOT have done. She may have had no experience of games that limited teasing to a minimum (after all, teasing can enter any interaction, especially tickling), nor of play styles that help the excited child return to a moderate level of arousal. She may have seen other adults play in ways that brought the child to a peak of agitation, followed by the adult’s losing interest and turning away. In addition to all that, she may have valued personality characteristics that included aggressiveness and recklessness, and may have seen them as “manly”.

It might well be that we could be most helpful to this mother and child by helping the mother learn better ways to play, rather than by exploring her psychodynamics or condemning her as abusive. But, best of luck to us for getting any funding for this project nowadays!

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