How to grow your baby’s inner teddy bear – while out in the buggy

How to grow your baby’s inner teddy bear – while out in the buggy

In my last blog, I told the story of a baby who was having a tough day.  Some commentators wrote to say they felt unsettled by what I’d written.  They wished I had ended the piece with ideas about the kind of steps readers — especially parent readers – could take to guard against the possibility of a baby’s distress.

So that’s aim of this blog.  I’m going to suggest five simple steps parents can take to grow their baby’s inner teddy bear when they are out and about in the buggy.

But first…

First, though, let me start with a preamble.

I’m always reluctant to provide advice.  Parents are practically drowning in advice these days, and often it achieves the opposite of what it intends.  Advice can easily undermine parents’ confidence, because it feels like someone else knows better than you what to do.

I’m not there when parents have to make decisions.  I don’t know what challenges are going on in a parent’s family or a parent’s life.  Knowledge about children development in general is not the same thing as a knowing a particular child.

So I don’t like providing advice because it can seem like the advice is more important than a parent’s curiosity.  That is never the case.  Parents are the experts on their children.  My only real advice to parents is: “Be curious. Be kind.  Be gentle.  Remember connection.”

On the other hand, I realise that parents often find suggestions helpful.  Being in a relationship with a child is tiring and relentless and confusing – and, yes, sometimes joyous.  (Note that I have not used the word ‘parenting’ in that sentence, because I don’t like that word.  ‘Parenting’ sounds like a task to be performed.  Making a relationship with a child is not a task.  It is a process.  Being in a relationship with a child or a friend or a partner is a way of being.  It’s one aspect of walking through life.  Relationships are not tasks.)

Since suggestions can be helpful, I have crafted the ones I will shortly discuss.  I don’t see them as advice, but more as pointers. They are tips that I hope can make parents’ lives easier and babies’ lives more secure.

Let me reinforce that last observation by turning to one other hand  (if there can be such a thing as three other hands).  It is really important that we keep babies’ emotional security in mind.  Attention to babies’ emotions quickly slips when life become busy and pressured.  That’s partly because babies’ emotions are subtle and fleeting.  It’s easy to overlook them.  Their body movements can be hard to read.  This interpretive process is made much more difficult if you don’t even know that babies have a biological, absolute need for emotional connection.

The struggle I find regularly myself facing is how to balance suggestions against baby’s imperative need for connection.  The suggestions I offer never sound complicated.  Rather, they sound simplistic: “Connect.  Take the baby’s lead.  Connect.  Meet the baby’s need.  Connect.  Reassure.  Connect.”

Until you understand how tremendously important connection is for babies, my suggestions don’t sound vital.  Connect?  Smile?  Laugh?  Cuddle?  Pay attention?  Those suggestions don’t sound serious.  They sound sweet.

I’m not trying to be sweet.  I’m trying to help us understand that without connection, babies suffer.  That’s why I tell stories of distress and disconnection, like the one I told in my last blog, entitled ‘How not to judge families sitting next to you in the café’.  If we are brave enough to see babies’ distress, without turning away from it or denying it, then we begin to really understand what the science of connection is telling us.

But it takes courage to look upon a child’s discomfort.  The things I write and talk about are unsettling because they confront us with our own limitations.  We realise that, even as loving parents, we could cause discomfort in our children.  We could do this without ever intending it or even being aware of it.  This possibility easily tips us into guilt or anxiety.

Guilt and anxiety, though, are not helpful to parents or to their children.  Nor are they what I ever intend.  What I have come to accept is that they are always a risk when I talk about connection.

Thus, the challenge for all of us interested in raising happy children, and in embedding connection in our professional practice, is how to balance:

1) babies’ need for connection…against….

2) our wish to be good parents and professionals and people….against…

3) the knowledge that sometimes we fail to meet babies’ needs.

That is why is compassion and curiosity are so important in this learning process.  Compassion for ourselves, as much compassion as for others.  Curiosity about what is happening inside ourselves, as well as curiosity about what is happening for others.

Compassion and curiosity get us through the moments of anxiety and guilt and doubt.  We become comfortable with the idea we don’t have to be perfect.  No one has to be perfect, including parents sitting next to us in a café.  We forgive ourselves when we ‘mess up’.  We forgive our children when they ‘mess up’.  We are less critical of other parents who ‘mess up’.  We begin to replace blame and judgment with a search for opportunities to help.

We begin to really believe that making up is more important than messing up.  We strengthen our own inner teddy bears.

And then, finally, we begin to relax.  We believe that being a good enough parent is good enough.  We don’t have to be perfect. Even if others criticise us, we have confidence in our own ‘enoughness’.  We do not have to feel ashamed of moments of imperfection.  ‘Parenting’ stops being a task you can fail or succeed at.  Making a relationship with your child becomes a process you live every day.  Some days are better than others.   There is an awful lot of learning involved.

I have come to believe that discarding the anxiety about failure is key to balancing the three key components I listed above:  babies’ needs vs. parents’ hopes to be good enough vs. fears we aren’t good enough.  When we are confident that, even in our imperfection, we are still good enough, then we become better able to cope with scary ideas.  And the idea that babies have an overwhelming need for connection, and that we sometimes fail them, is indeed scary for many parents.  Perhaps ‘scary’ is not a strong enough word.  Maybe the idea that we could fail our children is better understood as shameful.

So here is the good news:  Babies do not need connection all the time.  Even in healthy human relationships, people spend only about 33% of the time in connection.  But we do need that 33%.  Babies absolutely need that 33%.  And they need extra-strong doses of connection when they’ve had a moment of fear – when they’ve found themselves fighting sabre tooth tigers.

The discoveries science is making about emotional trauma tell us that many babies don’t experience connection 33% of the time.  And many of them don’t get extra doses of connection when they are scared, because their parents didn’t realise they were scared in the first place.

That’s why I was worried for the baby in my last blog.  For the 25 minutes I sat in the café near he and his family, there was never one moment of connection, no moment that would have helped him to relax and feel that the café was a safe place.  He turned to electronic technology for comfort because, for whatever reason, his parents weren’t able to offer him the emotional comfort he needed during that half hour.  I say this believing that it was never their intention to ignore his needs.  I fully believe they love him.  I also know he will have suffered, when, at only 18 months old, he went 25 minutes without feeling connected.

This is the courageous balance we need to achieve as individuals and as a society:  to stand in the knowledge that parents who deeply love their children can damage them.  When we can accept that these two things go together, without laying blame on the parents, then we can move into the compassionate place that lets us think about how to help other parents.  Parents can move themselves into a curious place about what else they could do to support their baby’s need for connection.  They don’t have to protect themselves from fears of their own imperfection.  They have already become comfortable with its reality.

I know scientists don’t usually talk this way.  It sounds more like I am speaking from what I humorously sometimes call ‘Dalai Lama Land’.  Nonetheless, it’s still true.  The science of connection ultimately leads us to lessons in forgiveness and compassion.

And with that very long, very essential, preamble, here are my suggestions for five simple thing parents can do to help build their baby’s internal teddy bear when they are out and about in the buggy.

Five steps to guard against causing your baby anxiety

1. Change the language in your head:  Use the word ‘baby’, not ‘buggy’.

Experiment with never using the phrase ‘pushing the buggy’.  Instead, try always using the phrase ‘pushing the baby’. This simple linguistic shift reminds you that inside that piece of mechanical technology is a real live baby, with a brain and body that needs to feel safe.  The baby’s sense of safety comes only through their confidence that you are always nearby, that you haven’t forgotten them.  The problem with buggies is that they too easily interfere with a baby’s sense of connection to trusted adults.  There is a mismatch between babies’ brains and buggies’ design – especially when buggies face outward.

2. Don’t park the baby far away from you.

If you are going into a café, or a bus, or a shop, don’t park the baby across a large space.  Take the baby, in the buggy, with you.  (Better yet, lift them out and carry them.  This gives their muscles a chance to stretch.)  They will feel safer, because you are nearby. They won’t have to wonder when you will come back.  They won’t have to worry whether you might never come back.  Their physiology doesn’t have to start gearing up for sabre tooth tigers that might sneak into the café or bus or shop before you get back to them.  All unfamiliar environments are, for babies, settings in which a tiger might spring out and gobble them up.  The only way to prevent that fear is for them to feel confident that their trusted adult is looking out for them.

3. Be sure the baby can see you.

If you do have to park the baby far away from you, be sure you have oriented them so that they can keep their eyes on you.  Being able to see you will keep them feeling a bit safer.  You can keep turning around and talking to them, smiling and nodding at them.  That responsiveness will comfort their brain.  They will know you haven’t forgotten them.  They will believe you are keeping your eyes out for any sneaky, dangerous sabre tooth tigers.  If the baby starts to cry, go back and lift them out of the stroller.  Your cuddle will be the reassuring comfort they need.  If they are crying hard, don’t take the stroller by the handle and rock it.  Being soothed in a stroller is not the same as being soothed in your parent’s arms.  Babies recover more quickly from fear when they have the warmth of human touch to help them

4. Touch the baby before you leave and when you get back.

Another thing you can do if you have to put space between you and the baby is to make physical contact with them before you leave and as soon as you get back.  Talk to them at that moment as well.  Tell them where you are going and when you will be back.  Point to where you will be.  Do all this even if your baby can’t talk yet.  They will hear the tone of your voice as reassuring.  That moment of physical connection will boost the hormone oxytocin, which will give their physiological system a boost in coping with the anxiety of your distance.  The conversation will also slow down the speed of your departure.  Remember, babies didn’t know you were both going into this space.  They weren’t in on the planning, so they have little expectation about what might happen.  Your departure to the other side of the room will be one more surprise.  Try to ensure it isn’t an abrupt surprise.

5. Tell the baby you are about to lift them out of the buggy.

When you go to lift the baby out of the buggy, don’t life the baby abruptly.  Give them a chance to realise a change is about to happen in their body.  Hold out your hands and tell them you are about to pick them up.  This lets them be an active participant in this transition, rather than experiencing themselves they as a passive being in an unpredictable world.  If you are surprised by my suggestion that you speak to the baby in this way, please rest assured many parents find this suggestion surprising.  Most parents do not know that by the unbelievably young age of 2 months, some babies are already beginning to anticipate when their parents are going to pick them up.  If a parent doesn’t make that move too rapidly, and gives the baby time to read the parent’s signals, then babies adjust their own posture to ‘help’ parents in picking them up.  You can see babies making these astounding postural adjustments in the photos below, which come from a 2013 research study by Professor Vasu Reddy, where she reported on this ability.  If you like, you can even watch videos of parents and babies participating in the study, on this link here.

 

Finally

As a human species, we didn’t always need to ‘know’ consciously about connection.  In our evolutionary past, we just lived it.  That’s because we lived in a way that allowed it to happen naturally.

Nowadays, our modern way of life too often interferes with connection.  We need to use the knowledge that science is providing to guide our thinking about the way we relate to our babies.

I like knowing that understanding the science of connection helps us not only in relating to our babies, but also to ourselves.  Whatever the problem, curiosity is the answer.

 

 

How not to judge families sitting beside you in the cafe

How not to judge families sitting beside you in the cafe

I spend most of my time these days thinking about how we, as a society, get information to parents about infant brain development.  ‘Brain development’ isn’t the right terminology, though.  The English language doesn’t have a word for what I mean.  I mean something more like the intersection of brain and body, self-awareness and self-regulation, anxiety and comfort, and the way that relationships underlie the development of all these systems.  That’s the most crucial point for parents to understand: relationships matter.

Our Western society does not begin to comprehend the importance of relationships for children’s development.  Our modern way of life damages our children – and ourselves – in ways we don’t realise.  It happens without our intending or being aware of it.  It happens because we are increasingly cut off from one another and from ourselves, even from our own bodies.  We end up surviving, rather than thriving.

Let me tell a story to illustrate what I mean.

I was sitting in a café last week, watching a family who had come in to have a meal.  Mum pushed the baby in his buggy, about 18 months old, over to a table.  Dad, Mum, and Big Sister put down their bags and coats.  The three of them went over to the counter to choose drinks and food, leaving the baby parked beside the table. 

The baby immediately got agitated, wriggling and holding out his hands toward them, scrunching his face, and protesting very quietly.  They didn’t notice, though, because their backs were to him, while they read the menu at the counter.  Plus, they will have believed him to be safe, strapped into his stroller and parked near their things at the table.

As minutes passed, the baby’s arm movements and face got more frantic.  His cries did not get louder, though; they stayed consistent and pleading, in their rhythm and tone.  I found myself getting agitated.  His family couldn’t see or hear him.  He needed help to get their attention. 

So I tried a technique that sometimes helps solve things, when a baby is in need and parents are distracted.  I like it because the parents don’t feel offended or blamed.  I simply said to the baby, in an empathic voice loud enough for his parents to hear, “Oh, are you feeling lonely?  Are you missing your Mummy over there?  She’ll be back in a minute.” 

My brief interjection helped Mum to turn around and realise her baby was needing her.  She smiled at me as she came back to the table, and I smiled back at her.  As she neared their table, the baby’s arms quit waving so frantically, and he relaxed a tiny bit, although his arms remained up in the air, as if he was hoping to be picked up.

That made sense to me.  He’d been missing her, far across the room in this unfamiliar place, so stress hormones like cortisol would have been rising.  His brain and body would instinctively have been craving a cuddle, since the reassurance would have brought the cortisol levels down.  Oxytocin would have been boosted too, by her touch, and that would have relaxed him even more.

However, a cuddle is not what happened.  Instead, Mum reached for the handle of the stroller, and moved it back and forth, trying to comfort him by the swaying of the buggy.  I knew that wouldn’t work fully for him, because the swaying of your buggy isn’t the same as the warmth of your mum’s hug.  But I didn’t know how to help the baby this time.  No parent wants an interfering busybody of a stranger telling them how to care for their own child. 

But the baby was still distressed.  His low-level cries of protest continued; his face scrunched; his head hung down in a kind of defeat.  Mum continued to ‘rock’ the stroller with one hand, leaving her other hand free to adjust the coats.  She was now focused on making space at the table, and so she wasn’t looking at his face any longer.  He had neither her gaze nor her touch to draw on for comfort. 

Watching all this, I found myself thinking that her physical closeness would be helping him feel somewhat safer.  The cortisol in his system should at least be levelling off, rather than rising higher.  His overall state wouldn’t change rapidly, though.  Cortisol stays in your system for at least 20 minutes – which is why reassuring touch in this situation is so helpful.  Cuddles kick-start the decrease.

Very soon, Dad and Big Sister came over to the table, having made their choices.  I wondered if the baby might now get a cuddle, or even a hand-hold, since there were more hands available.  This seemed hopeful, because his distress hadn’t ceased.  He was still quietly moaning and looking at the ground.

Let me pause in the midst of my storytelling.  Before I go on, I want to consider what might be happening for you, Dear Reader.  If I am telling this story vividly enough and compassionately enough, then maybe you will be feeling something of the anxiety I was feeling for that baby.

If he can’t get the comforting attention he needs from his family, then he has a problem.  At only 18 months old, his brain is still too immature to fully comfort himself when he is distressed, so he has to look to an outside source for that comfort.  Right there, in that café, in that very ordinary moment, he is learning lessons about where comfort comes from.  It isn’t from his family.

Perhaps, in order to cope with your anxiety for the baby, you might be feeling frustrated with the parents.  Why aren’t they giving him the attention he needs?  That reaction of frustration or exasperation or even anger makes sense to me, because these emotions signal that a situation we are witnessing requires some sort of action.  The trouble is that these emotions easily lead to judgement, and judgement is everywhere these days when it comes to parenting.  Modern parents live with the constant anxiety of being judged harshly.

Consider, for instance, what recently happened to political correspondent Robert Kelly, when was he “interrupted” by his two young children while giving a live television interview to the BBC from his office at home.  His spontaneous response, along with that of his panicked wife (or perhaps nanny – the internet can’t decide), solicited all sorts of criticism from observers.  Commentators on social media began arguing with each other over what response would have been most appropriate, and even the couple’s use of a baby walker was criticised.  My own response was to wonder how I would have reacted as a parent, handling such an unexpected, personally exposing situation, being broadcast live on international television.

So, returning to my story, what happens if we counter any rising sense of judgement with curiosity?  What happens if we wonder what was going on in that moment that kept this little boy’s parents from noticing his distress?  Were public places uncomfortable for them? Had they had to walk a long way in the cold?

What happens if we expand our curiosity even further and wonder what might have happened for them within the last hour or earlier in the day or within their general family interactions?  Had they just had an argument or come from a difficult doctor’s appointment?  Was Mum suffering postnatal depression?  Were they on the edge of divorce?  Did they believe that electronic devices help young children to learn?

And what happens if I search for the words that help this story to prompt curiosity in readers, rather than judgement or anger or blame?  Here are a set of ordinary parents, busy and tired and distracted by the tasks of modern life.  They probably have no idea how scared babies can get, parked far away across the café in a stroller, or that cuddles have a biological impact on a child’s brain.

In that case, how would it be helpful to them if I were to get frustrated about something they did unintentionally?  My curiosity will be more helpful than my frustration could ever be.

And, as it turns out, curiosity is going to be incredibly important for all of us, if we are to reach the end of this story in a compassionate place.  Because it’s about to get worse.

The whole family is now at the table, with Dad sitting next to the baby.  Mum and Big Sister are across the table, stretching out, having taken off the last of their coats.  The baby, though, is still strapped into his stroller, unable to stretch out or shift his posture.  His low level protest cries haven’t stopped, either.  His head is still hanging down, moving slowly back and forth in a restless fashion.

Dad must have noticed though, because he moves to offer the baby a kind of comfort.  He reaches into a bag and brings out a phone.  He hits a couple of buttons, and hands it to the baby.  It must be playing a video.

Sure enough, the baby’s whimpering stops, his head comes up, and his hands cease moving as they grasp the phone.  His agitation fades almost immediately.  He is intensely focused on the display on that phone.

I imagine that the father thinks he has comforted his child.  Outwardly, he does appear calmer and happier. 

As I watch the child’s fierce concentration, though, I think of the dopamine being sparked in his brain.  Dopamine is the hormone of novelty.  We human beings crave it.  It’s the feel good factor.  Dopamine is what gets triggered when we fall in love.  Our brains and bodies yearn for it.  We get addicted to it.

I knew I was watching a father comfort his son’s distress by fostering a biological addiction to technology.

And I knew the father didn’t know that. 

And I knew that when the father would eventually try to take the phone away, the spike in the baby’s disappointment and distress was likely to cause a terrible, wailing conflict – which would further distress everyone in the family. 

And I had no way to explain any of this to them.

Dear Reader, how am I doing? In telling this story, I am trying my best to turn you into a watcher, rather than a reader.  I am trying to have you sit with me in the midst of that café, trying to decide what you would do, how you would feel, what you would think.  I am aiming for that because, of course, we sit down next to ordinary families every day, whenever we walk into cafés.

How do we help ordinary families to understand what science is discovering about children’s development?  How do we help tired parents feel more curious about their baby’s emotional needs?  How do we help them to connect the dots, so that they realise their responses hold long-term, biological consequences for their children?  If this little boy’s brain becomes addicted to the dopamine hit his father’s phone is supplying, the parents will soon have major ‘behavioural issues’ on their hands.  And their little boy will suffer.

The points I am making are not novel ones.  They are part of the reasoning underpinning recommendations by the American Academy of Paediatrics that children under 2 years of age should never view screens alone.  Other organisations have used language shifts to emphasise the biological impacts, arguing that early technology use should be regarded not as an ‘educational’ or ‘cultural’ issue, but as a ‘medical’ one. The author Mary Aiken dedicates several chapters in her new book, The Cyber Effect, to exploring what is happening across our society as children encounter a mismatch between their basic physiological needs and their parents’ technology habits.

I found myself thinking about all this guidance as I watched the final stage of this family’s interactions.  The story doesn’t end happily.

With the baby now (apparently) settled and engaged with the phone, Dad again reached into a bag.  I realised he was taking out his son’s lunch, probably because there was a gap of time available before his own order arrived.  He could feed his son before eating himself.

And that’s what Dad proceeded to do.  He fed his son, spoonful after spoonful of packaged food going into his mouth — while his little boy never took his hands off the phone or his eyes off the display.

The baby didn’t protest.  He didn’t shake his head or refuse.  He passively accepted each spoonful of food the father delivered to his mouth.  His father looked relieved it was going so smoothly.

I knew, though, that this experience meant the baby was not engaged at all with his own body.  He wasn’t developing a conscious awareness of hunger or how to take care of feelings of hunger.  He wasn’t consciously learning about feeling ‘full’ or about ‘relief’ or about ‘companions’.  What he was learning was that you solve uncomfortable feelings with technology. 

The more the baby’s brain experiences that solution, the more the child will be out of touch with his own body.  His internal teddy bear (to use the language I frequently use) will be weaker, less able to comfort him from internal, self-regulatory sources.  He will become more dependent on external sources of comfort, turning to solutions like videos or games or drugs or alcohol or food.  It sounds extreme, to knit these outcomes together, but it is exactly what the research on addiction is teaching us.

I knew I was watching a father nurture an addictive personality within his infant son.  I also knew he had no idea that’s what he was doing.

As I stood to leave the café, 15 minutes later, the rest of the family’s meal was being delivered by the waitress.  Dad could relax.  His son was fed and was engaged in an activity.  He could have his own lunch in peace.

I have no idea what havoc may have descended when it was time for Dad to take the phone away.

That family has clearly stayed with me.  A week on, I’m still thinking about them – and now I’m writing about them, telling their story to a wider world, in the most compassionate way I know.

My hope is that their story, unknown even to themselves, might help other parents feel more curious about what’s going on in their children’s brains and bodies.  And I hope it might help those of us trying to support families, to feel more curious about the unknown struggles going on in parents’ lives.

Curiosity is always more powerful than judgement.

Can attachment needs help explain Trump’s narcissism?

Can attachment needs help explain Trump’s narcissism?

With Donald Trump’s inauguration upon us in a few days’ time, I find myself thinking of Vice President Biden’s comments earlier this month: “Grow up Donald.  Time to be an adult. You’re president.”

That is not going to happen.

Why not?  That is the question that I hear being asked repeatedly:  Why is it that Donald Trump keeps behaving in this aggressive, belligerent, exaggerated manner, especially since he has already won the election?

Trump Press ConferenceThe response to this week’s press conference echoes that sentiment.  Reactions from reporters and citizens alike included statements such as: “Donald Trump is not what he seems”; “The emperor’s new clothes”; “Makes me worried about the future”; “The dark side of Donald Trump’s insatiable need to be liked.”  One particularly extraordinary insight came from reports by Politico and Vox: Trump planted paid staffers at the press conference to clap, giving him not only support but also the “instant gratification” reminiscent of his rallies.

And what about the most recent video by Keith Olbermann, host of the political webshow The Resistance?  In it, Olbermann asks calmly: “What is wrong with this man?”

Narcissism.  That’s the explanation to which a wide range of commentators have now turned, as a way of making sense of Trump’s behaviour.  These include, for a start, Tony SchwartzMichael Moore, Dan McAdams, Daniel WagnerNigel Barber, Alistair Campbell and Henry Alford.  These commentators aren’t talking the ordinary, self-absorbed narcissism that haunts modern life.  They are pointing toward full blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

It’s a perfectly plausible claim.  Recent studies have shown that narcissism and psychopathy are more common within the general population than is generally realised.  And amongst which group of people is Narcissistic Personality Disorder particularly common?  CEOs in the corporate world.  Several books on the link have been published, such as Snakes in Suits (2007) and The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success (2014).  The esteemed business publication Forbes ran an article in 2013 under the title ‘The Disturbing Link Between Psychopathy and Leadership’.

However, there are many people who have never heard of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. They have no idea what it is or how it arises from unmet attachment needs.  So they continue to find Trump’s behaviour baffling.

I thought a piece on this topic to be timely, since Trump is about to be inaugurated into one of the most powerful positions in the world.  Our globe is a scarier place when it is impossible for citizens to predict or interpret a leader’s behaviour.  Fear isn’t good for us.

I’m not partisan in writing this piece.  I hope it will be of help to Trump supporters and detractors alike.  We all need to think more about the ripple effects of mental functioning.  If Donald Trump does have this serious personality disorder, then the two camps have something terribly important in common: the motivation for his actions is not caring for the American people, but is always about his own ego.

What’s Trump said now?

Let’s start with a few reminders of Trump’s recent behaviour.

  • Trump continues to engage in explosive Twitter tirades, often tweeting late at night or early morning.
  • On 13 January, he used the phrase “sleazebag political operatives” in a flurry of angry tweets.
  • TwitterOn 11 January, he referred to himself in third person during a press conference so disjointed that media descriptions have included “a train wreck” and “frequently disingenuous and ugly but compelling.”
  • On 11 January, he used Twitter to accuse the US intelligence services of functioning like those in Nazi Germany.
  • On 9 January, he called Meryl Streep one of the “most overrated actresses in Hollywood”, following her speech criticising his bullying behaviour.
  • On 9 January, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch gained a place on Trump’s list of “great guys”, because “Murdoch likes me much better as a very successful candidate than he ever did as a very successful developer!”
  • On 9 January, Trump told the New York Times that all the dress shops in Washington DC had sold out in eager anticipation of his inauguration – which turned out to be a bit of an overstatement when checked by reporters.
  • RatingsOn 6 January, he referred to himself in a tweet as a “ratings machine”, pointing out that his ratings as host of the television show The Apprentice had “swamped” the first season ratings gained by its new host, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
  • On 4 January, Trump claimed that sales of 16-year-old Jackie Evancho’s albums had “skyrocketed” after her announcement that she would sing at his inauguration ceremony, although an analysis showed that the spike is better explained by the fact her Christmas album was on sale during December.

Members of the public who aren’t yet on Twitter might be wondering on how earth brief social media statements, only 140 characters in length, can matter in the real world.  Yet they absolutely do.  First, we know for sure they come from Trump, not from some political committee who has crafted them on his behalf.  They thus provide first-rate insights into his character.  Second, it is this very personal use of Twitter that his supporters love.  They feel the tweets give them a direct link to him, which would never be possible via the ‘biased media’.

But how does one explain these acts that are not presidential, comments that are so often eccentric and extreme?  We start by realising that, if viewed through the lens of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, their content and tone aren’t unusual.  They are entirely predictable, especially for a man now living outside his natural comfort zone.  Trump has much less control of his world as a politician than he did as a businessman.

What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

Most articles discussing Narcissistic Personality Disorder start with a description of its symptoms.  As summarised by Preston Ni, author of the book How to Successfully Handle Narcissists, ten key signs are:

  1. Grandiose personality
  2. Charmer
  3. Rule breaker
  4. Incites negative emotions, especially through tantrums
  5. False image projection
  6. Conversation hoarder
  7. Conversation interrupter
  8. Sense of entitlement
  9. Boundary violator
  10. Manipulates others by using them as an extension of the self

These descriptors give you a chance to decide whether you think they fit Trump’s behaviour.  You can make a judgment as to whether you think it is possible he might have a diagnosable mental disorder, included within the clinical manual DSM-IV and attributable to somewhere between 1% and 6% of the US population.  Amongst corporate leaders, it is believed to be four times that rate.

NarcissismI use the world ‘possible’ above because it is technically impossible to know Trump’s mental health status without examination by a psychiatrist.  The fact that no clinical professional has been given a chance to interview him is one of the reasons we haven’t heard more about Narcissistic Personality Disorder over this election period.  All psychiatrists are prevented by the 1973 ‘Goldwater Rule’ from diagnosing celebrities whom they have not actually examined.  Bodies like the American Psychiatric Association and the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists require that their members abide by it, due to the inaccuracy inherently at risk in ‘armchair diagnoses’.

Critics, though, argue that the stakes with Trump are now too high.  What if the President of the United States is pathologically mentally unfit?  Their worry is reasonable, because when it comes to Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the people who end up suffering most are not narcissists themselves.  Instead, it is the people affected by their behaviour.  That would be us, ordinary citizens in countries across the world.

As a research scientist who works with the public, my job is to help make sense of scientific insights on attachment, connection and human relationships.  My aim in doing that is to reduce suffering. I think we deserve access to ideas and information that can assist us in interpreting unsettling behaviour from the next President of the United States of America.  We need to reduce the fear and anxiety floating in the world.

So here’s how I think it is easiest to make sense of Trump’s behaviour: understand what’s driving it.  The answer is: human attachment needs.  At a fundamental level, Trump is no different from the rest of us. Here are two reasons why.

Why Trump is no different from the rest of us

1. We’re all driven by attachment needs.

BelongingLove. Belonging.  Emotional safety.  Human beings have a craving for these things.  They lie at the core of the attachment system.  When I say ‘core’, I really mean that.  These are biological needs.

All mammals seek connection, but it is especially intense for humans.  Our large skulls cause our offspring to be born extra-early, extra-vulnerable and ultra-dependent.  It is our biological attachment system that keeps us alive as babies and that frames our relationships as adults.  When our attachment system is placed under threat, our brains and bodies panic, because we move toward overwhelm.  When the overwhelm gets too intense, it starts to feel like we’re at risk of dying.  Our sense of self is tied up with the unconscious strategies we use to manage occasions on which panic rises.

People with Narcissistic Personality Disorder live with a lot of unconscious panic. Their sense of self is fragile, as a consequence of emotional injuries they suffered early in life.  Their way of coping with that panic is to develop a false self that they can present to the world.  The more grandiose and exalted, the better.  That idealised self-image, projected to the world, keeps them from feeling the overwhelming emotional wounds that gave birth to the inauthentic self in the first place.  As the author Preston Ni puts it, deep down, pathological narcissists feel like the ‘ugly duckling’.  They worry they aren’t good enough, but they don’t want anyone, including themselves, to know it.  A lot of unconscious psychological energy has to go into keeping up the front.  Phew! It’s exhausting just describing it!

So, at a deep human level, the rest of us are just like Donald Trump, and vice versa.  We all want to be loved.

2. We’re all seeking a sense of safety.  Control gives us that safety.

Heather Munro 11We all seek emotional safety.  That’s the aim of our attachment system.  It is always on the look-out for relationship threats that can be spotted on the horizon.  That monitoring is crucial to us as babies, because our immature stress management system renders us totally dependent on summoning people to rescue us from overwhelm.  Overwhelm is frequent in babies’ lives; it rears its head hundreds of times a day.  And it’s not fun.  Remember: once it gets intense, overwhelm feels like impending death.

We gain a sense of safety through having enough control over our environment and other people.  We are our best selves when we feel in control.  If the threat risk has dropped, there is no need to stay on high-alert.  Control = emotional safety = relief = relaxation.

You can see that pattern in Trump’s behaviour.  When he’s at home at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, he is described as relaxed and calm.  At his 2016 New Year’s Eve party, held there, Trump was described by the New York Times as “comfortable in his own skin”.  He was reported by attendees as “holding court” at the party: “totally at ease, very positive, very gregarious”.  Sure, he’s at home.  He’s in control.  He can be his charming best self.

It makes sense that he began his term as President Elect, as reported by journalists Maggie Haberman and Ashley Parker, concerned about how frequently his new job will allow him to get home to New York and Florida.  It makes sense that he is keen to host foreign dignitaries in his Washington DC hotel, rather than in the customary lodgings for Presidential visitors, Blair House.

His Cabinet picks?  He has chosen people he feels safe with.  They may not all be the best people for the job, but, hey, they feel trustworthy to him.  That’s emphasised by his tweet on 13 January, in which he said: “I want Cabinet nominees…to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”  Why does he need to articulate a quality that should come automatically as part of the job description for a Cabinet post?

Integrating family members into his political activities, despite the conflicts that risks?  Yes, his family members make him feel safe.  Rude to reporters at a press conference?  Well, since he doesn’t generally like the media and he doesn’t know what questions reporters are going to ask him, it can’t feel a safe environment for him, can it?  That would easily send his self-regulatory system into overdrive.   Reluctant even to travel in the Presidential plane, Air Force One?  Okay, his suggestion that he hire out his private jet to the government for his Presidential travel would indeed make him money, but I reckon that what’s more pertinent is a feeling of familiarity and relief when travelling inside his own personal plane.

Donald Trump is no different from the rest of us.  He is seeking a sense of emotional safety.  And, if he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, then that internal sense of safety is fragile.  A person inevitably exerts more control over their external environment when they can’t find a sense of control internally.

US CongressThe problem for Trump is that he about to be President of the United States.  That role risks putting him constantly outside of his comfort zone.  He cannot control Congress; he cannot control the press; he cannot control other countries; he cannot control what his critics say of him.  All of that uncertainty would easily keep him on constant high-alert.  That would explain why he so often hits out on Twitter and in interviews.  Punching someone – whether with your words or your fists — is a way of exerting control.  All bullies instinctively get that.

Moreover, they feel better after punching.  Lashing out is a tonic.  Their cortisol levels drop once they’ve discharged all their pent up anxiety.

The problem for us ordinary people is that a leader who feels constantly threatened becomes even more erratic, more authoritarian, more dependent on intimidation and tantrums as a stress management strategy.  That is a serious problem for the globe.

In understanding Trump, we better understand ourselves

Ha haI predict there will be a number of people who won’t thank me for this article.  Essentially, I’m saying that there is a rational explanation for Trump’s eccentricities.  The extremity of what he says and does has driven many of us to our own extreme positions.  It is easy to stay holed up in 1) derisively laughing at him or 2) protectively defending him or 3) terrified by his capacity to blow up the world.

As Inauguration Week begins, I’m unlikely to win a popularity contest with either liberals or conservatives by saying that Trump’s dangerously quirky bullying can be explained logically.  Indeed, the people I risk becoming most popular with are the trolls.

Important Note:  Seeking to understand behaviour is not the same thing as saying that behaviour is okay.  It is not okay to lie, to demean people, to rage and sulk, to obfuscate and gaslight.  Seeking to understand behaviour is simply a starting place for devising solutions to problems.  Finding effective solutions is always impossible unless understanding is your starting place.  And you can’t reach understanding without curiosity.  So yes, I am encouraging us to be genuinely curious about the origins of Trump’s behaviour. 

Why publish an article that carries risk, when I could just as easily have chosen to another of my pieces on the healing power of laughter?  The answer is that my main aim isn’t actually helping us to better understand the enigma of Trump.  My main aim is helping us to better understand ourselves. 

AmericaAmerica got itself (and the rest of the world) into this situation, where they have elected a man who may be seriously mentally disturbed, because too many people felt unheard.  The misery of poverty and anxiety about uncertain futures went unsolved by their politicians.  It is in times of fear that we look to someone else to save us.  As I have written about before during this election, our own attachment needs place us at most risk when we feel most vulnerable.  It is at times of vulnerability that we are most likely to be tricked by people who tell us they will be our saviour, that they will be the one to make our lives great again.  All they have to do is make us feel heard.

The best way to make sure you aren’t being conned is to get better at listening to your own vulnerabilities.  Along the way, you also get better at listening to others’ vulnerabilities.  That compassion is invaluable because…if we are to heal ourselves from the division that Trump’s election has created, we will need to get very very good at listening to each other.

Celebrating a year that kicks off with a Baby Box Row

Celebrating a year that kicks off with a Baby Box Row

The year 2017 has started with a row that might surprise many people.  On 1st January, the Scottish Government distributed the first of their new Baby Boxes, designed to support families and babies’ development.  Immediately a row erupted on Twitter.

Baby holding parent's handJames McEnaney asked about the evidence that the boxes would fulfil their stated aim of reducing infant mortality.  Lucy Hunter Blackburn queried the allocated budget of £6 million, wondering why the figures were not more clearly delineated in the Scottish Parliament’s budgetary documents.  Scottish Labour criticised the contents as a missed opportunity to promote breastfeeding.  Ian Smart sneered at the poem included in the Box, written by Scotland’s Poet Laureate Jackie Kay, branding her “a woman from Bishopbriggs writing doggerel.”  By 4th January, articles had appeared in the mainstream press, criticising the poem itself as “insensitive” because it risked putting pressure on mothers with postnatal depression, who might not experience welcoming feelings toward their babies.

Some of you may, at this point, find yourself wondering what a Baby Box is, having missed this debate because you were out enjoying holiday walks with loved ones in the winter sunshine, rather than hunched over social media streams.  The Baby Box is an idea that has been imported from Finland, where it has played a role since 1938 in promoting social equality.  The box, suitable as a first cot, comes complete with mattress, bedding, clothing, thermometer, nappies, book and other essentials for a baby’s first weeks of life.

In Finland, the scheme (which is accompanied by a parent’s agreement to engage in medical checks) has been credited with helping to reduce infant mortality and benefitting low income families.  Such assessments have led to related schemes popping up in rural Canada, the USABirmingham and Liverpool, amongst other places. Private companies, including the Baby Box Company and the Finnish Baby Box, have even sprung up, marketing the boxes to individual parents and sometimes working in partnership with London hospitals.  Here’s a video of a mum in 2015 delightedly unpacking her box.

Such enthusiasm!  What’s not to love?  What’s driving the doubtful debate unfurling in Scotland?  Several commentators have been quick to offer analyses.

Jason Michel, of the Random Public Journal, attributes it to old class-based prejudices, a “comfortable no-voting social elite” frustrated by seeing Scotland’s “plebs” receiving more free handouts.  Joan McAlpine, of the Scottish Daily Record, sees the scheme as a convenient new football in the political game of Labour vs the SNP.  James McEnaney, of The Common Space, can’t see strong evidence of effectiveness of the scheme, and Jane Bradley of The Scotsman thinks that a universal programme is a poor use of £6 million in the first place.  Julia Rampden, of the New Statesman, sees the debate as a reflection of the social division that still haunts Scottish society, from which Finnish society does not suffer.

Scotland's Baby BoxI am choosing to celebrate this row.  At its core is a debate about what babies need.  It is too seldom that our wider society pays any attention at all to babies’ needs, let alone kicks off a new year with people defending­­ them.  I’m cheering…

…because, ultimately, the Boxes aren’t about poems or parenting or even babies themselves.  The Boxes are about building relationships. 

That’s what will matter to the babies: what their relationships with their mums and dads feel like.  If that’s what matters to the babies, then that’s what needs to matter to us.

Relationships are not abstract things.  They are real, lived things, grown out of tiny moments:

  •             How gentle or rough it feels, being helped into a onesie by your mum.
  •             How cold or warm it feels, with your nappy being changed around you by your big brother.
  •             How predictable or surprising it feels, to have a thermometer placed against your body by your grandma.
  •             How familiar or odd it is to hear your dad’s voice, reading a story out loud.

What matters for a baby is the emotional sense of these tiny moments, these moments that the items in the Baby Box will facilitate: comfortable or uncomfortable, safe or alarming, shared or lonely.

Baby BrainWe now have a huge amount of evidence available about the fundamental importance of relationships in infant development.  Babies’ brains develop more rapidly in the first year of life than they ever will again, with approximately 750 connections between nerve cells being formed every second.  Those connections are driven largely by babies’ experiences of the world – and especially by their experiences of other people.  Relationships shape a baby’s very biology, especially the self-regulatory system that underpins everything from a child’s behaviour to learning to friendships.

Stories about these processes appear all the time in the press, even though they may use none of the language I’ve chosen here.  For example, during December, in the run up to the launch of the Baby Box, one widespread story concerned the latest report from the Dunedin Study, affirming that brain functioning at age 3 can predict behavioural patterns in adulthood.  That means that the way children had been loved left lasting biological consequences.

Economics also featured, with Nobel Laureate James Heckman releasing yet another study showing that family support from the age of 8 weeks increases a child’s eventual chances of gaining school qualifications and staying out of prison.  That means that the way families had been supported in loving their children had left lasting consequences.

Yet most of the public, parents and non-parents alike, do not realise just how important babies’ early experiences are.  They have no idea how fully babies’ brains are tracking patterns in the environment.  The ‘Tuning In Report’, released last summer by the US organisation Zero to Three, starkly illuminates this gap.  More than half the 2000 parents interviewed didn’t know that babies can sense parents’ moods by the age of 3 months or that language skills start at birth.  A quarter of new parents thought that shouting in the home didn’t matter until a child was two years old.

Look closely, slow things down — and we can see babies tuning in to their environment, in the most ordinary, unremarkable of tasks — like nappy changing:

It is overwhelming for most of us to comprehend just how important a parent’s love is.  In fact, some authors have argued that all this talk about brain development isn’t helpful to parents.  It only makes them more anxious.  Instead, they argue, we should simply concentrate on emphasising love and warmth and joy.  I want to agree.  And yet, I think we live in a society that undervalues precisely the things that help babies grow into healthy, happy children:  love and warmth and laughter and play.

The importance of the Baby Boxes being distributed by the Scottish Government derives not from the things they contain.  The importance is the way those things will facilitate relationships between babies and parents, reducing the stress on many parents’ ability to meet their babies’ earliest physical and emotional needs.  Mark McDonald, Minister for Childcare and Early Years, has pointed to that himself, when he said that “the box contains materials that will promote attachment.”  Most of the public, though, has no idea what the word ‘attachment’ means.  So let me translate:  It’s basically a scientific word for how emotionally safe love feels.

And for many babies in Scotland, love does not feel as safe as we would hope.  Over the course of 2017, approximately 10,000 babies will be born into poverty.  Poverty creates stress for babies, because it creates stress for their parents.  Stress causes human bodies and human brains to change – for the worse.  Our whole society pays the later costs of that change, drawn from the budgets for education, health and criminal justice.

Heckman CurveHow much do we pay?  James Heckman’s analyses suggest that for every £1 invested in early intervention, the returns start at £3 and rise.  So it is possible that by spending this £6 million now, the Scottish Government could be saving us £18 million (or some other figure) in future years.  Let’s get busy figuring out how to incorporate such calculations into our impact assessments.  We so seldom take into account this second part of the equation when it comes to evaluating public spending.

The decision in Oxfordshire to close 44 children’s centres is a terrible illustration of such blinkered thinking.  I wonder how long before the ‘savings’ the Country Council thinks they are making come back as other costs, driven by unnecessary suffering.

Early intervention?  How can I describe a Box of things as ‘early intervention’?  That sounds odd, given that we usually think of ‘intervention’ as a ‘programme’.  But that’s my point.  A baby doesn’t think of early intervention as a programme.  He or she experiences intervention as cuddles and kisses and attention and laughter and play and feeling safe.  If the Baby Box helps mums and dads to ‘deliver’ more of these, then the Boxes will have served our newest citizens well – and we will all benefit.

So when you reach your own conclusion about the value of the Baby Boxes, be sure you have taken into account this wider context, missing from the stories offered us this week in the press.  The Boxes aren’t just about £6 million spent on other people’s bairns.  Parenting is hard.  We all end up paying greater costs when we overlook the importance of supporting the people doing the work of connecting.

That’s why I want to do all I can to say to Scotland’s babies of 2017, in the words of our national Makar, Jackie Kay:  Welcome wee one.

Stories of loss move us to action

Stories of loss move us to action

This week, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, made a ground-breaking statement.  No, it wasn’t about political independence.  It was about the political prominence of LOVE.

SNP Conference Care Review AnnouncementIn front of 3000 conference delegates, she said:

“My view is simple: every young person deserves to be LOVED.  So let’s come together and make this commitment: to LOVE our most vulnerable children and give them the childhood they deserve.  That’s what inclusion means in practice.” 

She then promised a “root and branch review” of the Care System.  Essentially, she wants to understand how LOVE got lost from the Care System, and how we recover it.  She wants to know how, despite the efforts of so many dedicated people, being raised in the Care System leads to statistics like these:

  • 50% of children in the care system go on to suffer mental health problems.
  • Half the adult prison population were in care as children.
  • Children in care are 20 times more likely to be dead by the age of 25 than those not in care.

At a personal level, the part of her speech that most struck me were two short sentences:

“Recently I have been spending time with young people who have grown up in care.  Their stories have moved me deeply.”

So it wasn’t the statistics that most moved the First Minister, chilling as they are.  It was real life stories of loss.

I have discovered in my work how powerful stories are.  They are perhaps the best vehicle we have for moving others to a place of action.

I want, therefore, to use this article to tell another story, one that has been lost from our national consciousness.  I want to tell the story of a 3-year-old who went into hospital for a tonsillectomy in 1965.  Her parents’ loss, now long forgotten, played a crucial role in changing hospital practice.  Every parent today who takes a child to hospital benefits unknowingly from that couple’s story of pain and courage.

Why re-tell that story now?  One answer is that, if Nicola Sturgeon’s vision can be realised, then children in the Care System of the future will benefit from the determination that’s being shown now by the young people of Who Cares Scotland.  At their invitation, Nicola has committed to hearing 1000 of their stories over the next two years.  STV’s recent haunting documentary enabled us to share in five of those stories, including that of Laura Beveridge, who gave a deeply moving TED Talk in Glasgow in 2016.

ARCHIE Foundation LogoA second reason for reflecting on the history of children’s hospitals is that, on 3rd November, I’m going to embark on a wee risk myself.  I’m taking to the stage, as they say, with an entertaining show called TEDDY BEARS RULE.  It’s designed to give the public a light-hearted take on the science of attachment.

The evening is being held in support of The ARCHIE Foundation’s campaign for a new children’s hospital in Tayside.  It’s an apt partnership.  The study of attachment began in earnest in children’s hospitals of the 1950s.  ARCHIE’s work in hospitals today emphasises the importance of relationships, of emotional safety, of LOVE, for children’s healing.  Even their logo conveys that message, with their lovable little mascot firmly gripping his cuddly toy.

But it wasn’t always the case that hospitals recognised the importance of relationships.  That’s the point of my story of a child’s deadly tonsillectomy.

We begin in the early 1950s.  The war is over and the National Health Service has been established.  Thank goodness on both counts.  All parents can now obtain medical treatment for their children, whether in moments of crisis, like broken legs and bad asthma attacks, or for scheduled operations, like hernias and eye corrections.

One aspect of the care, though, is that much separation between parents and children will need to be endured.

Children's hospitals 1950sStandard practice for the 1950s was that parents were allowed to visit their children once a week, usually for one hour.  It didn’t matter the age of the child: 2 years or 3 years or 10 years.  Restricted visiting was simply the norm.  Besides, trips on public transportation could be cumbersome, there were typically other children at home who needed to be cared for, and husbands needed someone to make their tea.  (I am not joking.)  In some hospitals, the restrictions were even more severe.  In St Thomas’ hospital, children went one month before being allowed a visit, although their parents were permitted to observe them sleeping.  In London Hospital, children under 3 years old went without seeing their parents at all.  Parents could, if they wished, view them through partitions.

If this historic account leaves you a bit stunned, good.  I want us to be stunned that, not all that long ago, our society took for granted rules that sound unimaginable to our ears today.

If you are looking for someone to blame, don’t.  The system was filled with dedicated, hard-working people who simply did what was regarded as normal.  Curiosity will get us a lot further than blame.

If you are an adult who was once a child in hospital in the 1950s (or 1960s or 1970s), and you can remember desperately wondering where your parents were: THANK YOU.  Thank you for your strength then and your strength now, reading this article.  I know there are very many such adults living in the UK today.  Frequently you spontaneously raise your hands in my training events and share your stories of loss.  Thank you.

James RobertsonBack to my story.  A growing number of professionals and parents were concerned about this practice of restricted visiting.  Amongst these were the psychologists John Bowlby, Anna Freud, and especially James Robertson.  The data they were collecting led to the establishment of what would come to be known as ‘attachment theory’.  But the 1950s were still early days in the study of attachment and emotional trauma.

Robertson found that when he tried to talk about his data, it proved too threatening for medical staff to listen to.  They could not believe that their normal hospital practices could lead to lasting emotional damage.  They felt offended, their professional integrity impugned.  What Robertson was calling ‘emotional deterioration’, they simply saw as ‘settling’.  Once a child stopped crying, they regarded the behavioural problem as having been solved.

In fact, that was part of the reason for restricting parents’ visits.  When parents arrived, they not only brought ‘germs’, but also started off the children’s crying bouts again.  How were a few nurses to handle a whole ward of crying children, once their parents had departed?  Better to keep the parents away.

So James Robertson tried new steps in his campaign.  In 1952, he made a narrated film called A Two Year Old Goes to Hospital, in which he showed viewers what ‘emotional deterioration’ in a toddler looks like.  Did it help?  No.  The medical profession’s reaction was so intensely negative that he had to stop screening the film for a while.

Robertson integrated his efforts with those of others who were concerned.  They wrote letters, published papers, penned editorials, gave lectures, created opportunities for distraught parents to tell their stories. By 1959, the debate had grown so heated that a formal review was commissioned by the Ministry of Health, chaired by Sir Harry Platt, President of the Royal College of Surgeons.  His report called unreservedly for more humane care for children in hospital.  Guess what changed?  Very little.

So Robertson turned to the press.  He wrote a series of articles for the newspapers, inviting parents to send him letters about their experiences.  He collected together hundreds of them, which he published in a book called Hospitals and Children: A Parent’s Eye View.  One particularly harrowing story was told by a mother who re-mortgaged her house in order to pay for private treatment so that she would not have to be separated from her son while he recuperated from an eye operation.  In 1961, Robertson convinced the BBC to broadcast a television series on the “cruelty” of hospital care, which featured parents’ letters and segments from the several films he had by now made.  What changed?  Not much.

Do you know what finally finally finally proved to be the tipping point, after nearly two decades of concerted effort?  A story of loss.  A little girl, 3 years old, went into hospital for an ordinary tonsillectomy, and ended up crying herself to death. Literally.

It was 1965.  In line with usual practice, her parents were allowed to spend an hour with her on the day of admission but were thereafter prevented from seeing her.  They were informed, though, that their child had come round from the operation, as she was crying continuously.  The mother begged repeatedly to see her but was denied permission.  Three days after admission, her little girl was dead, having bled to death, surrounded only by strangers called hospital staff.  In a heart-wrenching letter, the mother wrote that she “could not help thinking that the continual crying caused the bleeding” and that she believed “her presence would have stopped the crying.”

Student nurses in 1950sIt’s a shocking story.  I want us to be shocked.  And I want us to be curious.  How is it possible that well-meaning staff could have failed to realise the importance of LOVE for reassuring a scared child?  How could their lack of understanding be so complete that she ended up drowning in her own blood?

If you think the way I’ve told this story sounds too extreme, that’s okay.  You can read the story for yourself, retold in the 2009 paper written by Dutch researchers Frank van der Horst and Rene van der Veer (pg 135).  The case was much discussed at the time, in the press, in the medical journals and by the Ministry of Health.  Whilst some leading medical professionals supported the mother’s view that her presence would have calmed and saved her child, others subtly blamed the mother for the death, suggesting that she had failed to adequately prepare her 3-year-old for the experience of being in hospital.

Blame.  It is such an easy option for us human beings.

The only light to emerge from this terrible story of loss is that it helped the tide to finally turn.  The Ministry of Health took a harder line on hospital visiting practices.  By 1970, restrictions had come to be regarded as unnecessary and unsuitable for young children.  It had taken two decades of campaigning.  Things still weren’t perfect.  But the tide had turned.  LOVE was being permitted to flourish in hospital wards.

Why am I telling that story in such detail now?  Two reasons.Teddy Bears Rule Poster

First, when I stand up on stage on 3rd November in Dundee, in aid of The ARCHIE Foundation’s campaign for cutting-edge hospital facilities, I want the evening to be entertaining, full of fun and laughter.  I won’t be telling this heart-breaking story.  But I wanted to put it on record, so that, as we walk into that auditorium, we fully appreciate the significance of ARCHIE’s attention to relationships.  ARCHIE gets it, and they are working to help ensure that others get it.  The money we raise that evening will help them continue that work.

Connection.  Laughter.  LOVE.  It is way too easy for us to take these basics for granted.

Second, Nicola Sturgeon’s speech about the Care System has filled many people in Scotland with hope.  Tears were shed as she announced her root and branch review.  I believe Nicola’s intention, and I have no doubt that the determined young people of Who Cares Scotland will hold her to account.  They have claimed their own stories of loss.  They have used their stories to drive long-needed change.

However, even hefty reviews do not automatically lead to action.  My history of hospital care reminds us of that reality.

I do not want to wait two decades to achieve the vision Nicola Sturgeon set out this week.  If our children in care are to experience the LOVE she seeks for them, and the LOVE they deserve, then it needs more than policy change.  It needs culture change.

That part is up to us.  We don’t have to wait for a governmental review.  We can start today.  We start with kindness and curiosity.  We listen to stories of loss.