Note to Self: We Are Bigger Than Our Kids
We sometimes forget, from our privileged perch as adults, what it was like to be small, physically small. We might get a glimpse, perhaps in our dreams or nightmares, of being suddenly rendered miniature and at the mercy of beings that loom terrifyingly above diminished versions of ourselves. Or maybe we occasionally have hypnagogic sensations (strange perceptual distortions while falling asleep), akin to neurological syndromes like macropsia or micropsia, momentarily causing us to perceive our surroundings as huge or tiny. It is well known that some hallucinogens create these kinds of effects and people often wondered whether Lewis Carroll was portraying his own hallucinogenic experiences (he wasn’t) by playing around with the size of Alice. Of course there are iconic books and movies that turn the tables on big and small, such as “The Incredible Shrinking Man” or Gulliver’s Travels, as well as apocalyptic horror movies that terrify with images of gargantuan alien crafts rendering all else minute by comparison. Are such things uncanny because they give us a window into what it felt like to be so much smaller than people and things in our environment? As children, we once were. Well obviously, but development involves mental and physical changes occurring in tandem; thus as our minds change, we tend toward amnesia concerning the physical experience of literally being little. It’s a bit surprising that we don’t consciously remember the most tangible transformation we experience in life: the concrete change in our stature. And it can be dramatic. I have an adolescent patient who actually grew seven inches in the last year!
Source: Garth Williams/Public Domain
In our unconscious minds, size seems to be a primal measure of power. Look at Donald Trump lording it over those who threaten him, by issuing the worst insult he can muster: he calls them small. Children are very aware of this primitive equivalence, and young children confuse size and seniority, often assuming that the taller you are, the older and stronger you are. If children are parented in ways that are in sync with their developmental stage and stature, they feel safe in their minds and bodies and rarely feel taken down to size. Disconnects happen when this link-up does not happen and the power balance gets distorted. Children often feel quite at home with adults who “get” that childhood is a smaller place, like teachers, pediatricians, therapists, and caregivers, and conversely feel alienated by grownups who are not sensitive to that special condition.
Think of cognitive psychology experiments involving two beakers: one tall, one short. Younger children assume that the taller beaker necessarily is the biggest, even when they see they same amount going into each. Children conflate tallness with more-ness, and to them it stands to reason. On the other hand, children naturally love miniatures: Matchbox cars, Polly Pockets, model trains, dollhouses; this too makes developmental sense. A tiny world represents their bodily experience of themselves, but this time puts them in the proverbial driver’s seat. The Russian nesting dolls that I keep in my therapy office are a favorite with my patients, providing endless fascination since they can magically go from big to small or from small to big, depending on how you think about it. These dolls seem to signify something about physical transformation over time.
And yet very oddly, parents can sometimes get overwhelmed by their children because they forget a crucial disparity: adults are big; kids are small. Parents always have the power and must handle that differential with empathy and developmental understanding. Children know that. Parents forget that sometimes, most particularly parents who themselves did not have their own smallness respected. Huge showdowns and confrontations can occur because the emotions of small children can overwhelm certain vulnerable adults, not to mention all of us, depending on the wattage of the tantrum. Children cannot understand how this could be, and often up the ante in a bid to bring things back into proportion. “Don’t they know I am little? How can I be such a threat, I am smaller than they are. Why don’t they get it? They need to help me!”
Traumatized parents in particular can experience their children’s strong emotions as a trigger, pitching them back to their own childhood experiences of being misunderstood or feeling powerless. When adults overlook their own stature in the physical balance of power, the natural order gets upended. I remember an adorable 5-year-old child who would drive his parents to distraction, since he would have a tantrum if he could not wear the clothing of his choice (which relevantly tended to be items in last year’s sizes). Instead of understanding this as their child’s bid for autonomy and reaffirmation of his smallness, they experienced him as trying to maliciously drive them crazy. The more they reacted to him thusly, the more intense his tantrums became. In their minds, when he rebelled, he had morphed from little to big. It turns out that both of these parents had been intimidated, and verbally and physically abused by their parents for ordinary childhood behaviors. When their child had a tantrum, they remembered their own parents’ violent reactions and, rather than identifying with their child as the diminutive person he was, they responded to him as their parents had to them.
In cases like this, the tables get turned like in that optical illusion, the Ames Room, in which you appear big or little depending where you stand. Particularly when upset or difficult (which kids inevitably are) even the smallest of children can seem huge and threatening in their intense reactivity. There is an FMRI study in which “normal” mothers are compared with more traumatized mothers. When both groups are shown pictures of predators, the area in their brain that lights up is the same one: the “afraid of predator area”. But fascinatingly, when the more traumatized mothers are shown recordings or of their own baby crying, the same area lights up. For them that tiny infant’s cry feels as terrifying as a wild animal’s approach.
The psychologist Mary Main developed a screening called the Adult Attachment Interview, which correlates parents’ early experiences to the quality of their attachment to their babies. She discovered that parents with early childhood trauma who have not been able to process these experiences within a “coherent narrative” (it’s the lack of a narrative more than it is the traumatic experiences per se) often are frightened of their children or can become frightening to them. Big scary feelings get superimposed on little tiny people who come to bear the burden of a parent’s unremembered past.
I have had a number of parents send me videos of their kids having tantrums, which they assume are pathological. I say “Yes, that little child is having a big tantrum. It is difficult all right, it is annoying all right. But it is all happening on a small scale on a small stage. Your child is little and you are big. Don’t ever forget that.” I find it is helpful to remind parents of this basic physical and evolutionary fact. This very simple intervention can be very effective, even a revelation, restoring a volatile situation to its proper proportions. No biggie. Size does matter.
Source : psychologytoday