STRATEGIES to avoid Psychache during child development


Infants in the state of being love

The phase of the primary self is of central importance for the psychic development of human beings in a double sense. On one hand the unprotected helplessness of the small being, which has no possibility of avoiding psychic painful experiences, opens the door to injuries. A screaming protest is the maximum of what is possible.

Sooner or later however, this active combative strategy will give way to the power of the stronger, and the infant, when its needs are overridden, will resign in despair or, at best, ignore the superior power in denial.

Predominant influences on the early childhood psyche

On the other hand, trusting openness in the state of being love enables an extraordinarily large influence on the early mind of the child – a prerequisite for both, good and bad influences.

In its early psychic development the child is forced to absorb every impression without criticism. A behavioral program is engraved which can only be rewritten or erased with great effort – if the person concerned is willing to go along. In particular, the attempt to permanently modify these imprints made in the phase of the primary self by means of changes in the secondary self alone is likely to be difficult. In this context the body reference is of central importance.

How to overcome as an adult the experience of psychic pain in early childhood

For the adult human being the real way out of the consequences of early painful experience is not only to allow it but also to express this psychic pain. Only this way he/she will again become free for other experiences like primary joy. In case of deeper injuries this usually requires professional support.

BERT HELLINGER, who roots in primary therapy (Primärtherapie), describes as the cause of the child’s feeling of “not being accepted” the principle of interrupted movement towards (unterbrochene Hinwendung). This comes about by a rejecting attitude towards the infant’s needs (which are not recognized). Early separation due to hospital and home stay or the death of the caring reference person can also lead to a painfully felt interruption.

The psychic pain of early parental separation

For HELLINGER next to entanglements in the system (Verstrickung) this is the second most common reason for psychological suffering. The aim of his intervention is to complete this interrupted movement toward the parents (usually toward the mother or the father) during the group session, by allowing the affected person to feel the deeply felt, unquenched need for physical closeness and giving him/her the opportunity to vicariously satisfy their longing within the framework of the group situation.

In the 1960s DAN CASRIEL in bonding, similar to JIRINA PREKOP later in fixation therapy, has already tested similar solution steps at his New York institute. 

When the infant very early “makes the decision” to refrain from touching its own body, an interrupted movement towards oneself takes place. Touching oneself often enables the redemptive development of an energy signal in psycho-energetic therapy according to SCHELLENBAUM, as a loving execution of the interrupted movement towards the self. The contact with a transitional object has a similar effect.

Observations on autistic children

Until SPITZ’s studies of infants growing up in homes under difficult conditions, the prevailing opinion, even among physicians, was that before brain maturity – that is until the age of two or three – children do not have the abilities to remember anything. Consequently any damaging influences could not have lasting consequences.

Personal memories of patients who – since Freudian psychoanalysis and its development, especially also in the context of primary therapy – contradicted this notion. They have long been regarded as a product of fantasy. 

Traumas that create unusual or even criminal behavior

Even today, although there is an overwhelming burden of proof for the possibility of early childhood damage caused by upbringing, there are repeated attempts to regard so-called “malignantdevelopments in individual people – up to and including self-harming and criminal behavior – as genetically determined or inexplicable. In this way, obviously society tries to dodge responsibility.

It is not surprising that the findings of BRUNO BETTELHEIM, who – probably because of his experiences in concentration camps shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War – dealt in detail with possible effects of early childhood damage in the context of his autism therapies, have been doubted, if not hushed up, by the majority of specialists. All too clearly, he has demonstrated that “deviantchild behavior is not simply innate, but is produced by trauma and can be nurtured or inhibited. 

Psychotic children suffer from early childhood experiences

BETTELHEIM was convinced as early as 1956 “that all psychotic children suffer from the experience of having been exposed to extreme conditions of life and that the severity of their disorders is directly related to how early these conditions occurred, how long they lasted and how severely they affected the child.

In his view, autistic children in particular embody the paradox of for one thing appearing completely passive and unresponsive, while at the same time offering extreme resistance to the entire environment.

I believe that in these children everything is focused on the defense system, so that all other stimuli, whether they come from inside or outside, are turned off…. which is why these children don’t perceive that these sensations come from, say, a broken toe or appendicitis.

This corresponds to the emotional process we have encountered under the heading Athymia. BRUNO BETTELHEIM suggests that autistic children “defensively try to shut out what in this experience is too destructive for them.” He postulates that as a result of this active withdrawal behavior, not only is the development of the cognitive domain impaired – with the effect of intellectual inadequacies – but that an affective inadequacy may also result from it, in that “the child turns his back on the world” because “vital experiences are missing“. 

The healing effects of a loving environment

However, the damage need not always to be irreversible. In a loving environment, even severely impaired children may flourish again. Only one prerequisite seems essential: the milieu needs to be fundamentally changed.

The observation, which at first seems paradoxical, that during the “unfreezing” of the child’s psyche, less positive emotions like open anger and hostility become visible, immediately makes sense, if we consider the scheme of the emerging of negative emotions and the cascade of repression:
After the dead reflex of total fear is released, anger becomes manifest, simultaneously with the re-experiencing of the repressed psychic pain. The healing process however, is possible only through the corrective experience of love and the new trust related to it. In careful steps surrogate parents must repeatedly go through this often extremely unpleasant cycle of withdrawal and shooting in rage, until the child’s trust is sufficiently solidified.

And even then, in unexpected threatening situations, there may be a sudden relapse. An example:

Marcel, 8 years old, both parents are drug addicts, the mother lives in a clinic. Since birth, Marcel spends his life in institutions. He is intelligent, extremely aggressive, bites everything (rubber, back of chairs) in a fit. If you let him drink tea from a baby bottle, he calms down. Even his comrades have learned to “tame” him this way. In impending separation situations, however, it always comes to violent outbreaks of affect. 

The great fear of psychic pain in children

BETTELHEIM has observed that while these children “do not seem to feel pain, their fear of pain releases almost superhuman energies within them:

“Here I come again to that sickly girl who did not respond to the normally excruciating pain that a ruptured appendix brings. But later, when physically well, she had to be restrained by two adults every time she got an injection.

So intrusion from the outside must seem much more dangerous to these children than things coming from the inside… Thus, most of our autistic children have fought with tremendous energies and with the fierceness of a total despair even the most patient efforts to fix their teeth… Their main fear is probably that the dentist will destroy their teeth in retaliation for their desire to bite and devour.” 

BETTELHEIM observed a similar relapse into phases of total withdrawal even among adults – corresponding to resignation in the state of the primary self – among inmates of concentration camps:
These people, classified as failures by their more energetic fellow prisoners, in contrast to their more strong-willed comrades, gave up all hope and accepted their victim role without resistance. 

Strategies of infants in Response to primary psychic pain

Not pathologically exaggerated but with similar forms of response infants behave when injured at the level of the primary self.

BRAZELTON’S observations largely confirm the modes of reaction postulated by BETTELHEIM twenty-five years earlier. BRAZELTON observed four-week-old babies whose need for eye contact was deliberately neglected. The infants tested are “using” strikingly similar strategies to the behavior of that of autistic infants:

  • The child makes himself small and turns away (flight).
  • He tries with hands and feet to kick away what is unpleasant (struggle).
  • He stares into space or falls asleep (denial).
  • He starts whimpering or screaming (protest; despair). 

How loss of love affects infants

PAPOUSEK observed these behaviors especially in the frequently overstimulated “cry babies“. Situations one and two correspond to classic responses to the experience of primary psychic pain, the fight-or-flight behavior. At the same time, this behavior corresponds to active action. Thus, it is not yet shifted to the psychic level, as we will see with the strategies of the secondary self. Only the third behavior of denial, is likely to correspond to this purely psychic level. 

It seems to be reasonable that these four behavioral patterns correspond only to a snapshot in time, and that in the individual child all possibilities may occur in varying composition and sequence. The extent of the late effects of early experiences of psychic deprivation is likely to depend on many factors; in addition to the duration and intensity of traumatizing exposure, the presence or absence of primal trust and physical conditions will also play a significant role.

Genetic and developmental  influences (early physical trauma or brain disease) are also of great importance. That, in addition to the extreme form of autism cited, borderline patients in particular have also been influenced by early psychologically traumatizing damage is now doubted only by extreme “biologists”. 

Early body resistance
(Primary resistance)

The body resistance is a behavioral pattern that is used early on; without its effectiveness, human socialization is hardly conceivable. However, these processes take place largely in secret, so it is not surprising that they have been overlooked by BRAZELTON.

Body defense begins already in the fetus

It is possible that these bodily responses are initiated intrauterine. Thus it is conceivable that states of emptiness described as pathological and recalled by patients only in the course of body therapies and experienced as threatening are related to the fetal reactions described by the Italian psychoanalyst ALESSANDRA PIONTELLI.

She was able to observe mothers and their babies during ultrasound examinations. After birth the behavior of these infants was found to be little different from prenatal behavior in utero, even for several years. The infant apparently “understands” everything even before birth but cannot speak and therefore has difficulty making itself “heard”, especially if the mother has little empathy.

Kinesthetic avoidance behavior

GEORGE DOWNING devotes a separate chapter in his book “Body and Word in Psychotherapy” to body defense. In it he lists ten different forms of which the first eight, in my opinion, must be counted among behaviors of the primary self. Perhaps the earliest bodily defense form is kinesthetic avoidance.

“It is a general escape from the kinesthetic domain. This escape affects the conscious distribution of our attention; that is, it affects how and when we direct our attention to something. One becomes accustomed to “suppress” the kinesthetic, ignoring it. … with kinesthetic avoidance, little is likely to register beyond the (absolute vital) minimum.” 

Whether this avoidance behavior is conscious, however, I doubt. Especially in the therapeutic everyday life it corresponds to an impressive experience that the kinesthetic avoidance behavior is not only widespread, but also that very few are aware of their deficit in this respect. 

Insensibility – insensitivity to psychic pain

A central consequence of the resulting general numbness (athymia) and probably the real cause of the whole process, is a distinctive insensitivity to psychic pain, as described by BETTELHEIM in autistic children and as recently described in borderline patients (BOHUS). This form of avoidance is later intensified by visual body image constructions that have a direct relation to the secondary self. It is a central defense mechanism in the context of socializatin.

“We use it (visual body image constructs) to support escaping from the kinesthetic realm. It is an important complement to kinesthetic avoidance. These constructions represent the body as something that is seen, i.e. seen from the outside… In imagining ‘my body-‘ or ‘my self’ in its bodily dimension – this construction is triggered as the main reference.

The problem however is that ‘my body-‘ and in its bodily dimension ‘my self-‘ might actually have a second, additional reference: namely, the ‘lived body’ as I experience it phenomenologically, a predominantly highly kinesthetic affair. In other words, by jumping too smoothly to the visual reference, I slide over the kinesthetic reference.”

The image of an external physical shell becomes a convenient hook to which I can attach the idea of myself. This predominance of the visual not only directly reinforces kinesthetic avoidance, but it also helps us deny how thoroughly we have lost touch with ourselves. It disguises the problem. It causes us to think about our bodily being in a way that hides how cut off we are from it and how out of touch we really are with it.”

A prerequisite for these visual body image constructions to occur, which largely displace kinesthetic perception, is that I can construct an imagination. In therapy, the re-immersion in bodily perception makes it possible to clarify seemingly hopeless situations and re-engage the suppressed life process.

An example from the practice

Max, 50, already experienced in psychonergetic bodywork, requests a crisis session. He is very afraid of an upcoming supervision session with his team, feels depressed and doesn’t know what to do. 

In the therapy session he mentions that “everyone is looking at me, even though I do not want any attention at all.” As he speaks, his left hand, clenched into a fist, unconsciously makes lashing out motions. I ask against whom these swings are directed at. “Against the bad Max!” – i.e. against himself. A short time before, however, he had spoken very aggressively of “the others, those assholes”.

As I hint at this discrepancy, his immoderate anger at his immediate superior comes out. In tracing it, he feels “deep in his belly a great lump of fear and psychic pain”.

Still aware of the sensation, his left hand touches his right arm as if by chance. Then the breathing deepens, the face increasingly relaxes. The split (both within his body self and towards “the others”) dissolves, the fear and pressure disappear and make way for a deep, physically felt peace.

“I do my work well; I love my work”.

Consoled, as a “whole person,” he looks forward to the upcoming supervision session. (Of course, such rapid processing of a crisis situation presupposes prior therapeutic experience in relation to the underlying psychological conflicts as well as many hours of in-depth body awareness.) 

This example illustrates the extent to which mental ideas and bodily postures are interrelated and how helpful working on these linkages in a sense-conscious way can be. 

Breath reduction – the most consequential body defense

In my opinion, the most momentous body defense mechanism is formed by breath reduction. “It is perhaps the most potent form of body defense. Its destructive effects show up in the psychological economy of all of us.

These defenses borrow elements from all other body defenses and use them for a specific purpose… Also recall that the most important thing is not the volume of breathing but the responsiveness of breathing… This is why any defensive reduction in breathing is so powerful. It drags down our contact with ourselves as well as with other people.” (DOWNING)

In particular the respiratory blockages in the throat and diaphragm areas already allow the infant to influence its emotional activity in an extremely effective way.

Similarly fundamental and at the same time extremely effective is the already mentioned counterpulsation (CHARLES KELLEY). This is probably a special form of the countermovement mentioned by DOWNING.

“The countermovement represents a movement directed against another movement that preceded it … For example, a child becomes sad. One of the subschemas mobilized by this stimulates an opening of the throat in preparation for sobbing. A contraction of the throat then counteracts this and reduces or prevents the sobbing from increasing.”

The building of a character armor

Similarly to counterpulsation one could also speak of self-prevention or dynamic self-blockade, a not yet totally solidified form of chronic arrest, as described by WILHELM REICH as character armor

For GEORGE DOWNING, underdeveloped motor schemata are the first form of physical resistance in the sense of developmental inhibition that occurs when there is only selective attunement to the infant’s signals by the mother or other caregiver. In its “abortive” form, i.e., when not fully effective because the rebellion is too intense, it results in distorted affect-motor schemas.

On the other hand, if the disproportion between the infant’s “power” and that of the caregivers is too great, it will result in deactivation and finally chronic hypotonia. In the scheme of BRAZELTON this would correspond to the third behavior, resignative denial (the infant stares into space or falls asleep).

Dr. Kurt Eugen Schneider
Dr. Kurt Eugen Schneider