Subtitled: You’ve come a long way, baby.
It only took a little less than 2 years, but I’m a lot more confident that my formerly selectively mute daughter is blossoming into a well-adjusted 6 year old. It took me a long while to understand that a lot of her temperament and her frequent meltdowns due to heightened sensitivity and a retained startle reflex had a lot to do with her asynchronous development (her cognitive development was about 2-3 years ahead of her chronological age, and her emotional development was was about 2 years behind) and a lot less to do with her being a “difficult child” brought to me to live out my mother’s prophecy when she cursed me bitterly once upon a time saying, “Well, I just HOPE you have a child JUST LIKE YOU, then you’ll know what you put me through”.
I’ve learned quite a bit about gifted children, and their social and emotional needs. One of the more recent articles my friend Bruce shared with me is called Preserving the True Self of the Gifted Child, by Maureen Neihart. It is very helpful in understanding not only what the self is, but also how to maintain it well in our children.
What is the self?
There is no one definition of the self. However, there is some agreement that it comprises the very core of the personality. It includes identity, self-esteem, and what one brings to the world. Winnicott said, “For me the self, which is not the ego, is the person who is me, who is only me, who has a totality based on the operation of the maturational process. At the same time the self has parts, and in fact is constituted of these parts” (1989,p. 271)
How does the Self begin to develop?
The self is not present at birth; it develops from the time of birth as a result of a process called introjection, which refers to the incorporation of attitudes, ideas, and beliefs. Winnicott (1989) said that the self develops as a result of the interactions with the human environment. The self first sees itself in the eyes of the primary caregiver, which serve as a mirror for the self to come to know itself. As a result of introjection, the self becomes elaborated and organized. The self is a product of what the individual takes in and internalizes from people and events in the immediate environment. Once incorporated, such objects are called introjects. For example, the mother typically becomes the first introject. Father is usually the second. Other significant persons with whom the individual spends considerable time early in life are potential introjects. This in part explains why so many of us at age 35 realize that we have become our parents. We have introjected them; they became internal objects, core pieces of our personality that we carry with us always. They are us.
Perception, cognition and affect all strongly shape the self because they influence the process of introjection. Csikszentimihalyi (1993) says that what individuals pay attention to shapes the self. “There is nothing mysterious, or mystical, about the way objects become part of ourselves. The man who spends most of his time polishing his car, tuning up its engine, and talking about it to his friends will gradually end up including the car in his conception of his self…Therefore, what we pay attention to is no trivial matter; we are what we attend to” (p. 218).
The later development of the self
This occurs when the child is about 3 and further develops in adolescence.
Self psychology theory proposes that a cohesive self develops via two pathways as a result of interactions with others known as self-objects (Csikszentimihalyi, 1993; Miller, 1981; Pine, 1990; Wexler, 1992; Winnicott, Shepherd, & Davis, 1989). The term, “self-object”, refers to any person, thing or image that helps restore order when the self feels threatened (Wexler, 1991; Wolf, 1988). Self-objects serve an organizing function for the individual. This power to soothe and reorganize comes from the individual’s relationship with the self-object.
The first pathway to integration is through the affirming, nurturing mirroring of an empathic mother. The child who receives such empathic support for his feelings, ideas, existence, learns at a preverbal stage that he is of value. The child who does not receive this good enough mirroring is vulnerable to narcissistic injury and narcissistic rage. The second pathway is through acceptance of an idealized father. Through internalizing the magnificence and power of the father the child develops a healthy self.
I can see how my failure to restore order in my highly anxious daughter when she was 3-3.5 affected her ability to soothe and reorganize after stressful situations. I didn’t necessarily CAUSE her to have problems, but I certainly didn’t help her enough either. By the time my littlest daughter came along, my middle daughter was only 18 months. I was really struggling, trying to take care of the needs of three children under 3.5, particularly while my husband was gone in the evenings, by which time things fell apart quite rapidly. Over time, I became really overwhelmed and stressed out most of the time. It was a pretty bleak time for all of us. I do blame myself in part for my daughter’s heightened generalized anxiety and separation anxiety. When she was about 3-4, I struggled to be the empathetic mother she needed after weeks where she’d have multiple meltdowns a day for days in a row. When she was in preschool, she never spoke a word for the entire year, so great was her anxiety.
In retrospect, taking her to see a pediatric neuropsychologist for her selective mutism when she was 4.5 was the best thing we could have done. Through the series of tests they gave her, I had my suspicions confirmed that she not only had selective mutism, she had generalized and separation anxiety and heightened sensitivity and giftedness too (though I suspected she was gifted before testing). What the diagnosis meant for me is that my husband (and others) took my observations about my daughter more seriously, that no one could no longer tell me she was just being a brat, or she’ll just “grow out of it” on her own, and that I could get some assistance through the school at the preschool level to help prepare her for kindergarten.
This was a bonus, since I had proof that she needed help and people could not judge her harshly if she refused to answer questions (because she could not), or if she ended up having any meltdowns during school hours (which she did not, fortunately). And how parents and teachers react to the child can affect the child dramatically.
Parents and teachers naturally approve of some behaviors in children and disapprove of others. Everyone learns to give up some of their true self in exchange for social acceptance. It is very rare that the true self of any child is totally destroyed. Rather, the loss of the true self is in degrees. The tenets of self psychology suggest that gifted children may have to fight harder to preserve the true self, particularly if they live in homes or attend schools where their giftedness is not recognized or affirmed. The response of others to the child’s giftedness will have the most impact on the development of the self, since it is the reflection from others onto the self that fuels its differentiation. Therefore, environments and relationships that are more affirming of a child’s giftedness are more likely to promote the true self and minimize loss of the true self. Gifted children experience a loss of their true selves when their giftedness is ignored, rejected, or denied.
One of the things I had always felt, without a diagnosis in hand, was great concern I had about how she would have been treated by others. I have heard other stories of other selectively mute children being mistreated at school by teachers – some who are unkind, others who simply ignore the child – both of which do nothing to help the child out of their mutism, but only force them deeper in. Some adults have the mis-perception that the selectively mute child actually chooses not to speak, when in reality there is no choice at all. It’s an involuntary reflex and coping mechanism for their stress.
For a while, I worried she might have a meltdowns in school, and also run the risk of being labeled having a behavior problem – fortunately, she did not, she only was mute; instead, she saved all of her meltdowns until she came home from school, for me. After a while, I started to realize what helped most was giving her a high protein breakfast, and a good snack for school when she was in preschool, and downtime in my arms just to transition into home. Later, we used some SPD OT at home to help her relax and also emotion coaching with picture stories so she could tell me about what happened at school or what happened earlier in the week that caused her to have a meltdown.
And so how is she now?
Well, she’s been officially released from her IEP with her 120 minutes of speech therapy a week, having successfully met her target goals and no longer needed that extra support, and today she wrote down some things about herself on her speech folder.
What did she write?
I am good
I am cute
I am smart
I am pretty
I am nice
I think she forgot one thing about herself…she is a pretty cool kid. She isn’t one of those types of kids to act superior, and of course I’ll be keeping an eye on things so she will be sure to acknowledge the good qualities in others too. This was just a very awesome thing to see her regard herself so positively. I’m really amazed that she has come so far in less than 2 years and really thankful that I have learned in time how to help her while she was still young. She still needs a lot of protein in her diet and complex carbs, but she’s a lot more flexible than she used to be and while she still can get whiny, she’s a LOT more able to bounce back after disappointments.