Should A Child Be Present To Adult Primalling?
An Internet Conversation

In April of 1999 an internet discussion occured between Ms Nicoletta Manns, a mother with deep interest in early childhood emotional clearing, Dr. Aletha Solter, a well known developmental psychologist and myself Paul Vereshack M.D., a primal therapist.

The following emails passed back and forth between the three of us:

Dear Dr. Solter (From Ms Manns),

I have had some further thoughts around the "parent releasing their feelings while holding their children" issue:

If the parent holds on long enough to reach a complete resolution as described in Dr. Martha Welch's book Holding Time, the connection between mother and child becomes so deep that I believe it is a spiritual connection, transcending ego boundaries and re-establishes the one-ness of the pair. Dr. Welch describes the mother and child breathing in unison. At this level of connetedness I believe that child and mother are equals.

Given that, I believe that for the mother to release her feelings while holding the child, is not harmful, although I do think that mothers should be aware of "owning" their feelings while expressing them, using phrases such as "when you do/don't do such and such . . . I feel . . . " as opposed to "you make me feel. . . " Martha Welch recommends this also on her audio tapes.

Generally speaking I think we tend to underestimate what children can handle, and their ability to process and understand others' feelings. I've gone to circle intensives lasting anywhere from one full day to ten days with children of all ages present. I've never experienced these children to be disturbed by what they witnessed as long as a resolution was reached. If there were upset feelings triggered in the children they were encouraged to release them also. This is not exactly the same as described in Holding Time, but close enough.

Thank you again for the communication.

Nicoletta Manns

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Dear Ms. Mann and Dr. Solter,

When I first started deep-feeling work in 1976, I had already completed my psychiatric training although I was a man who was profoundly afraid of feelings, both mine and everyone else's.

One of the ways that this fear showed itself was in an opinion that I held concerning children observing primal work in adults.

I believed that children had to be sheltered from seeing adults experiencing deep feelings.

I clung to this opinion for many years before I finally had a chance to observe a few very small children (under two) watching their parents primal.

To my amazement, they suffered no bad effects. One tiny child ( my co-therapist's son), watched his mother in a deep primal. His little face was serene and filled with understanding. He stretched out his tiny hand toward her and stayed that way with such a look of sympathy and clear understanding upon his face, that this moment shifted my whole opinion about children watching primals and showed me that it was my fear, not the child's fear that underpinned my beliefs that they shouldn't be present.

I do feel, however, that a large positive factor here was the accepting presence of the adults who were there at the time. Their calm acceptance of the feelings being processed, was I think, deeply reassuring to the child.

Even more deeply reassuring was the fact that these powerful feelings were being processed in a healthy way. They were being "cleared." They were not being not dumped on anyone. (for example, as raging between adults). I believe that the child fully comprehended this, and that this primordial comprehension formed a basis for its deep and healthy acceptance of the work that was being done.

Still, even at this time, from my repressed adult space, I worry that children might be over exposed to primal work. I don't think I would recommend they be constantly exposed to adult pain, but I now believe they can and do accept it in ways and at levels that are quite health producing and with which we just aren't familiar.

Paul Vereshack, M.D.

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Dear Dr. Vereshack and Ms. Mann,

In my book, Tears and Tantrums, I give the following guidelines for parents crying in front of children. It is important to reassure them of three things:

  • that you are not "falling apart" and are still able to pay attention to them and take care of them,
  • that they are not the cause of your painful feelings, and
  • that you do not expect them to counsel you or take care of you.

I should also add that it is best if the children can see the adults reach a resolution. Children are deeply disturbed by adults who are in pain and who are repressing the pain. Seeing adults free themselves from pain in healthy ways can therefore be a relief to children, if the above guidelines are followed.

Ideally, there should be another adult present who can support and listen to the parent and also reassure the child if necessary. It is frightening to children to think that their parents might be unable to take care of them. For example, children generally become very distressed when their parents are ill. So it is very important to reassure children when their parents cry.

Some babies and young children do begin to cry when they see another person crying. This is because it triggers unresolved, pent-up feelings in themselves, and reminds them of their own need to cry. Children who have not been repressed and who are "up to date" on their crying do not become distressed when they see another person cry, although they will show concern and empathy, and want to know if the person is hurt.

I also caution parents to be especially careful with expressions of anger, because most adults do not know how to express anger appropriately. Yelling and screaming, and hitting the floor with a bataka are not a genuine release, and can be frightening to children. Most anger in adults is a secondary emotion resulting from deep terror or grief.

Only a genuine release of emotions should be made in front of children. If adults feel the need to scream and hit something, in order perhaps to access deeper emotions, this preliminary work should be done away from the children. In some of my workshops, I ask the adults to take turns throwing a one-minute temper tantrum while the others cheer them on. The purpose is to help them become less inhibited. This is not a genuine release (although it does often bring a healthy laughter release). The violence and loud noises can be frightening to the babies present, so we take them to another room where some of the adults stay with them.

However, when an adult is crying, even heavily, this does not usually upset the babies. The most important caution is that angry feelings should never be directed at a child. That is why I do not recommend that parents use the holding technique to release their own strong emotions that are triggered by their children. (See my book, Tears and Tantrums for additional guidelines and cautions regarding the holding technique.)

When parents feel angry towards their children, this is almost always the result of their own childhood trauma, and usually has nothing to do with the present child or the current situation. When parents direct these emotions at their children, it inevitably makes the children feel like the target and feel somehow responsible for the parent's anger. The real target should have been the adult's own parents who inflicted pain on them a long time ago.

In a holding situation, parents have their child in a captive embrace, and should not expect the child to absorb the parent's rage, even if it is expressed in "I-messages." This rage has nothing to do with the children, and is not intended for them. It can be terrifying and confusing, and will only give them more to cry about.

During pregnancy, I think it is fine for the mother to cry as needed. I strongly suspect that the fetus can sense very well when the mother is repressing painful emotions, and this can be distressing. So it is probably better for the mother to release these emotions rather than keep them bottled up. But once again, these emotions should not be directed at the baby.

If a mother feels anger or hatred at her unborn child, she should not direct this anger at her child, but try to figure out the real source of her pain and direct her anger towards its rightful target. Ideally, a mother should clear out all painful emotions and do her primal work before becoming pregnant, but how many of us are that evolved!?

Aletha J. Solter, Ph.D.

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Dear Ms. Mann and Dr. Solter,

Thank you Dr. Solter for your many meticulous thoughts, amost all of which I agree.

I would never sanction "holding time" as primarily an outlet for parental emotion, unless within the context of the child's, feelings, the parent responds with tears of relief, joy, closeness and other personal feelings triggered by the child, and yet belonging to the mother, but shared to enhance the child's being through adding the "uplifting" side of its mother's responses. By this I mean, those of the mother's responses which clear and uplift the mother-child relationship. I would not, for instance, sanction the bringing to the child, of a mother's early rage and hatred which might have been engendered by the mother's hurts in her own home of origin. This is more properly reserved for the mother's own primal work.

Holding time, used primarily as a device for parental clearing sounds like a perversion of the technigue to me.

I would like to reinforce something from my last letter to you which I may not have stated clearly enough.

I am suggesting that in the preverbal child or infant, there is a primordial comprehension of healthful release and working through of deep pain and grief. This primordial comprehension exists long before a child can "understand" explanations or verbal reassurance. It is innate and requires no verbal explanation to the child.

It does, however, require a healthful atmosphere. It would also be helpful but not necessary, that other people be present in calmness and with obvious gut-level assent to the work. I believe that the preverbal infant "reads" the health of deep therapy work, and naturally assents to it. Words are extraneous and do not connect with the infant's natural understanding. In fact "false" or defensive soothing would be counterproductive. The infant would read through to the unprocessed fear. I totally agree with you that rage should not be included in this working out, where the child is present, eg. pounding and hitting. I intuit that this is far too "violent" for the child to process and comprehend even if it is reassured. There is probably a primordial safety issue here, valid for all "tiny" vulnerable beings.

Paul Vereshack, M.D.

* * *

Dear Ms. Mann and Dr. Vereshack,

Thanks for your message. I agree with you that the reassurance for preverbal children during adult primals does not have to be verbal, and that the child will sense the inherent safety in the situation because of adults' attitudes of calmness and acceptance of emotional release. However, I do not think that it is harmful to reassure a child verbally. Babies understand language much earlier than we think they do, and verbal explanations can supplement the nonverbal understanding that the child intuits. I'm not talking about soothing or repressing the child's own emotions. That, of couse, would be harmful. I'm talking about a calm and factual explanation of what is going on, and a reassurance that everything is okay, for example, that mommy is fine, she just needs to cry, and she will feel better afterwards.

I just remembered an incident from my son, who has been brought up to cry as needed from birth. (He's 22 years old now.) When he was two years and seven months old, his father was crying one day (from stress build-up and triggered childhood pain). My son paid loving attention to his father, and seemed to understand very well what was going on. Every time his father stopped crying, my son said calmly and directly, "Cry some more, papa." He could tell that there were more tears that needed to come out! But I was present too, and he was probably taking his cues from my attitude, which he imitated.

I also agree with you that spontaneous crying by a parent is okay during a holding situation, if the parent is moved to tears by the child's emotional release. But that's quite different from dumping one's anger on a child who is not free to escape.

I think we are pretty much in agreement on all of this. By the way, thank you so much for telling Nicoletta about my work. I am so pleased to "know" her and exchange thoughts with her.

Aletha J. Solter, Ph.D.

* * *

Dear Ms. Mann and Dr. Solter,

There is among therapists of good balance, a deep sense of the rightness of things no matter how the river turns or what is presented to us.

I enjoy, very deeply, our accord.

Yes, I would have found myself murmuring to an infant actual words of support, however, I would have expected only the tone and not the words to be understood. Your comments in this area are refreshing to me.

I once read that the human voice has a "carrier wave" which neutalizes anxiety.

Looking forward to meeting you one day and wishing you well in your work.

I am

Yours truly,

Paul Vereshack

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