Henri Parens, M.D.: "It is amazing how many parents do not realize
that their children have feelings."
In 1970 a Philadelphia child psychiatrist and psychoanalyst launched an
unusual project—using psychoanalytic theory to help socioeconomically
disadvantaged mothers raise psychologically healthy infants.
He was Henri Parens, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at Jefferson Medical
College and a training and supervising analyst at the Psychoanalytic Center of
Parens and his colleagues not only met with 10 socioeconomically
disadvantaged mothers and their 16 infants twice a week over seven years, but
have been following up with the mothers and their offspring ever since.
Using various yardsticks, Parens and his team have come to believe that the
offspring have turned out considerably better than have their peers in the
same disadvantaged neighborhoods of Philadelphia. None, for example, has
gotten into trouble with the law, and one has become a psychologist and
another an engineer. Such results are gratifying for Parens and his group.
But the seven years of assisting the mothers and children have given Parens
and his coworkers another reward as well: glimpses into childhood aggression.
The researchers then took these observations and alchemized them into theories
of childhood aggression and ways of dealing with such aggression.
He shared some of his views on this subject with those attending the 15th
Annual Conference of the Consortium for Psychoanalytic Research. The
conference, held in Washington, D.C., in February, was jointly sponsored by
Washington Professionals for the Study of Psychoanalysis and the American
Academy of Psychoanalysis and Dynamic Psychiatry.
Parens can still recall the pivotal observation that launched him into the
inquiry on childhood aggression. A 5-month-old girl was fascinated by plastic
rings that were beyond her reach. So she struggled to make contact with them.
It dawned on Parens that she was engaging in a type of aggression. He
subsequently observed other infants exhibiting aggressive behaviors as well.
For example, "I saw 12-month-olds already bullying and teasing each
other," he said. "I couldn't believe it!" So he asked
himself: How could a child show aggression so early, before the ego was
developed? It ran counter to Freud's position. Either Freud was wrong or, as
Parens chuckled, "the babies had not read Freud."
Well, the former was the case, he decided, and furthermore, there seemed to
be four types of childhood aggression.
One was a nondestructive aggression, the kind the 5-month-old girl had
demonstrated. It is children's attempt to master themselves and their
environment. "This is a magnificent kind of aggression," Parens
said. It represents the kind that drives youngsters to excel academically, win
at sports, climb mountains, and do fantastic things with their lives. It is
inborn and essential for survival and adaptation. It is the kind of aggression
that parents should cultivate.
A second kind of aggression is the urge to obtain food. It too is inborn
and essential for survival and adaptation.
A third kind of aggression is displeasure-related aggression (say, a temper
tantrum or a rage reaction), and a fourth kind of aggression is
pleasure-related aggression (for example, teasing and taunting). Neither is
inborn; both are hostile aggression, and both are activated by emotional pain.
In other words, hurting a person's feelings can generate hostile aggression.
That is true for all people. In contrast, people whose feelings are not hurt
will probably not engage in hostile aggression.
Thus, the amount of hostile aggression that children display is largely
influenced by how their parents treat them, Parens asserted. Physical, sexual,
and emotional abuse by parents can all trigger hostile aggression in children.
With regard to emotional abuse, if a parent tells a child, "You are
never going to amount to anything," the comment can inflict grievous
psychological scars and in turn lead to hostile aggression. Indeed, parental
emotional abuse is even more pernicious than emotional abuse inflicted from
outside the family, Parens, a Holocaust survivor, contended.
So, the way to avoid having children who engage in hostile aggression is to
avoid treating them in a hostile manner, he stressed. "It is amazing how
many parents do not realize that their children have feelings."
Which brings up the subject of limit setting, he noted. Many parents are
afraid that if they are firm with their children, their children will
interpret it as hostility. Yet "it is important to realize that being
firm is not the same as being hostile." Nonetheless, if there is too
much limit setting, it can lead to hostility in a child, he noted. "So
you have to select your battles."
Punishment can also trigger hostility in a child, Parens cautioned. The
kind least likely to do so is privilege withdrawal. The kind most likely to
trigger hostility is physical punishment.
Throughout the years, Parens and his colleagues have held numerous
workshops for parents on the subject of aggression. "Dealing with
aggression is enormously difficult, not just for parents, but for us in the
mental health field," he admitted. His book, The Development of
Aggression in Early Childhood, was published in paperback in January.▪