I had to share this picture with you all this morning because it is a very interesting example of how parents ‘hold’ their children with their bodies. At first look we see a Dad with his son on a children’s ride. The child is screaming and the Dad has had enough. We might read into it and see the Dad has his head turned away while the child has his head reaching up to his dad and we could interpret that as the dad turning away from his son in his moment of distress. We can all identify with the dads feelings of exasperation and unhappiness. But I think there is something much more supportive, holding and guiding going on here.
Lets look at the body shaping and read into it a little more. The child is mid-scream, he is exhaling, his mouth is open and he is letting rip, he is opening his body into his distress with his chest pointed outwards. His head is tilted back where he has let go and allowing himself to really go into his feeling state. His eyes are closed because he is lost in his feelings but also to protect himself from taking in any more information. Interestingly he is still holding onto the rail so he has the capacity to hold himself together while partly lost in very strong emotion. The child is showing through his body shaping that he can lose it and hold it at the same time which demonstrates a good capacity for emotional regulation. He is not slumped down in the chair, he is not thrashing around, he is holding himself in the chair while opening his body out and letting himself feel his distress. He is reaching out to his Dad with his scream, he is giving his Dad his scream to contain, but he is holding onto the ride and himself.
The Dad meanwhile looks as if he is holding his breath or at least his breathing is shallow as his chest is flattened out. He is automatically self-soothing by breathing onto his finger which may help him regulate his breathing. The most interesting part of his body shaping in relationship to his sons is how he has pinched his own lips together. This may be an extension of him self soothing, it may be his way of keeping his own scream in. I am interested in it though for the non-verbal message it sends his son, it says ‘close your lips’. The Dad has his hand on his sons thigh, holding him and letting him know his Dad is there but interestingly the dad also has his arm placed behind the child not across the child’s body and in this way he is leaving most of the child’s body open to the experience rather than blocking it with his arm. In this way the dad seems to be allowing the child to stay with the ride rather than protecting him from it entirely and this communicates he trusts his child to manage his feelings and stay safe.
The Dad is guiding his son in how to regulate his emotions while also sending the strong guiding message that he would prefer if his son stopped screaming with the held lip. The Dad and his son are also mirroring with their bodies with the same head turn, body shaping and movement quality. Mirroring is something that begins in the earliest hours of life between a parent and a child and is the earliest form of communication between babies and their parents/significant people. Mirroring doesn’t just happen from nowhere, it has always been built on over time and demonstrates a healthy attachment.
I think rather than show a dad who is turning away from his son in distress I think this picture demonstrates a moment of good parental function. To support your child where they are (the hand on the thigh) to allow your child to take risks and be in the world (the arm behind the body not infront), to look after yourself while you manage your child’s strong feelings (the breathing on the finger, the head turned to take time out and the flattened chest to momentarily suppress emotion). To teach your child to hold themselves while they are having strong feelings (the hand on the railing and the staying in the seat), to remind your child that you have always been there and will continue to be, that your attachment can always be relied on (the mirroring).
This picture is of course just a moment in time and we don’t know what happened before or after it but what it does tell us is how this Dad and son relate. The body shaping tells us they have always related in this way because the body shows how things have always been, it is the way we most congruently communicate our histories and our present, our relationship to ourselves and how we have been related to in the past from our very earliest relationship moments with our parent/s.