Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Angry Babies

Can you recall what it felt like to burst into a crying fit, when you were very little, as young as 2 or 3 years old? Most people's memories don't endure from before about age 4; those recollections may still exist in deep memory, but they're hard to access. Perhaps this is nature's way of insulating ourselves against the stresses and traumas of infancy, when our emotional life was apt to consist of violent mood-swings, and intense physical pleasure or pain.

I do remember how it felt to be hurt, as in falling down or being struck hard. The reaction would begin as a sudden intake of breath, and an overwhelming wave of agony would explode out of my mouth, and blurry tears would gush out of my eyes. If I were separated from my parents, I would immediately turn to, or run towards them for safety and healing.

I wasn't an angry child, but I often felt threatened by circumstances or other playmates or adults. But the way I expressed this was usually by pouting, or avoidance. My brother seemed to have a similar nature to mine, when he was a baby boy--occasional crying, but usually not of long duration or intensity. We had the same parents growing up, so we had the same environment, for the most part, as children.

Over the last decade or so, I've increasingly noticed children screaming in public. Children between, say, the ages of 1 and 4--accompanied by a parent, or parents, sometimes with other siblings present. We're all familiar with crying babies, it's usually not a troublesome sound, though when you're raising a baby, it can get tiresome, especially if it's excessive. But what I've noticed, more and more these days, is kids screaming angrily, furiously, for prolonged periods, and even resuming with regained fury after being temporarily "comforted" by the parent. Almost anything may trigger this raging outburst--it hardly seems to matter what. The kid will start screaming at some provocation, demanding comforting, but even after this is provided, will continue to grind out wails like a banshee, red-faced, squirming (even hitting or flailing) with denial and frustration.

Reading a bit in the literature of infant rage psychology, I find that traditional diagnoses involve seeing such children as narcissists, displaying symptoms of megalomaniac impotence. All babies, apparently, initially feel omnipotent, unless this omnipotence is challenged. If a child is allowed to achieve results through threshold acting-out, s/he may come to believe it is successful behavior. Such children may fall into a chronic sense of isolation or neglect, as the frustrated parent(s) feel(s) less and less able to address repeated crises. This may be why they scream and act out tantrums, because they believe it is an expression of power (from need). Narcissistic rages may become habitual, and routine, extending into adulthood, where they're seen as abnormal aggression.

I used to think that people who were unbalanced in adulthood were expressing something that may have caused them some injury or embarrassment in childhood. But I'm beginning to think that some people are simply born with this kind of capacity for rage, which shows up early in their lives, and can never be really bred or trained out of them. Such people may have trouble with authority or relationships all their adult lives. A lot of traditional (and even "pop") psychology is built around understanding one's tendencies and behavioral traits, the better to manage them. But emotional explosiveness may simply be a part of one's mental genetic thumbprint. Some people may just be born angry, and are incapable of learning to be peaceful.

When I see these angry babies in public, it's embarrassing for innocent bystanders, whose activities are hugely distracted. But the parents hardly ever seem concerned. They seem to have become accustomed to the "anger" part of the routine, and it doesn't concern them a bit. They've learned they can't really do anything about it, and there's no point in going into a panic, or being excessively apologetic to others. In fact, they seem to ignore the tantrum. I used to think this was selfish, or indicative of neglect. But now I'm not so sure. Are these kids acting this way because their home life is all screwed up, or have they just inherited the "angry baby" gene?

1 comment:

jh said...

maybe the babies
are responding to the real world
as they see it

they're being honest