The Problem of “The Little Girl with a Curl”

Important Note: The image in this post and in all the previous ones are not images of the children discussed in the posting. They are simply children whose photos I have collected throughout my travels. 

A particular problem has come to my attention over the years consulting to a preschool – children behaving in controlling and sometimes aggressive ways to parents at school transitions. Teachers report that the child behaves badly with his or her parents at drop off and pick up. Often the teachers express amazement that the children who seems well behaved in school, can change dramatically when they are with their parents – boss them around, even push or hit them. Another behavior characteristic of this problem is the child running away from the parent or refusing to come with them at pick up time. It is difficult for even the most empathic teacher to avoid the suspicion that the parents are somehow allowing their child to mistreat them by not setting adequate limits for the child. Supportive evidence is sometimes found in parents restraining from disciplining their children in the school.

This situation reminds me of a Mother Goose rhyme that my parents read me when I was a young child about a “little girl with a curl”. The rhyme goes, “There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good. But when she was bad, she was horrid.” I always secretly worried that I might be that girl.

Perhaps partly for that reason, I have given this problem a good deal of thought. My conclusion is that the answer to the mystery of the “little girl with a curl” mystery is rather complicated. The reason I say this is that when I talk to the parents of these children, I get a wide variety of answers about their child’s behavior in different settings. Some children are relatively well behaved in most settings and become suddenly noncompliant and belligerent at pick up time. Other children are compliant when they are involved in activities but become disorganized and unhappy during unstructured time at home and in school. Some children are usually cooperative but have difficulty with all significant transitions – bedtime, getting up time, leaving an activity, etc. Other children are always a handful.

What ties together all the children who fuss at pick up time and behave defiantly with their parents but not necessarily with their teachers? All these children are expressing difficulty with finding a positive strategy for reuniting with their parent. The subject of reunion strategies falls into the domain of a theory that informs much current developmental research and that has now also become popular in the vernacular – Attachment Theory. I have talked about Attachment Theory in other blog postings, because of its importance in research. The essential feature of Attachment Theory is that it presents the infant’s essential motivation as staying close to the parent in order to feel safe and secure. If the infant achieves the capacity to feel secure in his relationship to his mother, then he is free to explore the world, knowing that he can easily return to the safety of that connection.

We know that an important but primitive response to threat is running away or aggression. Remember that the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system is one of the main “bottom up” as opposed to “top down” responses of the stress regulation system. That means that we must feel confident in our capacity to achieve security in order to use our thinking brain to tell us what we should do in a threatening situation. Transitions are inherently threatening, even small ones, because they require us to disorganize ourselves on the way to a new organization. That is, we have to stop playing in the sandbox in order to join Mother, get into the car, stay still in the car seat, etc. Playing in the sandbox is a complex organization involving a cognitive plan (building a castle), a motor rhythm (dig, pour, pat; dig, pour, pat), an affective and physiological state (contented, calm); and maybe even a compelling interpersonal experience (collaboration or competition with a peer). That is a lot to take apart in order to get into the car. And the hardest part is the disorganization in between the sandbox play and the car seat, between one organized state and the other. How do children manage that transition? It starts in infancy with the regulatory aid of the parent.

These interpersonal regulatory patterns that start in infancy gain power and stability as parent and child repeat them over and over again during the course of daily life. One pattern, that Attachment Theory would call “secure”, is demonstrated by the parent-child dyad who are able to support the child in managing all these disorganizing (and therefore threatening) experiences of – letting go his plan of building the castle, discontinuing the motor rhythm, interrupting the calm and contentment, and giving up the competition or collaboration – and maintaining adequate regulation and sense of security until the new car seat organization is established. I say “parent-child dyad” because I do not see this activity of facilitation transition as emanating exclusively from the parent. Although sophisticated advocates of Attachment Theory would probably agree with me, Attachment Theory largely tends to place the responsibility squarely on the mother, who carries attachment patterns within her even before her child is born, according to the AAI.

I will tell you how I use these thoughts about Attachment Theory in my search for answers to the “girl with a curl” problem in my next posting.

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