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Facilitating Emotional Development by Being Consistent and Emotionally Constant


We will review some of the potential outcomes where a child who has had a positive or negative, but consistent environment as opposed to a child who does not know what to expect from his environment. The impact of a psycho-dynamic “feeling” approach verses a behavioral approach using applied behavior analysis, ABA, will be reviewed.

We all assume a child will learn what behaviors will elicit love or approval and which will elicit withdrawal or anger. How is this communicated from infancy and over the years developmentally? This is a complex process. Evidence indicates that this communication starts in the first hours of life and is pivotal to a healthy emotional adjustment to others and society. Parents being emotionally supportive, constant in their feelings and expectations, allow for healthy development emotionally.

Addressing behaviors on the manifest level using Applied Behavior Analysis the word “consistently” is paramount to a successful outcome. When a behavior program is consistently implemented, in spite of what the child is feeling, the child’s behavior will change. But what about the feelings?

Have you met a child who;

  • acts out and gets to go to the principal’s office and does so throughout the day but most often at 9:30 AM? All the teachers get upset, so they decided to put an assistant with him at 9:00 AM throughout the time in school to prevent him from acting out?
  • is aloof avoids eye contact, is often seen moving his lips and staring into space? (Does not communicate his needs or desires other than pointing or becoming upset when he does not get what he wants or his way. He lines things up but not reliably, he plays repeatedly with same toys but in a functional manner over protracted periods of time?)
  • does not speak to anybody but his parents? (He is receiving speech therapy)
  • cries from the time he walks in the door of the day care till the time his parents pick him up? (He is inconsolable. At best he will sit quietly on his own, but when approached, or even eye contact is made, he will begin to cry.)
  • when being dropped off says; “Bye Mommy.” Is fine during the day, engaged socially and academically consistent with his age?
  • has violent temper tantrums when he does not get his way or what he wants? (When he plays with others he has to be the leader and subtlety coerces others to do what he wants.)

How do we understand these problems? (How we understand these problems directs how we treat them.)

Some Definitions

Object Constancy: How do you understand the emotional development of children? Psycho-dynamically we refer to both the child’s emotional innate emotional development based on separating from his primary caregivers and forming their own identities. (The environment includes of course parents as well as the physical, social and cultural environment with corresponding expectations.) When we talk about object constancy we are talking about the child’s emotional ability to cope with world by drawing on its internal resources. The ability to cope and adapt emotionally is based on the history of parent child interactions and feeling safe and secure in that interaction. To feel safe and secure the child must have been able to draw reasonable expectations about their world. If the child starts out emotionally in an unpredictable world fraught with anger, rejection and fears of abandonment or in the worst cases fears of annihilation, their ability to cope and adapt will be compromised. Bottom-line, the healthier the child’s connection to the parent the better the child will be able to cope, adapt and address the world and its stressors without emotionally and perhaps physically, falling apart. In this paper Object Constancy refers to the gradual emotional ability to;

  • separate fantasy from reality.
  • take into their mind and heart the image of a reliable loving, (positive) caregiver and draw on that love when they are under stress to make adaptive, socially appropriate choices in their lives which enhance their lives and those around them.
  • see others as being emotionally different from themselves and to effect a compromise in their relationships with others.
  • ultimately have control over their feelings and not be dominated by them.

Attachment vs. Bonding: Even though both bonding and attachment highlight a connection between the infant and the primary caregiver, there is a slight difference between the two. In psychology we speak of these two concepts broadly. Bonding can be defined as the attachment that the primary caregiver feels for the infant. On the other hand, an attachment can be defined as an emotional connection the child feels, between themselves and the primary caregiver.

Consistency as defined in ABA / Behavior Modification: When working within the hypothetical constructions of Applied Behavior Analysis or Behavior Modification we are talking about the need to be as consistent and/or reliable in delivering positive reinforcement and /or consequences as possible. The rewards and consequences are viewed as shaping all behavior. Failure to be consistent becomes extremely problematic. Behaviorally speaking behavior will not change without the application of consistent rewards and consequences. Feelings have nothing to do with the intervention. We know that if we are not consistent in our responses the child will not know what to do and be dependent on others to determine what to do.

The Theories of Applied Behavior Analysis on the basis of theoretical underpinning constructs are mutually exclusive.

From an ABA approach the sum of the parts equal the whole. As far as ABA is concerned the emotional world is unimportant in changing behavior. That is to say, if either the rewards or consequences are great enough, and they are consistently applied, any behavior can and will change. All of the cognitive approaches are based on learning theory.

From a psycho-dynamic perspective the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. From this approach we have beliefs that we develop over time about ourselves and others, which is based on our previous emotional interactions. These past interactions shape and potentially distort our perceptions of the world and interactions with others going forward. The feelings can be so strong as to be ridged and be imposed on others thus be self-defeating in terms of relationships with others with respect to love and work.

The importance of ROUTINES and Patterns: The idea of routines and patterns, similarities verses differences is perhaps something that is not considered enough across various areas of research in child development. We study child development from these different perspectives or domains but don’t often consider the impact of a delay in one domain on the other domains, if any. For this paper the 8 domains are defined as;

  1. Parent’s biological contributions
  2. Prenatal Care (parent discipline and care of infant during pregnancy and routines during pregnancy)
  3. Neurological development, (5 senses, hearing, vision, taste, touch, feelings)
  4. Motor (fine and Gross)
  5. Language (receptive and expressive)
  6. Emotional Development (defined by any emotional theoretical perspective)
  7. Social skills (interpersonal)
  8. Cognitive (which includes concept development and thinking processes and cuts across all domains)

The child’s development is occurring in each of these domains while interacting with significant others and the immediate physical and cultural environment simultaneously. From day one routines are established between parent/caregiver and child. There are the overt clearly definable routines surrounding social and developmental milestones. Here I am talking about establishing; sleeping, eating, toileting, bathing and dressing, routines for example.

How does the Caregiver(s) interact and establish and emotional constancy between themselves and their child? What is their character like? These routines are built around the child’s needs and disposition, ideally provided by a consistent caregiver and one who is providing an emotionally constant positive, engaging routine. These positive interactions include how a parent interacts, verbally, non-verbally, social engagements, emotionally engaged and how much cognitive stimulation is provided. Throughout the course of the child’s development there are rewards and consequences on microscopic levels shaping manifest behaviors and emotional development. The early learning is the foundation for social emotional development and social success later in life.
The ability to establish these patterns by the parents and to be recognized by the child is central to the developing child’s emotional well-being. Consistency and constancy are both concepts that rely on recognizing patterns, learning what to expect from the environment and to develop, physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively. An inability to provide consistency or constancy, (by the parent or if the child has delays which compromise their ability to grasp routines and/or attach to their primary caregiver) adversely impacts on the child’s development. As we study human development the complexity of all these interactions makes the richness of the human experience difficult to comprehend and organize. It makes knowing what the right decision to make for our children difficult and frustrating.

Over the course of time, as the child’s skills in the various domains emerge, they are recognized and responded to in a supportive manner while encouraging even further development. This is accomplished by changing the routines and expanding them. But not so much as to overwhelm the child. IF over the course of the child’s development expectations are increased inconsistent with his abilities, or are increased inordinately the developing child becomes upset, overwhelmed and perhaps traumatized.

The best routines are developed between a parent and child such that the routines are built around the child’s biological and developmental needs. Of course the parental expectations and needs play a roll. Broadly speaking though, the younger the child there should be greater deference to the child’s needs. The deference to the child’s needs changes over time as the child learns to meet their own needs and become generally more independent.

Child’s Emotional Development: How hard is it to be a good parent or teacher? How do you know when you are doing the “right or wrong thing?’ Here are some thoughts in the forms of questions I find myself asking when I want to know if I am doing something right or wrong:

  1. Are parents or teachers imposing patterns in spite of child needs protests? If the child is protesting I then ask; “What am… I…me….myself, as the parent doing wrong? This is my problem not my child’s.
  2. Are parents or teachers letting the child rule and/or dictate the routines in spite of the parent, teacher/classroom needs? I ask myself – why is the child feeling like the boss? I ask; why are you letting your child tell you what to do? Why do you say your child thinks he’s the boss? Is it true that he is the boss? How do you think it makes your child feel, being in charge? How do you think it makes him feel that you are NOT in charge?
  3. Is there an ebb and flow between child and parent, a compromise, in part based on child’s age, unique needs, and unique disposition? To this I say; “good job.”
  4. What are the parents or teachers doing and feeling while going through the daily child care routines? Here I ask about general happiness, mood, contentment activities, and friends and so on. Then I ask how they think the child is responding to the parent’s moods and routines?


We as parents just have to be “good enough”. Children as they develop are very flexible emotionally. They can and do can cope and adapt to a great deal of stress and/or changes throughout their lives and come out being able to form loving relationships and work. Children who grow up in a negative environment so long as it is consistently negative and they know n what they are going to hear and get the same negative response, they too can love and work. (Perhaps not optimistic by nature but they will be able to function socially with like-minded people.) It is in the worst scenarios that children begin to demonstrated difficulties that if left untreated manifest difficulties being social as adults. Growing up their environments are volatile and inconsistent. They feel stressed and anxious as they don’t know want to expect in their world. The parents or caregivers of these children can difficulties coping in their worlds and do not provide appropriate models for their children and/or care for the children in a consistent and emotionally constant manner.

I would like to make reference to two papers:

  1. Dr. John Brauer, Goals of Parenting: Dr. Brauer in this paper talks about being a good role model teaching children by engaging them and supporting them. The need for patience and to be constantly mindful of teaching them, not losing patience and sustaining a positive love and affection for the child. This of course is not always possible and perhaps is not even ideal. However, the love, acceptance of failure, patience and being consistent and reliable has to predominate the relationship.
  2. AJ Marhi, is a counselor who wrote a paper where there was problems in parent child bonding and the consequences being a Borderline Personality Disorder. Lack of Object Constancy In BPD: This is a technical paper but it basically details the consequences of poor parenting whereby the parent and child are not able to relate to one another and bond. There is a lack of security in the relationship, little to no trust. This can and does happen when parents are too angry, explosive and inconsistent in their expectations and responses to the child’s expressions of emotion and/or behaviors. The child becomes anxious and defensive. There is a lack of “object constancy” whereby the child takes into themselves, identifies with the parent, a way of relating with the world that basically disables them.
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