Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Emergence of empathy and separation anxiety

M is six months this week (and sleeping in this morning; hence, time for blogging).

Over the weekend I noticed the emergence of two social behaviors – separation anxiety and empathic crying – that I hadn't previously thought were related. But this developmental co-incidence is making me reconsider.

Re "separation anxiety": M is an extremely social baby and up until now has loved being held by other people, spending time with different teachers at daycare, etc. So I was quite surprised when – for the first time – she burst into tears when a friend was holding her and I left the room. The same exact thing happened the next day with a different friend and M's mom, and then again at daycare yesterday.

From BabyCenter (that reliable source for all things developmental):
At around 7 months your baby will realize that he's independent of you. While this is an exciting cognitive milestone, this new understanding of separateness can make him anxious. He knows that you can leave him, but he doesn't know that you'll always come back, so he's likely to burst into tears when you leave, even for a minute.
I'm somewhat skeptical about the Freudian gloss about individuation that's given – and the connections to Piagetian object permanence also freak me out a bit (given that the different markers of this visual ability have moved around so much developmentally and depend on so many other aspects of cognition, e.g. here and here). Nevertheless, the phenomenon is striking.

And re empathic crying: a much-cited study suggests that even newborns cry more when they hear other babies crying. And indeed, I had noticed that M was a little bit more likely to cry when someone was crying nearby. But my primary observation was that she mostly didn't look visibly distressed by their distress. I was surprised, then, that during this last weekend she cared so much about our friends' sad toddlers and babies. To over-interpret a bit, it seemed like she got a pained look every time they screamed – as though she didn't want to continue carefree play while someone else was in so much discomfort.

On the Freudian/Piagetian gloss of separation anxiety, these two behaviors should likely have very little to do with one another. But if you posit that there is some underlying social understanding that is developing, it's not completely implausible that they are coincident. Perhaps the same understanding of their own vulnerability without the parent is also helping the child feel sympathy for a distressed other...

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