Theoretical issues and Practice: a humanistic approach

According to Piaget a newborn has no self-awareness, its world is defined as a flow of non-symbolized and non-differentiated experiences of the ‘here and now’. It perceives no space or time, it does not feel to be a distinguished creature from her significant ones, it does not know the sense of “I” or “me”.

So, during the first months it starts slowly and after many repetitions to know better the environment and to recognize the first symbols, the first recordings. 



Symbolization is a mental process that makes experience become present in consciousness. The images and experiences of the outer world are represented in the child’s mind with mental symbols which incorporate drawings, meanings and feelings. 

Thus, the child learns what is the exact meaning of the mothers embrace, the kiss, or  the danger to fall down, when it tries to stand up. Many of these symbols will constitute elements of the self (Rogers, 1951). The child ‘chooses’ among all its experiences the significant ones for symbolization, the ones which will help to make further steps in the fields of its interest.

The environment will play a decisive role in the creation and development of the perceptual field which leads to the creation of self, while the nature has already played a decisive role in the creation of the organism.

The part of the lived experiences which includes the capacities, the preferences, the judgments and the feelings in its various activities and its interpersonal relationships, together with everything concerning its theories of life. form the self-concept, the self, the ‘I’.



On the other hand differentiation is a mental process,   which enlarges the symbol’s meaning after a new elaboration. When the child puts its fingers on the burning hobs of the oven, it usually believes that these hobs will always burn its hands. Then, the mother explains that the hobs become hot when one turns on the knob. The concept “it hurts there” is now differentiated and replaced by the concept “hurting depends on the knob”.



The embodiment of each experience, the recording of each symbol in the body, will be created through a psychobiological route, which involves creation of new synapses, changes on blood flow, genes expression as well as epigenetic mechanisms. As mentioned, symbols can include image, sound, taste, smell and touch and will be developed from a combination of selective attention and inattention (Harrison, 1978). 

Phenomenology gives a fundamental role to the body that is considered as the cradle of experience, the cot for a genuine embodied self. For Husserl (1999) the body is a locus of distinctive sorts of sensations, that can only be felt firsthand by the embodied experiencer concerned.

Accurate symbolization and differentiation are crucial for the child’s and the adult’s health. To be specific:   OBJECT CONSTANCY

Margaret Mahler names ‘object constancy’ the mental ability to maintain accurate symbolization of the positive mental image of the ‘significant other. This means, that a positive image of the parent will provide to the child the model of admiration, approval, acknowledgement, encouragement, soothing, and boundaries (Mahler et al 1975).  

In a secure parent-infant relationship the above mentioned functions will be repeated again and again.  So, the image of the parent will be slowly embodied in the child after the separation and individuation phase, which starts after the fifth month of age and continues until the end of the second year of life. The internalization of this parental image, the embodiment of this object will continue through subsequent repetitions during the childhood and adolescence. Accordingly, in adulthood ‘object constancy’ will respectively offer, self-admiration, self-approval, self-encouragement, self-soothing and self-control, even when the adult faces stressful situations. Object constancy can apply to people and relationships or to objects.

Consequently this kind of parental approach permits the formation of a healthy self-concept and self-confidence. Deficiencies in positive internalization could possibly lead in adulthood, to a lack of object constancy, a sense of difficulty to perceive people as trustworthy and reliable, which lead to insecurity and low self-esteem issues (Engler, 2006) 

John Bowlby (1988) in his attachment theory is not far from this idea, since  insecure attachment is preceded by parent’s anxiety and is followed by child’s anxiety, so personal development is retarded  (Campbell, 2000)



At birth (the right) amygdala, a small, almond like, brain construct, is activated and provides rapid fear responses and face recognition, thereby conferring protection. However, if fear is dominating the infant’s life, amygdala develops hyperactivity, resulting in an imbalance of the autonomic system, and inhibits the development of higher cortical systems that are designed to manage fear at a more deliberate way. 

Namely, the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses in hippocampus, anterior cingulate area, orbitofrontal cortex and other basal forebrain areas is vital for stress management, learning, memory, and higher thinking. But, when fear dominates the child’s personality the amygdala’s hyper function inhibits the growth of these areas. Then insecure attachment and/or traumatic experiences are more probable to occur (Montgomery, 2013) . 

According to Porges (2001, 2009) the social engagement system (gaze, extraction of human voice, facial expression, head gesture and prosody) which is designed to facilitate interpersonal approach and relationships is activated “only when defensive circuits are inhibited” Insecure attachments in general are affected by lower right brain functioning, such as the problematic capacity to compare past and present or the inability to carefully consider alternative behavioral choices and change.



Furthermore, it seems that in stressful environments, the expression of genes is inhibited or transformed through epigenetic modification, in order to protect from painful experiences. 

Namely, in highly stressful situations, the production of the brain derived neurotropic factor in the hippocampus and cortex, shows important reduction, followed by reduced production of neurons and synapses, thus hindering memorization, learning and higher thinking! And it seems that this can be transferred to the next generation, to our child’s children!! 



So stress is an important factor for the development of the child. Now, let’s put these concepts in terms of parents groups:

Parents enter primarily in a preparatory ten hour workshop on empathic communication and choose whether they want to continue or not. 

At the start of a parents’ group, the facilitators work empathically and respectfully to each parent’s anxious experience. As known, through the work of Creswell (2007) empathy reduces the amygdala activation thus reducing stress. The parents group is also empathic to each parent’s experience without criticism or solution proposals. So, the body language and faces of the participants reflect security to the speaker.

Then, topics discussed include criticism, yelling and  punishment, and their influence on autonomy, collaboration, creativity etc. (Gordon, 1980). 



However three are the main areas of discussion and work, in our parental skills groups:

Experiential learning, targeting to the acquirement of empathic listening skills which are fundamental for parenting. So:

  • one member listens to the experience of another
  • then the group members are working the emotional context of the experience
  • then the facilitators are deepening the personal meanings through reflection and conceptualization in order to enhance further active experimentation and resilience of the previously stressed parent (Kolb, 1982). The parents expectations are also elaborated at this point. 
  • Finally peer education  exercises are performed (Rogers, 1983). Modeling of behavior and behavior proposals are also discussed.

A second main topic is the work on the child’s self-esteem. Experiential learning on descriptive praise and it’s distinction from evaluative praise are cornerstones on this issue. 

Carol Dweck (2006) proposes the terms ‘fixed mindset’ (‘look smart at all costs’) and growth mindset (‘learn at all costs’) in order to show the huge difference that exists in the outcome between praising the process and the effort instead of praising the result. 

So, the acquirement of these special skills helps the parent to work efficiently on the child’s self-esteem and on the creation of a secure concept of self. This happens through mirror neurons  (Rizzolati, 1999) and the embodiment of the parent’s friendly face, thus allowing  children to be resilient in frustrating circumstances. A third topic is dedicated to boundaries and consequences, which gradually create  the secure framework for experiential learning of the child’s self-control. Special work is done with parents, on body language and prosody of the statements, since boundaries need to be set using a calm and secure parental figure. Stress and anger undermine their effort, as well as the child’s health.

Parents learn to respond with a constantly calm manner when their child shows distress reactions. In such a climate the first recordings of their neural circuits will be created in a basis of security and confidence. Such a manner can make the child believe that its existence is important and that parents care, even though its demand cannot be fulfilled. This way, after many repetitions, the child learns to sooth itself, and to be resilient in stressful situations.



In terms of ‘object constancy’ (Mahler, 1975) and embodiment the three above mentioned topics, are as follows:  • empathic understanding to the parents experience offers relaxation to the parent. Then the parent will maybe (hopefully) have more time for soothing and approval to their child,  • descriptive praise skills offers  admiration, while  • boundaries and consequences skills help in order to control the child.

Our parental skills programme comprises 80 - 90 hours of experiential learning.



According to Cambridge dictionary : Prevention is  the act of stopping something from happening or of stopping someone from doing something.

In our case it is the act of maintaining the child’s health, or to stop the appearance of a series of syndromes, i.e. pain syndromes, premenstrual tension, fatigue syndromes, codependences, obesity or anorexia, metabolic syndrome, hypertension, autoimmunity, allergy, anxiety, insomnia, depression, severe chronic diseases (Chrousos at al. 2009).   So prevention comes through therapeutic modulation of the parent’s emotional state, which subsequently will be reflected on the parent-child relationship and results in the child’s autonomic system regulation. A child with good autonomic balance, will be able to surmount most of life’s challenges. Moreover, as far as the pedagogical process is concerned the embodiment of experiences is fundamental for reflective learning and a child’s relationship with the parent or tutor.


So when we talk about disease and health, let’s remember that in the majority of cases it’s not about nature and chromosomes, it’s about embodiment and it’s about parents and … their parents!   Thank you!


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