Object permanence

Imagine if when a person walks out the room, they are gone for an indeterminate length of time. Could be forever. Not just a specific person, but every person you know. Now imagine if when you drop an item you own and look away from it, it disappears for an indeterminate length of time. It could be forever. Not just a particular object, but every object you know.

You’d be constantly distraught, not trusting your own perception of realty.

When you are a baby this extreme version of separation anxiety is the norm. Your brain hasn’t figured out that just because something has moved out of your perception that doesn’t mean it has gone. You gradually learn to understand and trust that the person (your parent usually) will soon be back, or that you remember where you left your toy and it will either be there or in its usual box. You relax and feel more secure because you can predict what is going to happen and you begin to generate an attachment to your caregiver or toy. This is normal, healthy development.

As you might now expect (if you’ve been following my blog!), this doesn’t happen with kids who have suffered extreme neglect or emotional abuse though. How can they trust that a parent will return if a lot of time they don’t — at least not before the kid falls asleep — and are not there when they wake up? How can they trust that a toy will always be there if a parent deliberately hides it or breaks it? Or just loses it because they can’t be bothered to put it away? What if the only thing in your world is your toy ball or a sibling, but you are prevented from seeing it or them because you are locked in a room away from them?

Humans are creatures of prediction. A lot of our adult life we don’t think about how much we use our understanding of chance to plan and forecast our day-to-day life at all. We have ‘priors’ i.e. we’ve built up experience of what happens in a particular circumstance, and apply that experience to predict what will happen. So when we go to work we know that our home will be there when we return. When we press a button to cross a road we know that the green man will appear within 60 seconds or so. We don’t think about it at all, but we are predicting. After all, there is no absolute certainty that the crossing is working or even that your house will still be standing at the end of the day. But it is very likely that our prediction is correct, and each time it is correct it reinforces our priors and means we have to think less about it next time. If we are flung into a situation outside of our experience it can be worrying for us, and we seek out people familiar to us who might be able to help with advice, or rely on similar events in our past to provide a rule-of-thumb. But our certainty of prediction is a lot less and makes us much more cautious about committing ourselves to an action. Think about going on a rollercoaster for the first time, or your first scout camp away from home, or even just putting up a shelf for the first time. It’s nice to have people around that you know who might have done it already, or can encourage you to give more weight to things in your experience that you might not have thought of. You spend time thinking and planning.

However in order for this prediction engine to develop you need to grow up in a situation where you can predict things. Children who never have had any kind of routine, never know if they are going to be fed, never know where the things they like are, never know what kind of reaction (if any) they will get from a parent, will not have the chance to create such a cognitive ability. What if your home genuinely wasn’t there every time you returned? Either because you are dumped with another of your parents’ ‘friends’ every other day, or your mum hasn’t picked you up from nursery for the hundredth time so you’ve gone to an after-school club while she’s reluctantly dragged from the TV by a school welfare officer, or you are constantly moving in order to avoid the authorities? What certainties do you have that you can cling on to and start to build up a predictable view of the world? How can you plan for things outside your experience without a solid base of everyday heuristics under your hat?

So am I veering away from the subject of object permanence? No, not really, as that is another function of prediction. For children who haven’t had safe and secure early years they have never developed the ability to predict that when they take their eyes off a ball, or blanket, it will still be there when they turn around again. Or even worse they have developed a prediction: a certainty that it won’t be. This could just be because the parent is thoughtless when interacting with their child, but quite often just because they are being nasty — emotional abuse. So a 10-year-old might well have hysterics when they think that they’ve lost a favourite pencil that they’d just been using, when actually they’d just dropped it on the floor and hadn’t developed the ‘prior’ to look.

For the children the effect is one of profound disconnect from cause and effect, and thus contributes towards a severe anxiety. They find it difficult to associate any event with anything that might have gone before. Most people wouldn’t be surprised to find that if you drop the pencil you might well find that the lead is broken. However for a child without object permanence the discovery of the broken lead is a terrible surprise each time, which causes more distress. The old joke about constantly banging your head on a low ceiling and never learning to duck, so often used in slapstick comedy and meant to imply a stupid person, is just life for kids like these.

A lack of object permanence not only applies to when an object goes out of perception. It can also happen when the utility of the object is finished with too. If that pencil is finished with, well, it is no longer in mind either. It just gets dropped wherever the child is, which doesn’t help when they next want it, as they can’t remember where they put it. Or it remains in their hand but they forget it is there, catching it in something or accidentally scribbling on something. In their past they perhaps would have had to think of most things as single use, or just keep a constant hold on it, as they’d never have the certainty that it would be there next time. But now it has become a subconscious behaviour.

For the caregiver this situation is very difficult to resolve. I have to confess that I still don’t really know how to help kids with this issue. My own priors are still being formed! The obvious thing to do is try and provide as predictable routine as possible, which all adopters are told to do, and school can help with this by providing an unchanging timetable and teacher. It obviously isn’t going to be possible all the time though, no family has a life that boring. A regular routine has its own problems with mental health; no point inflicting constant drudgery on yourselves and your child if the negative side-effects of boredom and lack of novelty outweigh the positives of reducing anxiety. And if little Johnny’s friends are all doing lots of different exciting things with no discernable routine then it gets increasingly difficult to not do that yourself. Getting the balance right is an art. At present for various reasons not always in our control my family has very predictable weekdays and a very unpredictable weekend. That uncertain weekend can be a problem, there’s no denying it. You can only hope that providing a high level of certainty by always doing what you say you will do (not always as easy as that sounds!) and trying to keep the environment around the child as static as possible, will help the child develop their prediction engine and become less anxious about the result. You can spend a long time trying to demonstrate cause and effect, but if they don’t feel it, it won’t go in. It will depend on them, and how long they’ve been trapped with the previous family. I don’t know how long it takes before all this effort on the adopters’ part takes effect, I’m still finding that out myself!


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