When we talk about “containment” in the psychoanalytic sense, we are talking about the parent’s ability to contain the infant’s anxiety and anger.
Wilfred Bion, a brilliant British psychoanalyst, talked about the mother’s ability to stay relatively calm in the face of her baby’s upset. He said that this is the way that the baby eventually learns how to tolerate his or her own upset.
He explained that the mother grasps the importance of, and takes into herself, some of the baby’s earliest and most primitive anxieties…she thinks about such things in her own way without being caught up in them or overwhelmed by them herself. Babies with mothers who can take the panic out of their anxieties eventually take into themselves some version of a mother who can manage without being knocked off balance… internalizing the mother’s capacity to tolerate and manage anxiety.
The baby achieves a sense of psychological holding by having a mother who can be in a state of openness to the baby’s state of mind. The baby can communicate primitive anxiety to the mother, who in an intuitive way, drawing on her own inner resources, including her own experience of having been mothered, receives these feelings. If the mother can manage the infant’s primitive fears and impulses, then she can communicate this back to the baby in her own language — her tone of her voice, the manner of holding, the look in her eyes, and the baby has the experience of RELIEF.
Someone can manage the things that he cannot! Gradually, after many experiences like this, the baby can learn to tolerate primitive states of mind and difficult feelings.
Of course, this can be done by EITHER a father OR a mother.
When a parent becomes anxious or angry in response to a baby’s fussiness or discomfort or distress, the baby receives the communication that these feelings simply cannot be tolerated — by ANYONE.
However, when a parent meets the baby or the toddler’s anger or anxiety with relative calm, the baby or toddler learns that these feelings CAN be tolerated AND survived.
This is important for the rest of the baby’s development — through childhood and into adulthood.
ALL feelings, no matter how intense, CAN be survived. AND they do not need to be acted on. They can be experienced and they can be metabolized.
If a parent can tolerate the strong feelings that their baby or toddler has — and this can be VERY hard at times — they show the baby or toddler that these feelings are just feelings and they can be lived through.
A parent who can soothe an infant who is distressed and who can be with a toddler even during a tantrum without melting down themselves, proves to the baby and toddler that feelings are not toxic.
Of course, parents, there will be days when you are LESS able to do this than others. On these days there might just be one too many tantrums and then you may have had it!
But containment is about what you are able to do most of the time.
The ability to tolerate — and contain — your baby or toddler’s discomfort or anger or fear is a valuable part of being a parent — and one worth reflecting on.