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What are Touchpoints?

The map of behavioral and emotional development that I have called “Touchpoints” has been refined over years of research at Children’s Hospital in Boston and at other sites around the world.

It is designed to reassure parents that they can navigate the predictable spurts in development, and the equally predictable issues that they raise, with the resources that they can find within themselves, their communities, and their cultures.

Unlike yardsticks of physical development (the heights, for instance, that parents take such pride in marking off on door-frames), this map has many dimensions. Emotional, behavioral, motor, and language development all occur at their own pace but also affect each other. A child’s advances in any one of these areas are preceded by temporary backslides, or regressions, in the same area, or another. The cost of each new achievement can temporarily disrupt the child’s progress — and the whole family’s stability. Yet each of these disruptions also offers parents a chance to reflect, consider a change in direction, and grow along with the child.

The concept of “touchpoints” is a theory of the forces for change that drive a child’s development. Though they may be expressed differently in different cultures, touchpoints are universal. This is because they are for the most part driven by the predictable sequences of early brain development, especially in the first three years of life, the focus of this book.

Since the first edition of Touchpoints, scientific advances in our understanding of this process have begun to confirm the connections between the behavioral developments (and underlying brain development) and the regressions that I observed for so many years in my practice.

Just before a surge of rapid growth in any line of development, for a short time, the child’s behavior seems to fall apart. Parents can no longer rely on past accomplishments. The child often regresses in several areas and becomes difficult to understand. Parents lose their own balance and become alarmed.

Over the years, I have found that these predictable periods of regression can become opportunities for me to help parents understand their child and solidify my relationship with them. The touchpoints become a window through which parents can view the great energy that fuels the child’s learning. Each step accomplished leads to a new sense of readiness for the next.

When seen as natural and predictable, these periods of regressive behavior are opportunities to understand the child more deeply and to support his or her growth, rather than to become locked into a struggle. A child’s particular strengths and vulnerabilities, as well as temperament and coping style, all come to the surface at such a time. What a chance to get to know a small child as an individual! Parents who achieve this understanding at each regression can feel even more proud of their parenting.

When the first edition of this book was published, parents everywhere reached out to tell me that they too had noticed these ups and downs in their own children’s development. Many pediatricians also reported that they found they could predict when parents would be most likely to call with a new worry about a temporary backslide. “Was it teething, or was the child ill?” parents would fret.

Pediatricians learned to rely on the calls that would come a few weeks later saying that the child had settled down after taking his first step or overcoming some other predictable developmental hurdle. If the pediatrician had offered this as a likely explanation at the time of the crisis, parents expressed newfound confidence in their collaboration.

A Dutch ethologist, Frans Plooij, told me that he had observed a similar pattern of growth spurts and regressions in chimpanzee infants and mothers! “Why do you sound so surprised?” he asked. “Ninety-eight percent of their genes are the same as ours.”

Unlike humans, the chimp mothers didn’t call their pediatricians when their infants regressed. But they often appeared to predict these changes, isolating their babies from the pack before the male chimps became annoyed with the intensified crying and clinging.

After reading Touchpoints, scientists from a variety of fields reassured me that many kinds of important changes in nature unfold in this way, with disorganization an inevitable precursor for reorganization at a new and more complex level.

 
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