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.
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.
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
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
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.