Therapy With Infants and Children

An Interview with William Emerson, Ph.D.
Indepth Newsletter, Volume 8, Number 5, May 1994

Interviewed by Greg Bolton

Imagine doing regressive therapy with a baby. Then imagine your experience as a child, adolescent, and adult if you had had an opportunity to receive therapy as an infant. For the past 20 years, Dr. William Emerson has been doing primal therapy using regressive techniques with infants who exhibit behavioral, emotional, or physical symptoms of prenatal, perinatal, or post-birth trauma.

Many types of birth trauma occur in our culture. While it has not always been clear how these traumas affect infant behavior and health, we now have evidence that many disorders, including behavioral disorders (sleeping difficulties, eating problems, hyperactivity, moodiness, and irritability), emotional disorders (excessive crying, lethargy, withdrawal, anger, anxiety, and fear), and physical conditions arise from early life experiences. Dr. Emerson spoke recently with Greg Bolton, the INDEPTH Newsletter editor, about the work he does.

Why work with infants?

I worked with adults for 25 years and noticed that regression therapy was effective for a broad range of disorders and for those for whom other forms of treatment were not effective. However, the treatment was usually quite involved and lengthy. I considered that if treatment were begun at an earlier age, in infancy, the treatment intensity and length of treatment might be considerably less.

I began working with infants in 1974. At that time, the assumption was, if an infant has problems, it is symptomatic of a family problem, period. There was no consideration that the baby herself might have a therapeutic condition - as though the baby were unworthy of receiving her own therapy.

The standard treatment norm then was to do family therapy. I felt that the standard therapy done with infants were not specific to the traumas I wanted to address. In my work with adults I became familiar with many forms of birth-related trauma. These include prenatal experiences (e.g., abuse to the mother, maternal illness or substance abuse, family crises); birth traumas (e.g., Caesarean section, breach, induced, and birth canal trauma), and post-birth traumas (e.g., separation or circumcision).

The techniques that I developed, then, were more specific to the trauma that had to be addressed, with a goal of creating a healthy repatterning. By taking the infant through a gentle simulation of the trauma, I allow her to re-experience the trauma and have control over its process and outcome. This is very important.

What was the first type of trauma you addressed?

I first worked with birth trauma using a technique that gently simulated the birth by using my hands, in all instances allowing the baby to be in charge of the therapeutic process. That process has gradually evolved into a type of massage. We can trace the actual places on the baby's body where the maternal pelvis conjuncted and impeded the baby's progress. These conjunct pathways are energetically palpable on the baby's body, and just about anybody can learn the palpation techniques. Then, by stroking the baby in very specific ways, we can trace the baby's actual and specific progress through the birth canal.

In all of the treatments, the model involves a gentle reliving of the trauma along with a repatterning (providing success rather than trauma). The repatterning provides the traumatized baby with an experience of success in a simulated trauma.

For example, a preemie who spends time in ICU is given the power to fend off the medical interventions and tests. I will simulate the approach of medical personnel in ICU, and, when the baby shows any sign of distress or indicates that my advance is not welcome (for example, by something as simple as raising her hand), I will leave. This gives the baby the experience of controlling her environment.

Another example is with birth canal trauma. We will give the baby the experience of successfully pushing through birth canals. A prenatally abused baby is provided with successful experiences in simulated trauma situations that are as close to what they experienced as a fetus.

In each instance, with any expression of distress, no matter how subtle, I will walk away, or in some other way remove the trauma, thus giving the baby the power.

Could you describe the impact this work has had on your clients?

In one case, a 28-month-old boy exhibited shyness around strangers, and actual terror with unfamiliar men. He also exhibited approach-avoidance behavior with his father, from whom his mother was separated. It turned out that the mother had had, during her pregnancy, an extramarital affair. The man threatened to "beat the life" out of her if she didn't leave her husband and marry him, and on several occasions did just that, striking her with severe blows to her abdomen, face, and body.

I worked with the child in four sessions and found that his symptoms of stranger anxiety and paternal ambivalence disappeared. He is now four years old, and shows no signs or side effects of the physical abuse.

In another case, a baby girl with chronic bronchitis was taken through several regression treatments. We proceeded by massaging the infant, attempting to "simulate" the pelvic and muscular pressures of her birth. As reported in the article '"Primal Therapy With Infants."

She had strong legs, and began to push vigorously. As the bridge of her nose reached the "pelvic orifice" (via hand simulation), she responded with generalized agitation and with wheezing. Her pushing and struggling intensified, and she had several bronchial episodes that were dictated by her pushing efforts, i.e. she appeared to be in charge of them (we had anticipated some kind of bronchitis and medical personnel were present). At the end of her final session, she let out a deep sigh, as if to say, "There, that's finished." Her bronchial symptoms did not recur (twelve-year follow-up).

What were your experiences like working with infants compared with adults?

Major differences exist between how adults and infants can interact with the therapist. Infants do not have the verbal skills to express themselves nor the cognitive skills to understand verbal directions from the therapist. For this reason, the work with infants must employ methods that do not rely on verbal communication. However, even though infants may not have progressed verbal skills, they can, and do, communicate quite effectively in non-verbal ways, and the therapist must be able to listen to and interpret these communications.

Another difference is that the results we get with babies are generally much faster and more positive than those that occur with adults. Babies who are treated show higher intelligence than those not treated. (The anthropological literature shows that babies who are born without birth trauma have higher intelligence levels.) Also, treated babies express a much higher human potential. For example, one 6-month-old infant exhibited a spontaneous and profound interest in balls. At 9 months, this child had the largest ball collection in the world! He played with balls by himself for over 90 minutes a day. These types of unique interests occur without the initiation, encouragement, or support of the parents. In fact, this boy's parents, who are academicians, were rather dismayed with his interest in balls. They could not relate.

In another instance, a little girl became interested in patterns of shapes and colors. She would cry and scream and make gestures until she was taken outside so she could watch the sunlight shine through a tree onto the flowers in the garden. She would also cry and scream until she was placed by colorful and artistic towels, sheets, carpets, etc. By 9 months, she was engaged in a highly unusual activity for her age. She'd arrange colored blocks (Legos) in interesting patterns. She would try to put them together, and, when stuck with this activity, would cry and scream until one of her parents put them together in the pattern she had arranged. She would play with the Legos for up to 98 minutes a day for 7 months. By the age of 8 years, she was reading at an 8th grade level - she'd read the plans from the Legos box and create massive designs, filling her room with Legos creations.

With adults, as with these babies, there is a point in the therapy where the clients come in contact with their deepest personal potential. At this point, adults resist change more readily than babies, and have many conflicting responsibilities that babies do not have (e.g., family to support or raise, career). Adult clients, then, defend against achieving their true potential and getting to their true selves. Babies and children do not have this problem. As shown in the above two examples, there is a clear, powerful manifestation of human potential, even in babies.

Finally, a major difference is in the amount of time from the beginning to end of therapy. With adults, an average number of sessions needed to resolve birth trauma is about 60; for babies, the number is 10.

There must be incredible catharsis in this type of work. Could you describe some of the impacts you've observed?

As with any regressive work, it sometimes involves catharses. There is an artistic balance between catharsis and repatterning and it takes a skilled person to accurately sense the proper balance. If repatterning occurs too early in the process, this only adds to the defense system and true healing does not occur. The most effective treatments employ gentle and progressive experiences of both catharsis and repatterning in conjunction with each other.

What research has been done on the long term effects of this work?

I have done a 20 year pilot project treating babies, toddlers, and children. For each patient, there is a control subject. I have been able to determine the impact the treatment model has. This study, taken together with my observations, has created a scientific, emotional, and intuitive basis for the evaluation of its effects.

I have observed, therefore, the increased intelligence and human potential cited above. Spirituality is another major outcome of this work. Treated children are spiritually evolved beings. By releasing negativity, they have greater access to their higher self.

Have you created any materials that show this work?

I have three videos, all entitled "Treating Birth Trauma during Infancy". One is on the resolution of forceps trauma, and the others on cord trauma and caesarean trauma.
It is now more widely accepted that prenatal and birth traumas, if untreated, can lead to major difficulties later in life. Dr. Emerson notes that "Prenatal memories influence early childhood development, and if not treated, form the foundation of later adult personality patterns." It seems obvious that the earlier birth trauma is treated, the more chance the person has of experiencing a healthy and vibrant life in later stages. Dr. Emerson concludes that "In my experience, infant therapy calls upon and challenges the deepest and the best of what it means to be human."


William R. Emerson, Ph.D. is a teacher, writer, lecturer, and pioneer in the field of pre and perinatal psychology. Dr. Emerson's involvement in Pre and Perinatal Psychology includes the recovery and transformation of problems stemming from prenatal and birth traumas. He is a pioneer of treatment methods for infants and children, a renowned expert in treatment methods for adults, and is recognized world-wide for his contributions. He conducts treatment and training seminars throughout the U.S. and Europe. He is a former University Professor for the California State Universities and a European lecturer for the University of Maryland. He has published dozens of articles and 7 videos in the field of psychology and birth.





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