Positive Parenting

The Tension of Attention

Physician Gabor Maté’s explanation of eye contact, attachment, and the origins of ADHD.

A smiling baby has a language processing disorder
A smiling baby has a language processing disorder

One of the best ADD books I read while researching my book on bullying was Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It , by Gabor Maté. If you haven’t seen Maté’s YouTube videos, check them out. He has an interesting view of ADHD, and here it is, in a nutshell of my own design:

When a mother makes eye contact with her baby her eyes, which are “a visible part of her brain,” pour emotional information into the wee one’s eyes. The eye is a an extension of the brain, he says; “it is almost as if a portion of the brain is there in plain sight.” (I love this idea, that eye contact is brain contact!)

Attunement is the back-and-forth connection between an adult and an infant, where the adult is tuned into the subtle changes of an infant’s emotions, expressed through the eyes, and responds to them. The baby registers, in its brain, that there is a shared emotional space. This lays the foundation for emotional connections throughout the baby’s life.

In one of my favorite parts of this book, Maté talks about how “hot” the brain-to-brain connection of eye contact can get, and with a sensitive child it can feel like too much. There is a subtle dance of connection that occurs in this gaze. Allowing the child to break eye contact when it gets too “hot” gives them emotional control on a primal level. But when mother breaks the eye contact, the infant feels abandoned.

At last, the psychology behind staring contests!

What’s eye contact like with your kids? I remember holding baby Enzo in my lap and staring into his face – but he would rather stare at the ceiling fan. I figured, back then, that it was a guy thing; female babies stare at faces longer. But later I learned that difficulty with eye contact can be a sign of ADHD or other processing problems.

Calling it brain contact, though, instead of eye contact, can provide us with a whole new level of family fun.