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Personality Formation in Action

:
An Observation of a Toddler Who Wants to Interact with Others
but is Ignored

Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW

We often wonder why we are the way we are. This article gives some hints. So much of

what forms our personalities happens when we are very young and our brains have not matured

enough to store memories. Furthermore, we don’t have the wisdom to interpret life events until

we are older.

This article reports on an observation I made in a public park of a toddler boy who

persistently tried to interact with others and was rebuffed almost every time. No one had time for

him. I don’t know how multiple rejections will affect him, but his experiences on this sunny

summer day are now encoded in his brain circuits and will affect his expectations about how

other people view him.

IT WAS A BRIGHT SUNNY DAY in a county park. A large group of people, ranging

in age from 91 years to 23 months, had gathered for a family reunion. The women and the older

family members sat at tables in the shade of a pavilion with cold drinks in front of them, while

about 11 children, nine boys and two girls, played games with their parents, almost all fathers,

with one grandmother. The children ranged in age from 23 months to about eight.

I noticed Liam [not his real name] right away because he was the youngest. He had

blonde hair with straight bangs, chunky legs, baggy blue denim shorts that hung below his knees,

blue plastic sandals, and a read tee shirt with Hardy in navy blue letters across his chest.
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He was standing on the side lines about five feet from a row of fathers who were

instructing five pairs of children about how to get ready for a three-legged sack race. He watched

the other children and then walked over to them while they were putting their feet into the white

sacks. Liam’s father whom I will call Jack, who had light-colored hair and wore kaki shorts and

a dark green polo shirt, walked over to Liam, took his hand and led him away from the children.

Jack, like Liam, was well-built and somewhat chunky. When they got back to the row of

fathers, Jack let Liam’s hand go. Liam looked at his father’s face and touched his father’s leg.

Jack ignored Liam as he shouted directions to the children about the three-legged race. Liam put

his thumb and index finger in his mouth.
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Reflection

Liam seemed to want to be involved but did not understand that he should not stand in

front of the children who were about to do a three-legged race. He wanted some interaction with

his father and made a couple of bids but his father barely noticed and basically ignored Liam.

Liam may have been soothing himself over the failed bid when he put his fingers in his mouth.

Someone shouted “Go” and the children were off. Liam ran along side of the children

who were hopping toward the finish line in their race. His gait was that of a toddler, not quite

coordinated, but coordinated enough so that he was moving faster than his normal walk. Liam

obviously wanted to be involved in the game.

He walked to a pair of children who had finished the race and looked up at them. They

ignored him. Liam put his thumb and index finger in his mouth and wandered away. A thin

older boy, about eight, took Liam’s hand and led him to the sidelines. Liam stood there for a few

seconds and wandered toward his father who was surrounded by other adults and a few kids.

Liam could not get close to this father.

Liam stood on the sidelines watching the older children get ready for a paddle and golf

ball race. The object of the game was to hold the golf ball on the paddle and walk 25 feet. Liam

watched and walked with a child who was trying to keep the ball on the paddle. When the ball

fell off, Liam, being closer to the ground, picked it up. The older boy plucked it from Liam and

put it on his paddle. He said nothing to Liam, and in fact did not seem to notice Liam at all.

Liam put his fingers in his mouth and walked toward the pavilion. He had a very serious

look at his small face. He walked over to a lanky older man in shorts and polo shirt who was

sitting at a table talking to another older man. The lankly man, who was Liam’s maternal

grandfather Tim, picked Liam up and placed him on his lap. Tim caressed Liam’s leg with his

thumb. He kept talking to the other man and did not talk to Liam. Liam snuggled his back into
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his grandfather Tim for about five seconds and then sat up straight on his lap. He had his fingers

in his mouth.

After about a minute, Liam wiggled out of Tim’s lap and walked to the edge of the

pavilion and watched the children and the adults who were involved in games. He put his fingers

in his mouth, turned around, and walked back to grandfather Tim who once again picked him up,

put him on his lap, caressed his arm with his thumb and kept on talking to the older man. After

about a minute, Liam wiggled off grandfather Tim’s lap and walked to the other side of the

pavilion and looked into the parking lot. He stood there for about five seconds and then turned

around and walked down into the field where the children were playing the adult-directed games.

Reflection

Liam was solemn-faced the entire time. He seemed to want so much to be involved in the

games or at least interact with someone, but no one engaged with him fully. His grandfather

was semi-responsive to him, but his grandfather was interested in interacting with his male

friend and barely interacted with Liam. Liam put his fingers in his mouth apparently as a self-

soothing move. I think he was stressed.

Back on the playing field, Liam watched as an adult was paired with a child. They were

playing catch with water-filled balloons. Liam put his hand into a blue plastic tub and pulled out

a pink balloon. He carried the balloon around for a few minutes. Then he walked to his father

who was playing catch with an older boy. Liam touched his father’s leg. His father looked

down, patted Liam on the head, and kept playing catch with the other boy. Liam wandered over

the field with his pink balloon. He dropped it a few times and picked it up. He kept looking up at

the older children and adults playing catch.

He wandered over to a curly-haired older woman who was his grandmother Sandy. She

had had on royal blue shorts and a light blue poplin shirt and wore a sunshade of a hat. She was
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playing catch with a boy who was about six. He had blonde hair cut like Liam’s and was well-

built. This was Liam’s older brother Colin. Liam placed the palm of his hands on his

grandmother’s shorts. Grandmother Sandy caught a pitch from Colin. They threw the balloon

back and forth between them. Liam stood next to his grandmother holding the pink balloon.

Sandy took advantage of moment’s pause while Colin stopped to take a drink of pop.

She motioned to Liam to throw the balloon to her. Liam was about two feet away and cocked his

arm and threw the balloon. It was at grandmother’s knee level. She caught it. She tossed it

gently back to Liam. It slipped through Liam’s waiting hands onto the ground. Without a word

to Liam, Sandy resumed playing catch with the older grandson. Liam picked up the balloon and

watched his grandmother and brother play catch. He put his fingers in his mouth and wandered

between the pairs of adults and children playing catch with each other, watching and holding his

pink balloon.

Reflection

Liam finally found someone who would interact with him. I was inwardly relieved when

the Sandy took time to play with her grandson. Alas, the time she gave him was brief, less than a

minute. Like the others, Sandy ignored Liam. Liam took his pink balloon and walked away. I

think he was sad. Putting his fingers in his mouth may have been self-soothing and a means of

re-regulating himself emotionally.

When one pair was left tossing the balloon between them, the game was over. The adults

and children milled around haphazardly. Liam walked up to his father who was talking to other

adults. Liam stood beside his father holding his pink balloon. His father noticed Liam and

reached out his hand for the balloon. Liam handed his father the balloon. Jack once again talked

to other adults. Liam stood beside Jack for a few seconds and then wandered away from the
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crowd toward the woods. Jack called to Liam and held out the balloon. “Want to play?” Liam

turned away and kept walking. He had his fingers in his mouth.

Final Reflection

This toddler, Liam, was persistent in wanting to interact with others. He did everything

in his repertoire to engage someone. His father, grandmother, and grandfather gave him flickers

of attention but were occupied with other people. Finally, after trying so hard for so long, his

father appeared to have wanted to interact fully with Liam. Unless Liam could not hear well, he

had given up, at least for the moment.

This was a haunting observation for me. This darling little boy just wanted someone to

engage with him. He exhausted his repertoire about how to do this. He had no speech, or if he

did, he did not vocalize, but what he wanted was obvious to anyone who paid attention. I

thought at one point of playing catch with him myself, but since I was not part of the family, I

thought better of it.

At almost two years of age, Liam is rapidly pushing toward a new kind of social

interaction, but apparently in the eyes of his family, he has not arrived. He appeared to want to

do what the older children did, but no one was willing to help him participate in the three-legged

race. No one took a minute to help him hold the golf ball on the paddle. He wanted to try as

evidenced by his standing by a child who had just completed that game. He wanted to play catch

with his pink balloon. You’d think that one adult or older child would have noticed and taken

the time to play with him.

I thought of how Liam was interpreting this and how these experiences were being

encoded in his brain as working models of who he is, what he deserves, what he can expect from

others, and how the world works. I wondered if these kinds of experiences--when children are
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about two and wanting to engage socially in new ways but get rebuffed--are the foundation of

fears about being left out and not fitting in. Few human beings do not have these fears.

Liam soothed himself by putting his fingers in his mouth, each time in response to a

rebuff. I wondered how oral-based self-soothing will develop in him over time. Will using oral

self-soothing become a major part of his attempts at self-regulation? What kinds of experiences

and his interpretation of them will combine to help him through these on-going rebuffs so that he

continues to expect that others will want to engage with him?

It was fascinating to me to see the persistence with which Liam sought out interaction

with others. He had had some very good care and secure attachments. Otherwise, he would

have given up much sooner. He did not seek out a younger woman who would have been his

mother. Maybe she would have engaged with him, but I don’t think she was there. Like me, I

doubt that she could have stood it if she had seen her son try so hard and get rejected each time.

The principles of infant mental health include gently educating parents about children’s

developmental needs. The two grandparents and the father could have benefited from a running

commentary of an infant mental health practitioner, interpreting Liam’s behaviors and giving

them suggestions about what to do.

Liam’s family seemed well-adjusted and happy in this social situation and thus did not

require emotional support. They were a well-off family and therefore did not require the

assistance of a professional to obtain basic resources and they also did not require advocacy,

although Liam could have used the advocacy of someone who could gently help these adults get

in tune with Liam and interact with him in ways that were developmentally appropriate and

respectful. Instead, they continually dismissed his bids for attention.

I had never thought of toddlers as heroes before, but as I reflect on Liam and his efforts,

Liam is my hero.
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About the Author

Jane F. Gilgun, Ph.D., LICSW, is a professor, School of Social Work, University of

Minnesota, Twin Cities, USA. E-mail: jgilgun@gmail.com. She has children’s books, books,

and articles available on Amazon Kindle, scribd.com/professorjane, and stores.lulu.com/jgilgun.

She also has many videos on youtube.com/jgilgun on a variety of topics.