Basic to an understanding of the individual in relationship to crisis is the recognition that physical development and physical health are important to everyone at every stage of the developmental process. From birth to about the age of three, children are primarily concerned with physical development. They learn how to sit, walk, talk, use the bathroom, feed themselves, manipulate objects, run, climb, and do all the things they will need to do as they grow and mature. For people of all ages, physical skills, abilities, capacities, needs, and so on, are very important to their sense of who they are and to their ability to cope with their life situation. We can see, then, that whenever an individual is experiencing some physical difficulty he also will have problems in coping with his responsibilities and opportunities. This difficulty in coping may at times be more than the individual can handle. For example, children with serious physical difficulties may become overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and helplessness when they are unable to participate in normal activities, do the kinds of things other children do, be accepted by other children as equals, and so on. Adults may suddenly find themselves in a position where they are unable to work, unable to drive, unable to carry out their day-to-day responsibilities, unable to cope with simple routines like getting to the store, and generally feeling inadequate and useless. Elderly people frequently become depressed and overwhelmed by their recent inability to hear, see, walk, and so on. Throughout the life cycle, physical difficulties and health problems represent a serious liability and frequently contribute to social and emotional crises.
Similarly, emotional development is an important dimension. An individual’s emotional makeup receives its primary developmental structure during the preschool years. That is when children learn to love and hate, deal with feelings of anger and fear, express affection and excitement, and generally develop as feeling/emotional persons. Young children first discover their feelings and then experiment with them. Can I get people to do things by using my temper or by pouting? How can I cope with things and situations that scare me? What does it mean to love and be loved? This discovery and experimentation continues throughout the life cycle. Gradually, children learn to control and cope with their feelings and thus become able to prevent their feelings from taking over their behavior or getting in the way of their dealing with the world. For everyone, however, situations and circumstances do occur which cause them to react in emotional and uncontrolled ways. In healthy individuals, this does not happen too often, and usually, it does not interfere with their over-all functioning. For all of us, though, our feelings and emotions sometimes become so overwhelming that they interfere with our thinking about and coping with our life situations. Especially when those overwhelming feelings include fear and anger, we are in a crisis. We find ourselves temporarily unable to deal with, understand, or otherwise cope with, this mix of emotions and feelings, and we are unable to respond rationally. It is, then, our ability to cope with and work through these feelings that enables us to resolve crises in our lives. Further, it is our ability to help others cope with and work through such intense feelings in their lives that represents the focal task of crisis intervention.
Just as emotional crises develop in the lives of others, they can and will develop in our own lives. If it can happen to anyone, it can happen to you or me. If you seriously doubt that you could ever find yourself in an emotional crisis and in need of help, perhaps you should not become involved in crisis intervention. “There but for the grace of God go I” is wisdom especially applicable to crisis.
Children develop socially as well as physically and emotionally. This is the special focus of the elementary school years. Children first learn to entertain themselves and play with their toys and other objects in an individualized way. Only gradually do they learn to be involved in mutual activities with other children. In the early years, two children may be involved in the same activity, playing the same game, acting out the same fantasy, but they’re doing it as individuals. They are both doing the same thing but are not really interacting with each other. As mothers of young children can confirm, the most frequent form of interaction when two young children are playing is fighting and arguing. The complaint is usually that one child interfered with the other child’s toys or activities. Over time, children gradually become involved in activities in which they interact with each other. They participate in group games, carry on endless conversations with each other, play “doctor” and baseball, and begin to develop meaningful interpersonal relationships with other children in their age group. As they continue to mature and develop, their social adjustment comes to include husbands or wives, good friends, acquaintances, relationships with co-workers, and so on.
By the time a child reaches junior high school, and throughout the rest of his life, his social environment becomes increasingly complex and contains more and more possibilities for problems. These social relationships, patterns of interaction, and the over-all social environment continually present situations and conditions with which anyone may have difficulty coping. Usually, people are able to work out their interpersonal differences, negotiate their social world, and resolve problems in relationships. Occasionally, however, these problems become so involved or so bad that people are unable to cope with them and unable to work them out. If the relationships aren’t very important to the individual, he may simply avoid interacting with those people with whom he has difficulty. If the problem happens to be with an employer or employee, however, or with a husband or wife, a parent or child, a very good friend or even someone with whom he doesn’t want to stop interacting, the situation is serious. When confronted with that kind of problem, most people will make a serious attempt to straighten things out. If they are unsuccessful, they will occasionally become quite upset, afraid, angry, and emotionally distraught. These emotions then interfere with their ability to work out the relationship. As the relationship gets worse, the individual becomes more upset. As a result, the relationship deteriorates even further, with the individual becoming even more upset. And so the vicious circle goes round and round. When this happens, the individual is in an extremely serious social crisis.
Sexual development and sexual situations hold a similar potential for crisis. These sexual crises sometimes develop when parents become alarmed and overreact to the interest of young children in each other’s bodies. Sexual crises develop between adolescents, in marital relationships, in homosexual relationships, between adults involved in extramarital activities, and in other types of adult sexual relationships. Similarly, people of all ages can become involved in spiritual and moral crises. They may have difficulty coping with their lack of faith in a supreme being or they may suddenly come to question their faith in a supreme being, they may become confused and disenchanted with the religious and spiritual beliefs they have held, and so on. People become involved in situations that cause them to question their moral values, experience severe feelings of guilt and apprehension, or become indignant and angry in reaction to what they regard as the moral indiscretions of others. In times of spiritual and moral crisis, the great temptation is to pass judgment, give advice, or dismiss the person’s feelings and confusion as silly and inconsequential. It is important to realize that moral and spiritual crises are at least as intense as emotional and social crises. They always deserve our concerned and caring attention.
As we consider the individual, it is clear that his physical, emotional, sexual, moral, and spiritual growth and development play an important part in his over-all adjustment and in his ability to cope with life situations. Singly and in combination, these areas of development and adjustment hold high potential for crisis, and in times of crisis, the inability of the individual to work out the difficulty causes intense and varied emotional reactions. It is, then, our ability to help him cope with and work through these feelings, together with our ability to work with the rational, reasoning, planning dimension of the individual, that enables him gradually to understand and cope with his crisis.
The individual in crisis is a whole person with feelings, emotions, thoughts, ideas, abilities, limitations, and personality. Like all of us, he loves and hates, is sad and excited, wants and fears, feels happy and hurt, and experiences a full range of feelings, emotions, joys, sorrows, and humanness. Also, whether the individual is six or sixty, he has his rational, objective, intelligent, analyzing, understanding, reasoning dimension. When we meet the individual in a crisis situation, however, his feeling, emotional, impulsive dimension will likely be most visible.
The individual also has a third dimension. It has alternatively been seen as his conscience, superego, or “parent.” This dimension is an integral part of the individual’s personality and consist of rules, prohibitions, norms, values standards, prejudices, “should” and “shouldn’t,” and words like always, never, absolutely, must, have to, and so on. This dimension serves the individual as an internalized “parent.” It punishes him when he does not do well, when he does wrong, or when he behaves in a way unacceptable to his conscience or the internalized “parent.” Also, it praises him or makes him feel good when he behaves in an acceptable, moral, honorable way. Further, it protects him and makes him feel afraid or anxious when he is confronted with situations or circumstances in which there is or may be some risk to himself.
When we see the individual in a crisis situation, we will generally first notice the intensity of his feeling, emotional dimension. As suggested, one of our central goals is gradually to enhance the functioning of the rational, planning, thinking dimension. As we work toward this enhancement and crisis reduction, however, his “parent’ dimension must be carefully looked at and its effects considered. Is the individual usually fearful? Or, is he unusually guilt-ridden? Is he withdrawn and apparently punishing himself? Basically, we want to know the punishing, praising, and protecting effects the individual’s “parent” is having on his feeling, emotional dimension. If we think of the individual as a whole, three-dimensional person, understanding that these three dimensions are interacting and interrelated, and try to understand and sort them out as we work with him, our effectiveness will increase.
If we can maintain our perspective, recalling the three major dimensions of the individual and understanding his developmental needs, problems, and vulnerabilities, we will be in a good position to help him in a meaningful way.