Musings on the work of Erna Furman: Supervising and “Being Felt With”

By Bonnie Daligga, MA, IMH-E®

Originally published in the April/May 2005 Infant Crier, this article has been reprinted in MI-AIMH’s recent publication, Reflections from the Field: Celebrating 40 Years, Volume I (2017).

To begin, I must confess to limited knowledge of the highly respected work of Erna Furman. Her wonderful writings about the lives of toddlers emerged from her psychoanalytic training with Anna Freud, as well as her intimate involvement alongside her husband in the development of the Hanna Perkins Therapeutic Nursery on the campus now known as Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. My familiarity with Mrs. Furman’s studies began with her seminal article “Mothers Must Be There To Be Left,” in the Psychoanalytic Study of the Child (1982). Later I read her book, Toddlers and Their Mothers: A Study in Early Personality Development (1992) and her earlier writings in The Therapeutic Nursery School: A Contribution to the Study and Treatment of Emotional Disturbances in Young Children, which was edited by her husband Robert A. Furman, M. D. and Anny Katan, M. D. (1969). Through these readings, I have a much richer understanding of how the toddler stage is negotiated, how primary caregivers help or hinder the process, and how these experiences, in turn, may profoundly impact one’s lifelong emotional health and personality structure.

These “adolescents of babyhood” (who is it that first framed that marvelous synopsis of development?) can be perplexing and challenging, even in their most charming moments. Toddlerhood holds considerable conflict and much potential for its resolution. Through the mastery of bodily and emotional functioning, toddlers establish their ego strength. The failure or distortion of such mastery can stifle their capacity for autonomous action, set up deep ambivalence, enflame aggression and/or twist motivation/self-interest, leading to troubled inter-personal and intra-personal relatedness.

As I reviewed what I held in memory of Erna Furman’s writings, pondering their potential significance to supervisory work, I was drawn back to the parallel processes so central to our relationship focus. Supervisors are usually two steps away from the relationship that grows between a mother (or father) and a baby. We do however experience directly the mentoring relationship with the clinician who is working with parent and baby. There are several parallel functions when we consider similarities between being a mother of a toddler, being the infant mental health or family support specialist or other family interventionist, and being a clinical supervisor. I will share my thoughts on one of those functions.

A parent who has successfully cared for an infant is seldom prepared for the emotional landscape a toddler travels through. New home visitors rarely expect the intensity of emotion that awaits them on the other side of each front door. Neither can supervisors know beforehand what a supervisee will bring to a supervision session. In my early I.M.H. work, I remember clearly how very surprised I often was at the words and the affect I began to express in the reflective supervision offered to me. Each of these relationships potentially has the capacity to assist the less practiced of the pair to learn about the nature and array of feelings to be felt in this context. In truth, I believe the learning happens for both parties; each is engaged in a process of growing, if truly emotionally present to the other.

Erna Furman wrote about “feeling and being felt with” as a critical opportunity for the toddler to be able to learn appropriate emotional regulation. I would suggest that this is also an essential component of reflective supervision. It is the responsibility of the “good enough mother” and the “good enough supervisor” to assure that the toddler or the home visitor has a genuine emotionally shared experience. For the toddler, the fully present mother or other trusted caregiver provides validation for the feelings within, help in labeling the particular feelings, respect for and acceptance of the essence of his feelings as well as an appreciation of the feelings as belonging to him. The mother serves also as a back-up container to hold the feelings when they may seem impossible for the toddler to control himself. Over time, the developing toddler will then learn to pay attention to his feelings, to use them wisely, and to express them in socially appropriate ways. “Being felt with” helps the toddler to create a repertoire of ways to cope with and regulate strong emotions, to not be overwhelmed by them or frightened of them.

Many of the parents seen in our programs did not have sufficient experience with a fully present, trustworthy individual in their early development. Thus, there was no one to help them know their own feelings, to help effectively weave feelings into their daily lives, to manage their expression, to assist in learning to use their feelings for the benefit of themselves and/or others. The home visitor cannot undo all the harmful consequences of missing this guidance, of being absent a model for full emotional presence. But a home visitor who comes regularly and respectfully to a family’s home can listen thoughtfully and with empathy, can respond with care, effectively supporting a parent’s wish to love and protect his or her infant/toddler.

“Being felt with” allows every human being to feel his or her feelings, to not have to resort to shutting down or drinking them away or perpetrating a hurtful act against another or closing oneself off to the realness of each moment. “Being felt with” allows one to trust one’s own feelings. It allows one to trust another, allows for depth and honesty in relationships. Being felt with makes us one with all humanity. Such is the state that permits each of us to reach out to others and to be truly empathic, compassionate. Being felt with also allows us to ask for help from others, to believe that we will be heard and will receive a response. Beyond any other task that we may ask a home visitor to tackle with a family, none is more important or potentially valuable than the act of being fully present, being able to offer the family the regular experience of “being felt with” through their shared relationship.

Similarly, no responsibility of the supervisor, no experience for the supervisee is more significant to the effective development of the home visitor’s skills or personal growth than the regular time, place and opportunity for experiencing “being felt with” in reflective supervision. The inspiration to be fully human, to live deeply, with conviction and joy and purpose, flourishes within this emotional relatedness. Being fully in the present, being a feeling person, is a daily challenge in this world, to say the least. But what a magnificent goal for each of us, what a gift when we achieve it, for however short or long it lasts in our day. What a gift to us that Erna Furman so eloquently advocated for each toddler to be offered “feeling and being felt with.” May it inspire each of us every day.