Last week on The Gottman Relationship Blog, we discussed the relationship between parenting behavior (of both the mother and the father) and a child’s ability to participate in high levels of engagement with their peers. We described a 1994 study conducted by Dr. Gottman which explored this topic, and furthermore provided in-depth explanations of the study’s results. Today, we’d like to share another fascinating (and relevant) study with you conducted by Dr. Edward Tronick of UMass Boston.

Dr. Tronick is the Director of UMass Boston’s Infant-Parent Mental Health Program, where he conducts research on how mothers’ depression and other stressful behaviors affect the emotional development and health of infants and children.

Jason Goldman published a great writeup on Thoughtful Animal about Tronick’s 1975 experiment, the impact it had in understanding child development, and how it’s being used, including to predict child behavior:

In 1975, Edward Tronick and colleagues first presented the “Still Face Experiment” to colleagues at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. He described a phenomenon in which an infant, after three minutes of “interaction” with a non-responsive expressionless mother, “rapidly sobers and grows wary. He makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.” It remains one of the most replicated findings in developmental psychology.

Once the phenomenon had been thoroughly tested and replicated, it became a standard method for testing hypotheses about person perception, communication differences as a result of gender or cultural differences, individual differences in attachment style, and the effects of maternal depression on infants. The still-face experiment has also been used to investigate cross-cultural differences, deaf infants, infants with Down syndrome, cocaine-exposed infants, autistic children, and children of parents with various psychopathologies, especially depression.

The fascinating video below portrays the natural human process of attachment between a baby and mother, and then the effects of non-responsiveness on the part of the mother:

As Rick Ackley suggests in this article from his blog The Genius in Children, “While the video shows the importance of mother-child attachment, it also reveals something else of vital importance to parents and all other educators. Watch it again. Is the baby experiencing a loss of attachment or a loss of agency?”

Agency refers to the subjective awareness that one is initiating, executing, and controlling one’s own actions in the world. When we “still face” our children by ignoring their expressions of emotion, for example, they may experience a loss of agency. Show your child respect and understanding in moments when they feel misunderstood, upset, or frustrated. Validate their emotions and guide them with trust and affection. Your child’s mastery of understanding and regulating their emotions will help them to succeed in life. Dr. Gottman calls this being an “Emotion Coach.” The five essential steps of Emotion Coaching are as follows:

  • Be aware of your child’s emotion
  • Recognize your child’s expression of emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
  • Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings
  • Help your child learn to label their emotions with words
  • Set limits when you are helping your child to solve problems or deal with upsetting situations appropriately

The same can be said when we “still face” our partners by turning away from their bids for emotional connection. Michele Weiner-Davis of Divorce Busting said it best in a Facebook posting this morning:

Every time you turn away from your spouse or he/she turns away from you, whether you show it or not, your response is not dissimilar to the baby [shown above].

Turning towards means actively turning to your partner and replying to their small bids for emotional connection that they make throughout the day. This means being interested in what they are saying or doing and following up by responding to them in a way that shows you are listening. Validate their feelings and emotions. Ask questions. Be the support they need. Remember: understanding must precede advice.

More in Research & Methods
The Research: The Still Face Experiment

Michael Fulwiler is the Editor in Chief of The Gottman Relationship Blog and Director of Marketing for The Gottman Institute. A proud University of Washington graduate, Michael is an avid fan of love, live music, and Seattle sports teams.