“Why do some children become sad, withdrawn, insecure, or angry, whereas others become happy, curious, affectionate, and self-confident?” developmental psychologist Edward Tronick, Ph.D. asked In a paper called Emotions and Emotional Communication in Infants. It’s an important question, and the answer lies in large part with the quality of emotional communication between parent and child. We don’t get this important education in emotions in our formal schooling, yet we really need it to do right by our children.
Emotional Communication Starts at Birth
As soon as an infant is born, emotional communication begins with the mother (or mother-figure). Historically, because infants can’t speak, they were thought of as not having emotions and not being sensitive to their surroundings. Luckily, we now know that the opposite is true. Like the interconnecting roots of adjacent trees, adults and infants are inextricably connected to one another and in constant communication with each other through their emotions.
How a parent responds to their baby from moment-to-moment determines what emotions that baby will experience and have to cope with. Moreover, the way these interactions play out greatly influences how an infant will behave toward others as they grow into childhood and adulthood.
Most of this communication is actually non-verbal. Even as adults, humans communicate primarily without words. The tone of voice, facial expressions, eye gaze, and body posture are evaluated on the deepest levels of our brain. The words matter less.
Being Gentle is Important
No matter what age we are, when non-verbal and verbal communication is positive and respectful, the human body responds with calm and wellbeing. In that state, we are able to connect positively with others. However, when communication is harsh, tense, hurtful, threatening, dismissive, and/or humiliating, it creates tension. The nervous system jolts into fight/flight/freeze states of alertness, while the mind works to defend itself from emotional distress. In this kind of state, we retreat inward and the ability to connect with others becomes compromised.
While children of all ages are like sponges soaking up the environment with their five senses, an infant’s nervous system is most sensitive. The environment (which at first is synonymous with the mother, then expands to include others as the baby grows) invisibly “pushes and pulls” on an infant’s raw and vulnerable nervous system. The brain-mind-body emotionally responds with two basic messages: you are SAFE or you are in DANGER. Everything the infant sees, hears, feels, tastes, and touches will affect the baby—especially when emotions are triggered.
Get Educated in Emotions
This requires parents to be quite self-aware and to monitor their emotions and reactions in the best interest of their infant’s development. To work on one’s emotional responses is to care about creating an adult with the best possible emotional health. This takes time and is not easy to do, especially in busy families and hectic lives.
In short, it’s vitally important for parents to do two things:
1) Maintain an attuned and accepting emotional connection with their child—regardless of the child’s behavior. Attunement describes how reactive a person is to another’s emotional needs and moods. A person who is well attuned will respond with appropriate language and behaviors based on another person’s emotional state
2) When ruptures in the connection do occur, which they will, it’s equally important that a parent works to repair the rupture and restore an emotional connection that feels safe and soothing to the child. We do this by being empathic, warm, loving, accepting, curious, and playful.
This sounds difficult—and in practice, it’s even harder, because even as infants, children affect their parents’ own emotions and behavior right back.
Tronick, to illustrate the importance of emotional attunement, asked us to imagine two infant-mother pairs playing the game of peek-a-boo.
In the first scenario, the infant abruptly turns away from his mother as the game became too stimulating for him. He sucks his thumb and stares into space with a dull facial expression. The mother stops playing and sits back watching her infant. After a few seconds, the infant turns back to her with an interested and inviting expression. The mother moves closer, smiles, and says in a high-pitched exaggerated voice, “Oh, now you’re back!” They smile and coo in response to each other. Once again, the infant reinserts his thumb and looks away. The mother waits again. After a few seconds, the infant turns back to her, and they greet each other with big smiles.
In the second situation, the infant turns away, but the mother doesn’t wait long enough for the infant to come back on his own. She leans over into the infant’s line of vision while clicking her tongue to attract his attention. The infant, however, ignores the mother and continues to look away (He is trying to calm himself by breaking eye contact). Not picking up on his need, the mother persists and moves her head closer to the infant. The infant frowns, fusses, and pushes at the mother’s face. Within seconds he turns even further away from his mother and continues to suck on his thumb.
Without focusing on who is responsible for any “mistakes” in the above interactions, let’s notice how the emotions and behaviors of one lead to the emotions and behaviors of the other.
In both scenarios, the infant’s turning away and sucking his thumb is a message to the mother that the infant needs to calm down his nervous system. Even as babies, we instinctually know when we need to lower the “stimulation” coming from our environment. A mother is inherently stimulating—just because she is another person.
Each mother respects this communication from her infant by waiting—at first. But the first mother greets her infant with smiles, waits patiently, and consistently lets her infant determine when he’s ready to reconnect. The relaxed patience of the first mother conveys safety to the infant. He is free to come and go from the connection as he needs.
Can you imagine how calming that feels? This freedom brings forth a deep sense of wellbeing in a child, who learns he can trust others to respect his needs.
The second mother, on the other hand, failed to pick up the cue that her infant was not ready to connect again. She likely felt angry, anxious, sad, longing, or had another emotion that interfered with her infant’s need for distance in that moment. This mis-attuned reaction of the mother’s leads to a rupture or break in their connection. The mother’s “intrusion” made it harder for the baby’s nervous system to calm down, prolonging the infant’s disconnection from his mother.
Problems arise when interactions leading to ruptures are the norm. The infant grows into a child who expects to be infringed upon and/or emotionally abandoned and develops protective defenses to cope. Tronick found that infants who chronically experienced mis-attunements disengaged more from their mothers and the rest of their environment and distorted their interactions with other people.
The kicker is: mis-attunement happens to all parents. Being perfectly attuned just isn’t possible—nor would it be a good thing anyway. What builds emotional security is a parent’s determination to repair ruptures soon after they have occurred. In general, the more emotional stress caused by unrepaired ruptures in connection, the more anxiety, depression, and low confidence the adult that infant grows into will suffer.
Parents can “repair” ruptures by being mindful of how emotions organize their infant’s and their own behavior. Basic education for parents in emotions and childhood trauma provide tools so a parent can proactively strive for positive connections as they tolerate their own feelings of rejection, disappointment, anger, sadness, and longing.
When we ignore an infant’s emotional cues because we don’t understand them or we can’t tolerate our own responses, we are forcing them to cope alone. But when we respond to those cues appropriately, an infant’s authentic self can emerge and thrive.
Want to have an experience that illustrates how all of this affects us in adult relationships?
Imagine having an argument with a partner or a family member. Then, imagine the fallout after that conflict. Let’s say your partner or family member asks for space, or perhaps they just “feel distant.” What emotions or physical sensations does that scenario bring up for you? Are you confident they will “come back?” Do you get anxious/panicky? Do you get angry? Does your heartbeat speed up? Do you get a knot in your stomach? Do you not notice that they have “gone away”—that there even was a rupture? Do you feel moved to repair it or dig into a grudge? Just notice and validate the emotions without judgment.
Many adults, like the second mother, might have a hard time tolerating space in a relationship. But throughout our lives, such space is necessary to calm down and recharge our nervous system, so that we can be genuinely connected when we “come back.”
Now try this again in reverse. Imagine you need space, and you can sense that your partner or friend can’t tolerate it. What emotions does it bring up for you? Do you feel guilty? Angry? Sad? Fearful? All of the above? Or, can you stay grounded in your most confident self and take the space you need Again, just notice and validate the emotions without judgment.
Well done! A+ just for trying.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. New York: Basic Books
Hendel. H.J. (2018). It’s Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect With Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House
Tronick, E. (1989). Emotions and Emotional Communication in Infants. American Psychologist. Vol.44(2): 112-119
Winnicott, D. W. (1987). Babies and Their Mothers. Perseus Publishing: USA