The subject of this post is one brought to my attention by my therapist Cathy. We often work on issues related to connection or lack thereof. We’ve been discussing my deep seated longing for connection, the elusive feeling of absolute safety knowing that I above all, feel merged with myself, with my tribe, with the divine, with my soul.
She tells me of Dr. Edward Tronick‘s work and gently describes to me how children of mothers who are absent, abusive, drug-addicted, depressed or afflicted with other mental illnesses, show marked negative coping, often developing long term affective disorders. I’m taken back. Partly because I’m touched deeply by how she validates my pain and partly because her validation makes this real, an issue that will have to be explored and conquered.
What this means to children of trauma and sexual abuse, among many other situations, is that we have extreme difficulty with trust. Because most probably, we haven’t had a consistent, cognitive connection with an available mother, caregiver, or parent and haven’t developed the attunement necessary to function well. We don’t know who to trust, who is safe, what situations to avoid. It delays, distorts, prohibits and skews our innate knowing.
What are the implications and negative effects to a child with an absent, depressed or vacant mother? What are the long term effects of a child’s cognitive development when subjected to a distressingly unavailable mother?
In 1975, Dr. Edward Tronick, Ph.D. at the Child Development Unit at Harvard University presented the still-face paradigm addressing exactly this issue. It continues to be one of the most replicated findings in developmental psychology referencing affective disorders on infants and child development. Dr. Tronick documents an infant who experiences his non-responsive expressionless mother after three short minutes of “interaction” View video here.
The child...“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 When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.”
This video is disturbing for me to watch. Because I get it. Because I’m ultra sensitive and I want to shake that mother and tell her to respond to her child even though it’s a research experiment. Because I know what that baby feels like, as a young child, as a young woman, as a full grown mid-fifties adult. It haunts a survivor to witness an empty person, giving us no social cues to process and understand, reminding us of our initial failed connections to our own mother or caregiver. It fills us with anxiety as we try to connect, doing all sorts of things as the child in the video did. We smile, cajole, reach out. When unreciprocated, we recoil, withdraw, feel rejection, depression, shame.
I serendipitously stumbled upon an artist who creates from one of the deepest places I’ve witnessed. We’ve not met but have exchanged a few conversations. I don’t know Henry’s background or childhood. But Henry knows something. He understands some place within that I’ve lived. I don’t know how but he does. This painting represents to me, the small child, fraught with fear, frozen in emotion, empty of connection. It provides me with a place to be, a moment where the child can release, to be seen just as she is. I can’t entirely change my neurological programming but I can choose to honor her in the place she was given to exist.
Here are the links to his work. I bow in respect.