Still-face paradigm

Henry Avignon image

Image by Henry Avignon-Used with permission


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 When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.”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.

Henry Avignon Art

Margot Muto Contemporary Art



About Rescuing Little L

Documenting the pieces of my journey...recovery from childhood sexual abuse and cruel ignorance...the effects of those incidious acts through adulthood... until the grace of recovery transcended the trauma and shame of my past, making it possible to return to Rescue Little L.... View all posts by Rescuing Little L

8 responses to “Still-face paradigm

  • Randy Creath

    I’m glad that you’re still pressing on toward finding the peace you crave. Always know that I’m in your corner, quietly, steadily cheering for you!!

  • sarahpotterwrites

    I think that mother’s whole brain needs rewiring and that she might have been born that way, unless something traumatic has happened to her that has switched off her warmth — disconnected her from feeling. A shaking won’t work. If you tried to reason with her that what she’d doing or, rather, not doing is wrong, she would hear you but not really hear you, as if you and her are creatures from a different planet. I don’t even think she’s doing it on purpose. The feeling just isn’t there. But so terribly confusing and heart-rending for a child who’s not wired up that way.

    • sarahpotterwrites

      PS. Sorry, Little L, I meant to say that the “sort” of mother who doesn’t respond needs her whole brain rewiring! I wasn’t talking about the mother in the video who’s obviously just taking part in an experiment.

      • Rescuing Little L

        Good morning Sarah Potter…love your comments always…I suppose I want to just raise awareness for us to take the time to look at each other, look deeply at our babies, our elderly, our community. I think this is part of the reason I find it so unnerving to see kids staring at their cell phones instead of the eyes of a person…Blessings to you my dear for stopping by….

      • sarahpotterwrites

        Oh, that whole cell phone thing is really freaky. They look like zombies.

        Last time I went on a train, this girl got on at a station, staring at her phone. Sat down next to me, still staring at her phone. In her other hand she had a bottle of water (the two things always seem to go together) which was leaking all over her skirt. I pointed this out to her and she said “thank you” while still staring at her phone, picked up the bottle, but didn’t bother drying her skirt — and it was pretty soaked, too. I’ve filed away this little incident to use in a story someday. …Blessing to you, too, dear Little L.

      • Rescuing Little L

        Oh my, I’ve seen scenarios like that often…Perhaps I’m old or just love the interpersonal exchange of actually talking to a person, over iced tea preferably…

        That is a great idea to incorporate the impersonal nature of staring at the cell phone and the mishaps that occur…I’m guessing the writer in you was taking notes the whole time 🙂

  • Keith Hoerner

    Thank you for introducing me to an area of study I was unaware of. Wonderful blog! Keith

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