To even begin to understand just how profoundly child neglect – to say nothing of abuse – can shape every aspect of a child’s life, I dare anyone to try and watch the two-minute experiment that researchers call “The Still Face.”
Ed Tronick, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, sent me a link to his still face experiments – click here to see for yourself – after I wrote about the National Academy of Science’s first major report on child abuse and neglect in 20 years that found the effects of abuse and neglect could last a lifetime.
In one of the most sobering findings, the report highlighted that advances in brain research now show that child abuse and neglect damages not only in the way a developing child’s brain functions, but changes the actual structure of the brain itself, in such a way that makes clear thinking, controlling emotions and impulses and forming healthy social relationships more difficult.
In the still face experiment, Tronick videotapes a mother or father cooing, talking and laughing with their infants as young as three and four months old. The infants are in car seats, and they gurgle with delight, coo right back, smile and clap their hands.
Tronick has the mother or father turn away for a brief moment, then face the child with a blank expression. And that’s when it starts getting really uncomfortable. The infant coos, gurgles, smiles and reaches out to the parent, only this time, there is no response. In the video I watched, you see the infant pause a moment, as if not understanding what’s going on, shriek a little, kick their feet and arch their back as if to get that loving attention back.
And then, in short order, the baby gets really upset. They fuss, they try to turn away, they begin to cry.
“What’s really striking about the still face experiment is that the infants don’t stop trying to get the parents’ attention back,” Tronick said. “They’ll go through repeated cycles where they try to elicit attention, fail, turn away, sad and disengaged, then they turn back and try again.
“When it goes on long enough, you see infants lose postural control and actually collapse in the car seat,” he continued. “Or they’ll start self-soothing behaviors, sucking the back of their hand or their thumbs. Then they really disengage from the parent and don’t look back.”
Some infants, however, become so distressed that that they’re unable to console themselves. Tronick and other researchers have found that neglect leads to increases in the heart rate, a flush of the stress hormone cortisol and to cell death in key regions of the brain.
In recent studies, Tronick and colleagues in Milan, have found that four-month-old infants exposed to the still face will remember it two weeks later, rapidly showing physiological changes to negative responses that infants exposed to it for the first time do not.
“Infants, like all humans, are designed to be in interaction with other people,” Tronick told me. “When I began doing these experiments in the 1980s, we just didn’t have any idea how powerful the connection with other people was for infants, and how, when you disconnected, how powerfully negative the effect was on the infant.”
In studies of infants at orphanages who are fed and clothed, but not held, talked to or played with have found that some neglected children, literally, fail to grow. “Some of them actually died,” he said.
If you can make it through the Still Face video, you may, like I did, experience a rush of relief when the mother finally breaks the stoney face and begins laughing and talking to her obviously upset infant again. And just as that infant’s racing heart calmed down and other systems returned to normal, Tronick and others have found that even abused and neglected children, once surrounded by loving support, too, begin to thrive and the brain can rewire in a positive, healthy way.
The report found that one of the biggest risk factors for child abuse and neglect is if the parent him or herself was abused or neglected. So Tronick and others are working to train professionals and educate and treat parents in an effort to break the cycle. And, one hopes, put an end to the wrenching effects of The Still Face.
Brigid Schulte is a Washington Post reporter who covers work-life, gender and poverty. Her book about time pressure and modern life, “Overwhelmed, Work, Love and Play when no one has the Time”, will be out in March 2014.