From Baby's Highchair to Therapist's Office Chair

By Spencer Overgaard, Copyright 2014

During March break, I brought my 10 year old daughter to my once-a-month psychotherapy seminar. It's a small group which discusses the role of art in psychotherapy. As part of the presentation there were two brief videos, and we invited my daughter to watch them. One of them was of the 'Still Face Experiment' by Dr. Edward Tronic ( It tracked the effect of a mother's emotional connection with her young child. In the exercise, the mother remained silent in front of her one year old child for 2 minutes. The result was that the baby went from being at ease and contented to distressed and crying. Back in the car on the way home following the seminar, my daughter said to me, 'What did that have to do with psychotherapy?'

Good question. My daughter knows I work with adults. She couldn't see any apparent connection between this baby and mother video and the work I do with grown-ups. Probably most people would have the same kind of question. But I would suggest that in order to have favourable emotional health and psychological development in a child (and eventually the adult), you need a parent who is committed to having an engaged and emotionally-sensitive connection with their child.

From birth humans are wired for connection with a caring, devoted and loving parent. If you watch most parents with their very young children, you will know what I mean. Most parents are completely captivated by their children. They take in their every expression. They are 'present,' meaning they are available, attentive and fully interested in what is going on with the baby in the baby's world. There is almost always a mimicking or mirroring of the baby's emotional display: happiness met with smiles, frowns with frowns, wonder with amazed looks, and expressions of pain with the same. It is magical to watch.

But none of this dance happens in a vacuum. There is a vivid interaction between both parties: baby and care-giver. As much as the parent is engaged, so is the baby. The baby is also watching, listening, wondering. Both members are necessary for the magical interaction to occur, not just one actor and the other an audience. Both halves of the picture make it complete. Take one side out, and something stops happening. (This is what occurred in the video.) So, 'wired for connection' means the baby is openly seeking an emotional interaction with the parent and ready to respond to it when it's available.

A very important result of the enlivened, yet sensitive-interaction between parent and child, is that the child learns how to cope with their feelings. We are usually unaware of it taking place, but nevertheless, it happens. By interacting with the mother, the child learns what it is to feel tired, happy, excited, worried and even bored. They learn not only to realize what they are feeling, but also how to deal with these emotions. And, while taking care of the physical needs of baby is important - changing its diaper, feeding it and allowing time for exercise and sleep - the emotional development of the child is no less essential. By helping the child experience their feelings, the parent is teaching the baby how to organize their feelings. The baby is learning, one feeling at a time, how to face being afraid, being excited, being sad, being delighted.

When this type of playful exchange between devoted caregiver and child does not take place, something vital for that baby's emotional development is missing. If we go back to the video, it does not take long for baby to know that something is not right when her normally very present and interactive mother is suddenly and inexplicably silent. The mother does not disappear, but she does withhold her normal responses and remains silent. What takes place in the span of two short minutes, is both powerful and disturbing. The child makes efforts to get the mother to respond. At first she smiles and points. She reaches and uses facial expressions, but gets nothing back. Before long, we begin to see a worried expression on her face. She screeches, indicating she knows something is wrong and is not pleased with it. She turns away, she squirms. By the end of two short minutes, she is crying.

The video baby will likely be ok. The mother, when not doing the experiment, seemed to be fully engaged with her child and their usual way of interacting will resume: we see this after the period of silence. She takes time to reassure him that she is back in her usual attentive manner. But seeing the video makes it easier to imagine what it's like for babies who don't have this type of attuned parenting on a regular basis. The baby has feelings she doesn't know what to do with. She makes an attempt at getting her mother's attention, and she doesn't bite. She tries again and then she begins to worry. But she doesn't know what to do with this worry other than to turn away. Before long, the anxiety of having no interaction and not knowing what to do with her fears overwhelms her and she's fully distressed.

If babies are yearning for emotionally-sensitive interaction, what happens to them when they are consistently denied it? If the baby never, or rarely has the experience of getting its emotional needs attended to, it will likely have difficulty knowing how to manage its emotions from then on. It will likely have to resort to other ways of coping with its feelings, perhaps using what we call 'defenses', like denial or blaming. For example, if the baby feels tired and is never lulled to sleep, it may begin to get anxious when it feels fatigue coming on. Instead of being able to learn how to calm itself when it begins to feel tired, it feels nervous worry and doesn't know what to do with that either. Eventually it may exhaust itself and fall asleep, but the sleep will not be as restful as the other.

This is what the video has to do with psychotherapy. Adults who didn't learn how to manage their emotions with the help of devoted caregivers early on often end up having difficulty knowing how to deal with feelings later in life. Some of those people seek out therapy to help them learn what they are feeling and what to do with those feelings when they seem unmanageable. It's challenging work for the clients, but can also be very extremely rewarding.