Still Face Experiment
In 1975 Edward Tronick conducted the ‘Still Face Experiment.’
In this experiment the mothers were coached to have a ‘still face’ with their child, in other words they were expressionless and unresponsive (facially or emotionally) to their infant.
It found that the infants would make attempts to get their mother to interact with them, and then after these attempts failed, the infant would withdraw and turn away from the mother, with a hopeless facial expression.
This experiment shows the profound impact an unresponsive caretaker can have on a child. Neglect and lack of attunement can have profound, negative impact on children, not just physical or sexual abuse.
The experiment shows how quickly the child becomes hopeless and gives up.
This was a brief experiment and the mothers went right back to normal interacting afterwards, and the healthy attachment between mother and infant was restored.
But if this experience is a way of life for a child, it makes sense that a healthy attachment cannot develop. It makes sense that these children can grow up into adults who struggle with healthy attachments, who struggle to trust or rely on others.
All parents make mistakes, have periods of illness or preoccupation during which they may be unable to respond to their children in an attuned fashion, and this does not doom the child to poor attachment, as long as there is regular attempts to reengage from the caregiver.
Possible reasons that a parent may be unable to respond or attune to their child might be their own past or present trauma experiences, mental illness, chronic physical illness and/or narcissism.