The Poison of the ‘Still Face’

What is the big deal about the ‘still face’? Simple. It makes people crazy.

Anyone who adopts internationally is warned about the effects of the lack of human interaction on children raised in institutions. Oh, children are fed and clothed but they aren’t talked to, played with, and responded to. It is this last one that is the killer because this is how a baby is taught that nothing he or she does will elicit a response, essentially, they learn that no one will come.

My two sons were both adopted as toddlers, one 21-months old, the other 17-months old. Neither of them cried. Ever. We wondered. Are they too weak to cry? Are they completely happy with the conditions here and feel no need to complain? Why weren’t they crying?

A friend of mine, an experienced adoptive parent, said simply, “They know there’s no point to crying, no one will come.”

This is a variation of the ‘still face’ in which no matter what the baby does, the mother remains impassive, unresponsive. Faced with this perplexing situation, most babies will make more extreme efforts, crying louder, kicking, arching, putting their whole selves into getting a reaction, any reaction from the mother. Then, and this is the heartbreaking moment, they give up. They become their own responders, sucking on their hands, pulling their hair, banging their heads on the side of the crib.

The poison? They do this for a while, soothe themselves by banging their heads against the crib slats, and they forget how to be soothed by a human being. In other words, babies who get no response from their caregivers basically go on without them. And it doesn’t produce a good result.

In our case, our adopted sons started to cry within a few months, starting a call and response routine that hasn’t quit yet even though they are in their twenties. Looking back, I think they were adopted in the nick of time, that if they had stayed in the orphanage any longer they would have turned a corner on a very dark street and we would never have gotten them back.

This is the poison of the ‘still face’. When my mother was having a period of very deep depression, her face would become impassive. She was present but not engaged, not catatonic or anything that extreme, she simply was not involved in the day to day. It made me crazy. I spent years asking her the question, “What’s the matter? What’s the matter?”

“Nothing’s the matter.”

This was such a lie. Clearly, everything was the matter. But my mother’s mental illness decided not to make anything easy for participants, no explanations were forthcoming. Just the impassive, expressionless face, the poker face, the ‘still face.’ It made me frantic and worried for a long time and then I just learned to take care of myself.

It’s a chilling, chilling thing, this ‘still face’ business. God help us if many babies are raised this way. No matter how inept you are, new moms, how dumb you think you are, how much you think your friends are better parents, how messed up and screwed up your life is, talk to your baby. Laugh, be surprised, babble, play. Your baby doesn’t know you’re a mess or care that you don’t know what you’re doing. Your baby’s whole sense of self is in your face.

Don’t be a ‘still face.’

Effects of child abuse can last a lifetime: Watch the ‘still face’ experiment to see why

3 Comments on “The Poison of the ‘Still Face’

  1. How heartbreaking this is. This should be mandatory viewing for anyone who works with infants and children as well as potential parents. “In an ideal world. . .”

  2. This was good to read because it helps explain the lack of responsiveness one might see in a and where it comes from. Knowing this, perhaps I can respond differently to others who might have a reason behind their seeming lack of emotion.

  3. this is so accurate and true and important. i have taught these children and it is incredibly challenging to get them to illicit any sort of emotional bonding or response. like you, i also was raised by a depressive mother, (among other issues), and know that to have ‘still face’ is incredibly hard on everyone who cares about them. i am happy you saved your children from suffering a worse fate, just in time. )

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