Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


A Child's Self Shattered at the Border

Young children separated from their parents experience annihilation of the self.

Consider the following experiment: A baby and her mother face each other, engaging in joyful communication. “We are having a great time together!” Then inexplicably, her mother’s face becomes still. At first, the infant protests. She screeches. “What are you doing?” She points. She makes every effort to get her mother back. But within less than 60 seconds she begins to lose control of herself. One gets the impression that the interaction with her mother was holding her together; that in its absence she falls apart. When the mother returns to typical interaction with an expressive face and voice, the baby hesitates briefly. But the pair quickly return to playful exchange. With the mother present to scaffold her experience, she is once again made whole. “I am OK.”

Ed Tronick
"Where did you go?"
Source: Ed Tronick

This simple experiment captured on a YouTube video and viewed over 6 million times, while originally designed to test the hypothesis that infants are active participants in communication with their caregivers, should be mandatory viewing for any person or organization who has power to address the separation of young children and their parents at the US-Mexico border.

While many quality documents offer scientific evidence of damage to the developing brain and body inflicted by separation, the Still-Face video takes us inside the child’s emotional experience. For if the baby begins to disintegrate after less than a minute, what happens to a young child when this incomprehensible loss spans days, weeks, or months? Better than the word “trauma” which suggested a one-time event, the experience is captured by a term originally used by child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein: “annihilation.”

A young child’s understanding of his existence—the very notion that “I am”—emerges out of the natural moment-to-moment interaction with his primary caregivers. Parents “leave” their children all the time. In fact, a child’s sense of himself and the world around him develops out of these natural comings and goings. “Mama where are you? There you are.”

But a period of separation beyond the child’s ability to manage precipitates an unbearable anxiety. Having no way to make meaning of his mother’s absence, it is as if she no longer exists. And if she no longer exists, the child’s sense of his own existence falters. An experience that goes beyond terror, sadness, or rage, it produces a feeling that “there is no me.”

As the court deadline imposed for reunification passes, we hear reports of children rejecting their devastated parents. This should not surprise us. What parent has not returned from a day at work or a weekend away to an angry and withdrawn child? With time, and repeated opportunity for typical moment-to-moment interactions like those that built a foundational sense of trust, the temporary disruption heals. But for the young children separated from their parents at the border, that trust is shattered.

The almost instantaneous recovery of the baby in the original Still-Face experiment reflects a history of repeated experiences of her mother leaving and returning. In her attempts to engage her mother during the Still-Face episode, the baby demonstrates a confidence that “I can act on my world to make it better.” Her mother’s quick reconnection validates her hopefulness.

With a depth of despair inflicted before the child has the capacity to manage the experience, hopelessness sets in. As efforts are made to reunite children and their parents, time is of the essence. But we need to also keep in mind our responsibility to hold both parents and children through the difficult period of healing that follows.

As parents take the countless steps necessary to rebuild their child’s shattered sense of self and trust in the world around them, hope lies in protecting time for the painstaking process of repair. Without it, most of these children will not be OK. They will be forever harmed.

This piece was written with Ed Tronick, PhD, who developed the Still-Face paradigm.

More from Claudia M Gold M.D.
More from Psychology Today