by Jon A. Bergeron, Jr., Ph.D.
Most of us adoptive and foster parents are becoming more aware and informed about attachment and the impact this has on the developing child. This knowledge is crucial in understanding how our kids are wired if they have come from a past that includes trauma or neglect (even pre-natally).
One of the most powerful video clips that I have seen is a video from what is called the “Still Face Experiment,” a technique first utilized by Dr. Edward Tronick at University of Massachusetts – Boston. If you have not seen this footage, watch it below:
Amazing, isn’t it? Everything looks very normal as the experiment starts with mom doing baby talk and playing with her infant. Then, mom is instructed to turn her head away briefly and turn back with a neutral and blank look on her face. The fascinating part of this video is the progression you see so clearly in the infant’s face–from a recognition that something is a little off to “Hey, mom, seriously, what’s up with you?” to efforts of increasing intensity to re-engage mom again and then pure distress. It becomes almost painful to watch and there is much relief when mom is finally allowed to respond and comfort the child.
It is hard to witness this happy infant transformed in a matter of seconds into a very distressed and upset mess by nothing more than non-responsiveness in the mother. It is not hard to imagine the incredible impact on a child by extrapolating from this single, tiny slice of time to the periodic or constant neglect that kids in orphanages or in foster care have experienced.
How much more intense and desperate must these children have been when there never was a mother who finally came around and comforted them? Over the last several decades, the neurological and psychological sciences have begun to demonstrate more and more clearly the devastating impact that these experiences have on the developing brain and psyche of a child.
We know that each of the simple, playful interactions between mom and child induces an explosion of brain development, and conversely, without it, a lack of development. Now, I am not trying to induce guilt in any of us imperfect parents who have missed opportunities to do this. God also created a lot of resilience in our children, and it is definitely the cumulative effect of the investment along with other factors that determines the outcome. What I am trying to do is help us all have a more complete and a more gut-level understanding of the impact of that deprivation on our kids.
What must it have been like to be in the mind and body of a child desperately needing nurturing and stimulation from those around them and getting nothing or at times getting abuse instead. No wonder we see distrust, rage and self-destructive behaviors. These out-of-proportion reactions to the present make perfect sense when you can see into the heart of that infant, toddler, and child who was continually let down, left alone and abused before they came into your home.
My hope is that a heart-deep realization stirs up compassion in us. Compassion that helps us think, or maybe even say: “I get it why you are so angry … I can only imagine how scary it must be for you … I sure wish I could have been there earlier in your life to give you what you needed.”
I hope it helps us to say, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing. Help me forgive them, because I know they don’t know what they are doing when they are rejecting me and my love, and when they push me away with aggression, manipulation and obnoxious behaviors. Help me love them the way you love me, even as I am avoiding, pushing away or rejecting Your love.”
For me, this video also brings life to the many times in the Psalms when David talks about the pain of feeling that God’s face was hidden from him (Psalms 13, 69 and more) and his plea for God to shine the light of His countenance on himself (David) and his people (Psalms 31, 67, 80 and others). If the light of a mother’s face means so much to a child, how much more the light of our heavenly Father for us? What joy will we have when we are able to see our Savior and our Father face to face in heaven?
I am convinced that just as an infant needs to hear her mother’s voice, see her mother’s face and feel her mother’s arms holding and carrying her, we need to experience God’s presence, His voice and His touch. An infant’s neurological development is dependent upon receiving these relational connections and experiences from his parents. I believe that for our development as human beings we need real relational connections and experiences with our Creator.
But it is not just a nice option to have in life, it is a necessity. Just as infants in orphanages will often die without connection to another human being, so we die without connection with our heavenly Father. When starved for interaction, we know that God’s design for the healthy growth of a child’s brain is dramatically altered, often with life-long consequences. So it is for our souls when we starve ourselves of the life-giving experience of interacting with Abba, Father.
So as I ponder the beauty of the design of the mother-child relationship, it pulls forth from my heart a desire to look into the faces of my boys and give them what they need. It pains me to think of the countless times that both of them were not given what they needed when they were vulnerable and dependent. It stirs in me compassion for the pain and enhances my understanding for their anger and the inappropriate and ineffective ways they try to get their own needs met because they still aren’t fully healed and can’t fully trust.
It reminds me that I am not yet fully healed and that I too find myself unable to fully trust. It reminds me how thankful I am that there is hope for me, for my boys and for the world. And that hope “is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness.” Bring back to mind the image of the baby in the video as you read though and hear this stanza from that same great hymn:
When darkness seems to hide His face,
I rest on His unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
Clinging to the anchor with you all!
Jon attended college at Taylor University in Upland, IN where he met and married his sweetheart Shelly 19 years ago. After surviving graduate school at UT Southwestern in Dallas and one-year of postdoctoral training in Child and Adolescent Psychology in College Station, Jon and Shelly felt the call to become foster parents. The first sibling pair they fostered, a 5-year-old girl and a 3-1/2-year-old deaf boy, eventually led to the adoption of the little boy Tanner who is now 11 years old. In May of 2010 they received a second calling to adopt internationally, and in record time adopted a soon-to-be 14 year-old deaf boy from China. After working for 10 years in a private psychology practice, Jon joined Hope For Orphans as the Director of FamilyCare giving leadership and vision in developing tools and resources to help the local church and counselors meet the needs of families adopting at risk kids and for adoptive families in crisis. Jon also serves on the board of his local CASA organization, Voices for Children, and serves on the board of Churches for Children – BrazosValley, a local orphan care alliance.