Because children absorbed in their environment to such a great degree, this means that a child’s well-being is intricately linked to the mental health and behavior of the adults around them.

How children mimic adults

Within an hour of birth, this system for mimicry is actively working in a baby’s brain. If an adult sticks out his tongue, the newborn imitates the action. (Gopnik et al., 2000, p. 29) It’s the beginning of a mood contagion and vicarious exchange that will be with us our whole lives. When we view an expression on another person’s face, our mirror neurons fire and we unconsciously tend to imitate those emotional expressions. (Dimberg & Thunberg, 2000; Dimberg et al., 2000) This mood contagion can be observed using brain scans as well. When subjects are shown pictures of faces that look fearful or angry, the fear and anger areas in their own brain light up in response. They are quite literally feeling the other person’s state of mind.

How a parent’s mood or behavior affects their children

Children are especially prone to this mental contagion, soaking up the emotional tones in their environment. If a parent is miserable, they’ll be miserable. If a parent is frightened over something, chances are that their children will fear it too. If a parent is anxious and uptight, the children will be too. Caregivers drive their children’s mental and emotional states to a degree that most never imagine.

An example of this can be found in what psychologists call the “still face” experiment. They have a mother interact or play with an infant in a warm manner, then suddenly go “still-face,” or unresponsive and expressionless. When this happens, the baby immediately picks up on this and becomes concerned. They’re feeling the parent’s sudden emotional change through visual cues. When the parent fails to respond, the baby becomes upset and often starts to cry.

Psychologists have used this trick to measure a child’s ability to self-soothe and recover from an emotionally upset state, not because they enjoy torturing infants. But it provides a perfect example of how a caretaker’s mood impacts the child. So not surprisingly, when the nurturing habits of depressed mothers are compared to non-depressed parents, it’s been found that the facial expressions, body language, and moods of depressed mothers convey negative feelings. This mood contagion carries over to their infants, who generally become depressed and unhappy themselves. (Cohn & Tronick, 1983)

How children learn from their parents’ behavior

Children can be conditioned towards fear merely by watching the reactions of others. Psychologist Arne Ohman showed that simply seeing someone else act traumatized is enough to endow an observer with fear of the stimulus in question. (Add ref) If a child watches a parent encounter a mouse and react by jumping back and squealing in fear, that reaction alone is enough to give the child the exact same fear of mice. They observe the situation and their brain absorbs the reaction, inducing the same internal response as was shown by the parent (fear), and creating a memory that associates mice with fear. Other research using MRI brain scanners show that the same neurons light up when a person anticipates being pricked with a needle as when they see someone else being pricked with a needle. (Hutchinson et al., 1999) Our responses to any particular situation are never fully our own, but are guided by the reactions and experiences of others.

Gibson & Walk (1975) conducted an experiment that illustrates both the concepts of mirror neurons and vicarious conditioning in action. The team devised an elevated platform for babies to crawl across. The entire platform was covered by a glass plate. For most of the platform, the floor was adorned with a clearly visual checkerboard pattern, but in the middle was a spot where the surface dropped out, leaving nothing but the clear glass surface covering what to a baby would be a significant drop. The babies were placed on one end of the platform, while their mothers called out to them from the other side. Naturally, the babies would begin to crawl towards their mothers.

The interesting stuff happened when they reached the area of the platform where the visible surface dropped out. Even though the babies could feel the solid glass floor underneath them, their eyes warned them of danger from the visual cliff they were seeing. In response to this confusion, they stopped and looked to their mothers for cues about how to respond. The researchers had anticipated this, and asked the mothers to in turn model two distinct and opposite reactions. Some mothers acted calm, reassuring and encouraging; while others were instructed to look worried and upset. No verbal cues were given; the mother’s reactions were modeled solely through facial expression and body language. The result was telling: babies whose mothers acted calm and reassuring crawled out across the glass ‘cliff’ and continued on towards mom. But if their mothers looked worried or upset, the baby stopped dead in its tracks, sat, and started to cry.

These experiments provide a clear example of how much power a parent holds to influence their child’s mood, as well as their reactions and interpretations of events. Just as the baby on the platform stopped and looked to its mother to determine how it should feel, so too do children of all ages look to their caretakers in new or difficult situations to determine how they should respond. The effect that an adult’s reaction can have on a child’s psychology is quite strong, and can either help or hinder their recovery.

Core concepts:

  • You are your child’s guide, and hold the leash to their emotional reactions. Wherever you go, they will follow. This means that if you act emotionally disturbed, you can disturb and upset them for no other reason than that they’re following your cues about how to interpret an event. For example, this is where a great deal of harm from child molestation originates. Most such incidents are non-violent, and a child’s reactions to the event can range from moderately uncomfortable to curious to even enthusiastic. Kids are naturally free going spirits, and younger ones don’t have the same hang-ups as adults have. But when a child discloses what happened, the reaction from parents more often than not will fill this experience with a heap of negative abstract meaning. Not only do they generally model an emotional reaction worthy of an Oscar, which in itself speaks volumes to the child, but they proceed to talk about monsters and evilness and lost innocence and disgust and all of those other things that make the experience stigmatizing and surrounded by negative meaning. In the course of their reaction, parents routinely do a whole lot more damage to their child than the molester did, as many child abuse researchers have observed (see our book; Child Maltreatment; a Cross Comparison). In every situation, watch your own reaction closely. You have the power to heal, but you also have the power to disturb.
  • Past events cannot harm a child except through current psychological states. (Physically debilitating situations excepted.) What determines future psychological problems is not the specifics of a particular experience, but the meaning and significance given to such an experience. Through your initial reaction and your overall attitude towards a particular event, you lay down a great deal of this emotional meaning. While it’s perfectly acceptable to honestly express emotions based on legitimate grief, be cautious to ensure that these expressions don’t cross into the realm of catastrophizing or dishing out guilt, shame and hurt based on adult interpretations of an event or your own particular complexes (of which we all have many).