Rupture & Repair Part 1:Connection, Disconnection, & Emotional Communication in Infancy
“Rupture and repair” refers to the breaking and restoring of connection with one another. Since humans are wired for connection, and connection is what researchers say brings most happiness, rupture and repair is a critical concept to learn about for wellbeing. Part 1 of this series addresses rupture and repair between children and parents. Part 2 will address rupture and repair in adult relationships.
Let’s begin with a question that developmental psychologist Edward Tronick, Ph.D. asked in a paper called Emotions and Emotional Communication in Infants:
Why do some children become sad, withdrawn, insecure, or angry, whereas others become happy, curious, affectionate, and self-confident?
You might be surprised to know that emotional communication starts at birth and influences how we connect throughout our lives. Because infants can’t speak, people used to think babies didn’t have emotions and were not sensitive to their surroundings. We now know that as soon as we are born, emotional communication and the drive for connection begins. Like the interconnecting roots of adjacent trees, adults and infants are inextricably linked and constantly communicating with each other through emotions. Moreover, the way these early interactions play out greatly influences how well we feel and connect with others as we grow up.
Most communication is actually non-verbal. Even as adults, humans communicate primarily without words. Tone of voice, facial expressions, eye gaze, and body posture are expressed, setting off positive or negative emotions in the brain and body of the infants and adults receiving them. Words matter less. Just imagine your partner declares their love to you with an irritated tone of voice or a scowl on their face.
No matter what age we are, when non-verbal and verbal communication is positive and respectful, we feel calmer and more connected. When we feel calm and connected to our parents, it builds inner security enabling more positive connection with others. When babies feel calm and connected, we increase the chances that they will become happy, curious, affectionate, and self-confident. Conversely, when communication from loved ones is harsh, threatening, dismissive, and/or humiliating, the body tenses and we erect defenses for emotional protection. As a result, our authentic self retreats inward, and we struggle to have satisfying connections. Babies are deeply affected by feeling alone, becoming sad, withdrawn, insecure, or angry.
Awareness is the Key
Monitoring our emotions and reactions matters for children’s emotional health and development. Awareness is hard especially in busy families with hectic lives. It requires an on-going commitment to working on emotional awareness using helpful tools like the Change Triangle or meditating daily.
Two guiding principles for parents:
Maintain an attuned and accepting emotional connection with children—regardless of their behavior. Attunement begins by making the effort to sense emotions, emotional needs, and moods. A caregiver who is well attuned will respond with appropriate language and behaviors based on a youngster's emotional state. For example, if a baby is sad, a parent will respond with comfort. If a baby is excited, a parent will join in their excitement as opposed to shutting them down because the parent is in a bad mood. Shutting down an exuberant child creates shame, the worst kind of rupture. Attunement doesn't mean we like or accept "bad" behavior. But it does mean we respond to a child holding in mind what will nourish their mental health in the long run.
Repair ruptures immediately. Ruptures are inevitable and even important for positive growth but only when ruptures are short-lived. Repairing ruptures as soon as we become aware of them is vital. Repairs are made by being empathic, warm, loving, accepting, curious, and playful.
This may sound difficult—and in practice, it’s even harder, because even as infants, children affect their parents’ emotions and behaviors right back.
Rupture and Repair Example
To illustrate the concept and subtlety of emotional attunement, Tronick in Emotions and Emotional Communication in Infants asked us to imagine two infant-mother pairs playing peek-a-boo:
In the first scenario, the infant abruptly turned away from his mother as the game became too stimulating for him. He sucked his thumb and stared into space with a dull facial expression. The mother stopped playing and sat back watching her infant. After a few seconds, the infant turned back to her with an interested and inviting expression. The mother moved closer, smiled, and said in a high-pitched exaggerated voice, “Oh, now you’re back!” They smiled and coo-ed in response to each other. Once again, the infant reinserted his thumb and looked away. The mother waited again. After a few seconds, the infant turned back to her, and they greeted each other with big smiles.
In the second situation, the infant turned away, but the mother didn't wait long enough for the infant to come back on his own. She leaned over into the infant’s line of vision while clicking her tongue to attract his attention. The infant, however, ignored the mother and continued to look away (he was trying to calm himself by breaking eye contact). Not picking up on his need, the mother persisted and moved her head closer to the infant. The infant frowned, fussed, and pushed at the mother’s face. Within seconds he turned even further away from his mother and continued to suck on his thumb.
Without focusing on who was responsible for any “mistakes” in the above interactions, let’s notice how the emotions and behaviors of one led to the emotions and behaviors of the other:
In both scenarios, the infant’s turning away and sucking his thumb was a message to the mother that the infant needed to disconnect for a little while to calm down his nervous system. Even as babies, we instinctively know when we need to lower the “stimulation” coming from our environment. A mother is inherently stimulating—just because she is another person.
Each mother respected this communication from her infant by waiting—at first. But the first mother greeted her infant with smiles, waited patiently, and consistently let her infant determine when he was ready to reconnect. The relaxed patience of the first mother conveyed safety to the infant. The infant’s freedom to come in and out of the connection with the mother as he pleased brings forth a deep sense of wellbeing in a child, who learns on the deepest level he can trust others to respect his needs.
The second mother, on the other hand, failed to pick up the cue that her infant was not ready to connect again. She likely felt angry, anxious, sad, longing, or had another emotion that interfered with her infant’s need for distance at that moment. The rupture was the mother’s “intrusion,” which made it hard for the baby’s nervous system to calm down and regulate, one of the bedrocks of wellbeing. The intrusion prolonged the infant’s disconnection from his mother, which is not what any baby wants. It’s a subtle difference that entails understanding the difference between giving a child, or adult, for that matter, permission to have closeness and distance as they choose versus forcing closeness or distance.
Problems arise when interactions leading to ruptures are the norm. The infant grows into a child who expects to be infringed upon and/or emotionally abandoned and develops protective defenses to cope. Tronick found that infants who chronically experienced ruptures from mis-attunements disengaged more from their mothers and the rest of their environment and distorted their interactions with other people. And, it affects their mental health later in life.
The kicker is mis-attunement happens to all parents. Being perfectly attuned just isn’t possible—nor would it be a good thing anyway. What builds emotional security is a parent’s determination to repair ruptures soon after they have occurred.
Parents can repair ruptures by being mindful of how emotions influence their infant’s and their own behaviors. Taking it upon ourselves to receive a basic education in emotions, attachment, and childhood trauma provides tools so we can proactively strive for positive connections as we tolerate our own feelings of rejection, disappointment, anger, sadness, and longing for closeness.
When we ignore an infant’s emotional cues because we don’t understand them or we can’t tolerate our own feelings, we are forcing them to cope alone. But when we respond to cues appropriately, an infant’s authentic self can emerge and thrive.
Want to have an experience that illustrates how all of this affects us in adult relationships?
Let’s say your partner or family member asks for space, or perhaps they just “feel distant.” What emotions or physical sensations does that scenario bring up for you? Are you confident they will “come back?” Do you get anxious/panicky? Do you get angry? Does your heartbeat speed up? Do you get a knot in your stomach? Do you not notice that they have “gone away”—that there even was a rupture? Do you feel moved to repair it or dig into a grudge? Just notice and validate your experiences without judgment.
Many adults, like the second mother, might have a hard time tolerating space in a relationship. But throughout our lives, such space is necessary to calm down and recharge our nervous system, so that we can be genuinely connected when we “come back.”
Now try this again in reverse. Imagine you need space, and you can sense that your partner or friend can’t tolerate it. What emotions does it bring up for you? Do you feel guilty? Angry? Sad? Fearful? All of the above? Or, can you stay grounded in your most confident self and take the space you need? Again, just notice and validate your experience without judgment.
A+ just for trying.
Click here to read “Rupture and Repair Part 2: Connection, Disconnection, & Emotional Communication in Adult Relationships.”
Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. New York: Basic Books
Hendel. H.J. (2018). It's Not Always Depression: Working the Change Triangle to Listen to the Body, Discover Core Emotions, and Connect with Your Authentic Self. New York: Random House
Tronick, E. (1989). Emotions and Emotional Communication in Infants. American Psychologist. Vol.44(2): 112-119