How much emotion do you show your children?

Updated: May 3

Trigger Warning: Depression, Postnatal Depression

Early interactions between carers and children can have a profound effect on a child’s emotional and social development. Research has been carried out by psychologists, such as Edward Tronick and John Bowlby, to better understand the positive correlation between sensitive communication in child and carer relationships with emotional wellbeing, alongside social capability, within the child later in life. In this essay, quantitative and qualitative evidence and support will be given to explain and discuss the various psychological views of early interactions between carers and children, with a highlight on the effect that different interactions can have on the social and emotional development of the infant.

Firstly, the Still Face Experiment, designed by Edward Tronick et al in the 1970s, proves that infants are sensitive to their caregiver’s facial expressions and are keen to interact with their primary caregiver. The experiment saw mothers respond sensitively with expression and interact with their infants before holding an expressionless face and remaining silent for 2 minutes. The research showed that the infants became distressed, screeched, lost control of their posture and cried in an effort to retrieve their mother’s response when their caregiver’s behaviour was motionless (The Open University, 2014). This evidences the psychological view that infants are extremely sensitive to their primary caregiver’s facial expressions and behaviour and try to regulate the responses they receive through their own behaviour. It demonstrates that infants long for social interaction with their primary caregiver and that the extent of distress the infant portrays during the experiment demonstrates the strength of bond between the infant and caregiver as well as the health of their emotional development (The Open University, 2014). The experiment shows the importance of early carer-child interactions as it evidences the infant receiving large amounts of emotional regularity from the facial expressions, tone of voice and posture of their primary carer. It provides evidence for a potential lack of emotional development in an infant whose primary caregiver expresses little engaging emotion, such as a parent with postnatal depression or severe autism.

Lynne Murray et al (1992) cited in Farrington-Flint (2014) researched the effects of postnatal depression (commonly known as ‘Baby Blues’ or a bout of depression following the birth of a child) on infants’ early emotional relationships and attachments to their mother. The research found that postnatal depression can have long term adverse effects on offspring throughout life, regardless of the length of time the carer suffered from postnatal depression. The research, which focused around 20 year long experimental studies, which studied children in the first two years of their lives, evidenced that postnatal depression can be responsible for difficulties in the infants life, such as struggling with eating, negative social behaviour, an inability to form separate close attachments and these results, although more common in boys than girls, often lead to the infant requiring additional support for their emotional and social development (Farrington-Flint, 2014). The research draws on the idea that symptoms of depression, such as lethargy, low mood and difficulty bonding with the infant, cause a lack of expression and communication between the infant and carer. Thus, as in the Still Face Experiment, the infant is unable to retrieve the attention and interaction it desires from the primary caregiver which can lead to distress, a lack of bonding between infant and carer and inhibited emotional development as the parent interacts less and less with their child in a sensitive way. Murray et al (1992) further supports this psychological view that early interactions and bonding between carer and child are vital for successful emotional development of an infant and that symptoms of postnatal depression which cause a lack of communication and closeness between parent and child can inhibit the growth of emotional regularity in infants. This affects their ability to form close relationships later in life. (Farrington-Flint, 2014).

Dr Ross Thompson provides further evidence about the effects on emotional and social development of babies whose parents suffer from depression. In Early Experiences Count (The Open University, 2014) it unfortunately states research shows that only 34 percent of parents believe young children can sense their parents’ emotions. Therefore, parents who are neglectful to provide emotional and sensitive interaction with their young children are likely to be unaware of the impact it has on their infants’ development. Research by Dr Ross Thompson has found that babies are more likely to show signs of depression, such as suppressed mood and a lack of emotional vitality, if their primary caregiver also has a lack of emotional diversity (The Open University, 2014). Therefore, the mental health of the parent can have a direct impact on the wellbeing of the infant. The ‘diet’ of emotions that infants are exposed to whilst developing in the early years of life informs the range and vitality of emotions that the infant is able to express and understand themselves. This is supported by Thompson stating how children with depressed parents who grow up in an atmosphere of subdued and limited feelings, develop themselves a lack of diversity in their range of emotions and expressions. Without balanced food intake an infant would not develop efficiently in every area of development. A range of nutritional food groups is vital for physical development and thus a range of emotions and sensitive expressions is vital for the emotional development of an infant.

John Bowlby (1969) cited in Farrington-Flint (2014, p.84) stated that ‘disruption to the maternal bond during early childhood is detrimental to later adjustment in childhood’. Similarly to the Still Face Experiment and research on the effects of postnatal depression, this maternal bond of attachment is described as the infant seeking closeness to their primary caregiver and for the caregiver to respond sensitively and with expression. Infants who receive this reciprocal communication are known to have a secure attachment with their caregiver in which they can have the confidence to leave and explore their surroundings, thus developing further emotionally and socially (Farrington-Flint, 2014). Infants who do not receive sensitive and direct responses from their primary caregiver instead have an insecure base by which they lack the security and confidence to develop emotionally and socially outside of their caregivers' clutches. This psychological view evidences that infants who do not receive an intimate and close bond or attachment to their caregiver are likely to have inhibited emotional and social development through an inability to interact fully with their further afield surroundings and that those who receive reciprocated and animated responses from their caregiver are able to explore and develop further relationships outside of their primary caregivers orbit.

On the other hand, interactions from the primary caregiver are not the only key influence on the healthy development of an infant. Whilst mother’s most commonly provide the primary nutritional and affectionate care to the infant, father’s are recently known to play a key secondary role which also dramatically impacts the emotional and social development of children. The role father’s have in sensitive play with their infant, separate to primary care giving, was significantly linked to the strength and success of the infant’s relationship with their father’s as older children and adolescents (Grossman and Grossman (2002) cited in Farrington-Flint (2014). Similarly to Bowlby (1969) however, the evidence supporting the psychological view that secondary caregiver’s support emotional development of infants through sensitive play is based on the idea of attachment. The level of ‘play-sensitivity’ of father’s as secondary caregiver’s can predict the long term attachment representation of infants and is therefore directly linked to the child’s ability to form further attachments later in life. This research demonstrates that ‘both fathers and mothers can be competent partners and those who are sensitive to their children’s emotional cues seem more likely to have children who develop secure attachments’ (Farrington-Flint, 2014, p.88).

It is evident in this essay that sensitivity in early interactions between child and carer play a key role in developing socially capable and emotionally well human beings. This is supported by research into the adverse effects on children whose parents suffer from forms of depression. Overall, it can be concluded that parents who provide attentive and expressive early interactions with their children are more likely to have children who develop a healthy variety of emotions and have the confidence to build successful relationships outside of their immediate environment. However, a vast minority of parents have the understanding that their own mental wellbeing can be picked up by their children, as unfortunately evidenced in the interview Early Experiences Count (The Open University, 2014).


The Open University (2014) ‘Online Activity 1: Studying caregiver-infant interactions’, E102 Week 8 Study Guide [Online]. Available at (Accessed 20 January 2021).

Farrington-Flint, L (2014) ‘Social and emotional development’, in Farrington-Flint, L. and Montgomery, H. (eds) An introduction to childhood studies and child psychology, The Open University/Milton Keynes, The Open University pp. 84-89.

The Open University (2014) ‘Early Experiences Count’ [Audio], E102 Social and emotional development. Available at (Accessed 20 January 2021).

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