“Emotional Sponges”: Rupture and Repair

“Babies are emotional sponges.” I can’t remember when I first heard that said, but it rings so true.  The words we currently say to Dani are just jumble of sounds and rhythm, yet we are communicating with her constantly. We express our emotional state non-verbally by tone, facial expression, posture, movement, touch and the capacity to understand and respond appropriately to her needs. Dani reads and reacts to us without having the cognitive or language development to even begin making sense of the feelings she experiences.

This is completely different from how I communicate with anyone else in my life. To avoid difficult or socially unacceptable situations, we adults have mastered the unconscious habit of using words that contradict our underlying non-verbal message. How many times have we said we were “fine” in a tone that clearly implied we were not? Or sworn we were not angry when everything in our body language showed otherwise? How often do we let such communicative dissonance slide in others because we don’t really want to hear the truth that they are shouting without words?

I cannot get away with any such thing with Dani. She reads my emotions, so try as I might to hide or deny my genuine felt experience, she is picking up on it. This is a frightening prospect, since “the pattern of communication between caregiver and infant provides the primary experiential influence that shapes the unfolding of neural development”  (Nelson, p132). In other words, my emotional connection to Dani, and how I communicate it, literally determines which genes are expressed as her brain matures, and which neural connections are strengthened and which fade away.  What an enormous responsibility!

Usually this is a non-issue, because I genuinely enjoy the routines of caring for Dani, and my nurturing actions match my felt experience of love, willingness and compassion. But the exceptions trouble me because I am a perfectionist, and because I know she can see right through them: Those times when I am ill or particularly sleep deprived, rocking and singing to her just as I did yesterday, only this time everything in me is screaming for her to just-go-to-sleep. Or the times when she is having a growth spurt and seems to nurse for hours on end, and the task of feeding her, which I normally adore, begins to feel like a burden. In such moments, I can feel the disconnect between the feelings I am trying to convey and the ones burning within me – and I know she can too.

Then there are the occasional real uglies. Like the time Dani was about 3-weeks old and my wife and I were arguing furiously about something I have long since forgotten. All 3 of us were very dysregulated, and I attempted to soothe Dani by nursing her. She swallowed wrong and began coughing and gagging, then crying even more intensely. Swallowing wrong is something that happens to her occasionally, then and now. But in that moment I was convinced that I was the worst mother in the world, and that she would forever associate coughing with the distress of my being upset and angry, deep within the recesses of her implicitly informed unconscious mind.

Of course, this is wildly inaccurate – with the exception of severe traumatic events, associations are formed by repeated interactions over time, not one distressing experience. “Infants make meaning out of moment by moment chronic and constant reiterated experiences” (Tronick). This process is known as procedural memory – the non-verbal lessons that become automatic, embodied knowing (such as how to ride a bike, or what happens when your parents put you on the changing table). The quality of these daily lived experiences –  the emotions we communicate and share during the routines of feeding, dressing, putting down to sleep and so on – develop babies’ implicit expectations of themselves and their world (Lillas).

So we have plenty of opportunities to get it right. Which can help us let ourselves off the hook for our mistakes. Thank goodness, since my work with mothers has shown me that mother-guilt is so pervasive it deserves it’s own dictionary definition. We so desperately want to do right by our children, it is easy to blame ourselves when something goes wrong. Society amplifies this tendency with a million micro-messages reinforcing the idea that any difficulty our child faces is our fault. But guilt has a very different set of non-verbal cues than love. When we approach our babies with guilt as our primary felt experience, it is guilt that they read, respond to and assimilate from the interaction, rather than the potent and profound love that lies just beneath.

The antidote to guilt lies in the dynamics of rupture and repair. Yes, babies read our emotions, but thankfully that does not mean we have to be feeling “right” 100% of the time. In fact, there are an amazing 15,536,000 second-by-second exchanges between an adult and awake infant in the first year of life (Tronick). That’s an enormous number of opportunities for connection, failed connection and re-do’s. Studies show that healthy parents and infants are completely attuned – getting the connection right – in only about 30% of these interactions. “A more accurate characterization of mother-infant interactions are that there are periods of mismatching of emotions, intentions and meaning, followed by period of matching meanings… in well-functioning dyads, the messiness of interactions is quickly repaired from mismatching to matching states” (Tronick, pp62-63). Often, we don’t even know that these mismatches occur, because we can re-regulate together in as little as 7-second “micro-bursts of repair” (Brandt).

Not only is rupture and repair normal, it is necessary. Successful reparation is critical for the development of self-regulation – control of my own feelings, and of mutual-regulation – control our feelings together. Each repair creates a new way of being together and a new age-possible sense of self. And rupture with repair builds resilience (Tronick). How can a child ever learn to regulate their emotions if they are never dysregulated? How can they ever learn the pure joy of loving connection if they never feel what it is like to disconnect? How can they experience the self-strengthening reward of having their needs heard and met, if they never have the chance to feel temporarily needy? Manageable levels of adversity build the resilience our children need to face real stress in the outside world. Which is why “it would be oppressive to have someone constantly perfectly attuned to you” (Sparrow).

In order for rupture to lead to greater connection and trust, and not their opposite, we must take the opportunity for repair as often as we can. If we are mindful enough in the moment, we may catch our emotional dissonance or regretful behaviors and repair on the spot, teaching our children that together we can move from negative to positive emotional states with grace. More often, we need to re-regulate ourselves first, and it may be hours or days before we are ready to initiate repair. It is still far better to repair than not, even well after the fact.

With Dani, I don’t hesitate to use words like “I’m sorry” and “I was feeling (sad, mad, tired, etc). It wasn’t about you but I know I acted poorly towards you,” even though she can’t understand them yet. I am practicing. And she gets the felt-sense behind the words, and she knows that in that moment, my emotions and my actions match just right.


Brandt, K. (January 19, 2014). Core Concepts in IPMH. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.

Lillas, C. (July 25, 2014). The Neuro Relational Framework (NRF) in ECMH. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.

Nelson, Benjamin W, Parker, S.C. and Siegel, D. “Interpersonal Neurobiology, Mindsight and Integration.” Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: Core Concepts and Clinical Practice. (pp 129-144) Kristie Brandt, et al. (eds). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2014.

Sparrow, J. (April 26, 2014). The Neuro-Relational/Neuro-Developmental Touchpoints. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.

Tronick, Ed. “Typical and Atypical Development: Peek-a-boo and Blind Selection. Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health: Core Concepts and Clinical Practice. (pp 55-70) Kristie Brandt, et al. (eds). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Publishing, 2014.

Tronick, E. (January 18, 2014). Neurobehavioral & Social-Emotional Development in a Cultural Context. Lecture conducted from IPMHPCP, Napa, CA.


One response to ““Emotional Sponges”: Rupture and Repair”

  1. I feel I’ve found this at the perfect time and hoping its applicable to my situation: my 8mth old has overnight decided she doesn’t like her car seat (would rather be standing and crawling I suspect) and I’ve had more tears in the last 3 days than I have in 8 months (probably 10mins in total to put it in perspective but still…) I’ve been making myself sick with the guilt over it all as I’ve responded to every murmur within seconds since the moment she was born. I know people say you sometimes just need to get where you’re going but I was pulling over, feeding her, playing with her which made ME feel better but then there were dramas getting her back in. I’ve reduced car trips to the absolute minimum so I’m really hoping that this is what you referred to as ‘manageable amounts of adversity’ as I’d love a mantra to tell myself when she’s upset but we’re stuck in the car.’ She screams like she’s being murdered but the second I left her out of the seat, she smiles at me and we have snuggles. Pleeeeeease tell me this is ok and I’m not doing long term (or short term) damage to her attachment. Please tell me it’s harder on me than it is on her!

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