The emotional world you experience as a young child directly impacts how you interpret facial expressions as an adult. Throughout infancy and childhood, you learn through repeated exposure what is “normal” and acceptable when it comes to expressions of emotion. This becomes the anchoring point for the rest of your life.
Do you remember when you were a child, the experience of visiting a friend’s house for dinner and being completely thrown off by their particular habits? Suddenly, you felt like an awkward outsider, homesick for the warm embrace of your own family’s unique quirks and dynamics. This speaks to the power of what’s familiar.
Like the particular smell of your childhood home, your family’s unique dynamics become invisible to you over time. You may only notice them after a long absence. This is why family gatherings and holidays can be emotionally exhausting. All the old patterns become re-activated and everyone falls back into their childhood role. It’s almost impossible to resist the pull of this familiar way of interacting, even if it leads to conflict or frustration.
Learning what is normal
A large part of what you consider emotionally appropriate depends on what was appropriate in your family when you were growing up.
A caregiver that doesn’t tolerate extremes of emotion can teach their child to have very restricted emotional displays. On the other hand, a caregiver that imposes no limits on their child’s emotional displays can lead to children with dramatic emotional displays.
Much of early parental discipline has to do with teaching emotional self-regulation. Early in life, this control is external, provided by the caregivers who gradually shape and limit emotional displays through repeated feedback. This is provided in a supportive but consistent manner, at a level appropriate for the child’s age. Over time, the child learns to moderate their emotional displays on their own.
Emotional self-regulation skills include: identifying emotions, accepting them (whether they are positive or negative), managing the distress they cause, and adapting one’s behaviour according to social norms while still achieving the goals set by the individual. This is remarkably difficult to do, and the consequences of not achieving this skill can be catastrophic.
If not taught early, emotional dysregulation has lifelong consequences that include a higher risk for externalizing behaviour like aggression and defiance as children, as well as ADHD and problematic substance use later in life. Being emotionally dysregulated is painful and chaotic, and is associated with mental illness in adulthood, including depression and personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder.
However, the other extreme is also problematic. A caregiver that does not tolerate any emotional displays can cause a child to believe that all emotions are bad, and that they should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, this merely pushes emotional responses beneath consciousness, leading them to manifest in unpredictable and often inappropriate ways. Emotional over-regulation is correlated with avoidant attachment style, a type of overly independent and solitary pattern of relationships. These children learn early that emotional displays are to be avoided, and develop a habit of overly suppressing their emotional expressions.
(To read more about attachment, see the previous chapter: How your attachment style colours the way you see others).
The impact of your caregiver’s emotional displays
Before an infant learns to speak, their primary mode of communication is through reading faces. They must learn to identify the feelings and intentions of their caregivers through their ability to read the expressions on their caregiver’s face. This early anchoring to their caregiver persists for the rest of the child’s life. The rules they learn in childhood are generalized to people in general.
Some parents are open and appropriately expressive with their children, mirroring their child’s expressions closely and thus helping their child learn to identify and tolerate their own emotions (see the previous chapter: The face as a mirror).
Other parents have unpredictable and chaotic emotional expressions, displaying a range of emotions that don’t consistently fit with a given scenario. These parents likely have difficulty with emotional self-regulation due in part to their own parenting. This unpredictability causes their child to be in a constant state of uncertainty, unable to accurately predict what a look on a caregiver’s face might mean, or what might happen next. These children may learn to become hypervigilant of their caregiver’s expressions, watching them closely and responding to the first traces of emotion as soon as possible to avert an explosive outcome.
How you learn to see what isn’t there
What evidence do we have to support this idea? Let’s demonstrate it with the following example.
Take a look at the face below:What emotion do you see?
How about this face:Do you see any particular emotion yet?
You may not have noticed, but there are very subtle signs of anger.
Here is the full expression of anger:Some people are particularly attuned to anger and will notice it even in the first image (Figure 1). Others, who are less vigilant about detecting anger, may not even notice it in the second image (Figure 2).
Who notices anger early? Studies have shown that it tends to be children who were physically-abused. They also notice anger much earlier in a face morph like the one shown below, where an emotion gradually appears on a face over time.
Behaviour learned in infancy generally has an adaptive function. For a young child raised in an environment with frequent expressions of anger by caregivers, the ability to attend to subtle anger cues would be advantageous. Even being overly liberal with their perception of anger, with many false positives, would be better than the alternative. This doesn’t go away when they grow up.
That means that even as adults, someone raised in this kind of environment might interpret an ambiguous expression as anger, even when there was no anger there. From their perspective, there is undeniably anger and their response is justified. However, this can be deeply confusing and frustrating for the person who was not in fact displaying anger, and is being falsely accused. This can have significant negative outcomes in their interpersonal relationships, and can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. They manifest anger in others that wasn’t there to begin with.
Understanding the world as adults
The behaviour we learn as children stays with us throughout our lives, unless we can learn to notice it and change it to adapt to our new environments as adults. Though the example of abused children is extreme, we all adapted to the subtle moods of our parents and caregivers as children. Being aware of this adaptation and its underlying assumptions is essential to functioning in a healthy manner as adults.
Thinking about our own emotional environments during this sensitive period in infancy, and reflecting on how it might have coloured our understanding of the world, can help us find greater emotional balance and provides insights into how we interact with others as adults.