Still-Faced Parents, Still-Faced Teenagers

Brad M. Griffin | Oct 4, 2012

Its no secret that we love research at FYI. But the truth is, sometimes research makes us uncomfortable.

That happened this week. During our Sticky Faith Cohort Summit in Pasadena yesterday, our Fuller School of Psychology colleague Dr. Jim Furrow shared the following video about the Still Face Experiment (warning: its a little disturbing).

The research was with very young children. As Dr. Ed Tronick explains in the video, short periods of bad socialization are repairable. Children can bounce back fairly easily. But prolonged blank or negative responses can cause long-term relational damage or stuck-ness.

This made me think of the recent research questioning the correlation between the rise in smart phone use and the rise in unintentional injuries of children under five. As the WSJ reports, distracted parents and curious youngsters are a bad combination, sometimes fatal.

But what about still-faced parents who are so focused on whats on the screen that they miss kids attention-getting pleas? As one human cognition researcher notes, when we use a mobile device you can have something pass directly in front of you and your eyes may see it but it doesn’t really enter your awareness.”

Theres more. Dr. Furrow encouraged our cohort to consider the implications of the still-face effect for parenting adolescents. Teenagers sometimes experience the same thing with their parents, especially when parents have no idea how to respond to the disorienting experiences of daily teenage life. Out of fear, parents tend to either go numb or over-react. Those teenagers are equipped with the ability to read emotion from the time theyre infants, like we see in the video.

On the flip side, sometimes the adolescent is like the still-faced parent in the video. Suddenly your kid gives you the still-face, and you do whatever you can to try to get their attention and reconnect.

Whats at stake?

Its the experience of life together. Its the difference between building and sustaining trusting relationships with one another and with others outside the family. And its about the ways these experiences and relationships shape our understanding of who God is and how God responds to us.

The Old Testament has a lot to say about the face of God, in particular the importance of understanding that Gods face turns toward us in unending love and grace (see Numbers 6:22-27). I want the young people I know to see that kind of God through the kind of facing they experience from me. But I know I’m often distracted, tired, stressed, or just non-responsive.

How do you stay connected and present to the faces in front of you, whether in ministry or in your family?

Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Senior Director of Content for the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, writer, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is the coauthor of over a dozen books, including 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Faith in an Anxious World, Growing Young, several Sticky Faith books, Every Parent’s Guide to Navigating Our Digital World, and Can I Ask That? Brad and his family live in Southern California, where he serves as Pastor of Youth and Family Ministries at Mountainside Communion.

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