At Thanksgiving, I connected with Julie, my favorite 6-year-old. Julie was born intense: easily aroused, prone to shrieking hysterics and hard to calm. Julie has a much more than "good enough" mom, a proponent of the family bed, nursing until the children weaned themselves, and extremely responsive. Her three older children, 23, 21, and 8 years-old are self-soothing, age-appropriately independent, and show great attachment in every way. Julie does not have the self-soothing thing down. Her mom tries to reason with her. The more calm Mom gets, the more hysterical Vivian gets, in about three different rounds.
Ed Tronick at the 2003 UCLA and LIfespan Learning Institute’s annual attachment and psychotherapy conference, showed us videos of babies and their moms. When the babies screeched, if the moms were calm, the babies screeched louder, becoming almost psychotic-looking. If the moms matched the babies in tone and intensity, saying things like, "You’re so mad right now." Or using no words, but matching the babies’ voice, the babies calmed right down. If mom had a blank face, the babies completely freaked, escalated more, then in a few minutes seemed to dissociate.
When I returned from L.A., I tried this technique on other people’s babies (I have no kids), distressed clients, and my husband. I taught it to couples, especially the partners of attachment-impaired clients. It worked! One client of mine, who went into instant rages, and continually escalated, would calm in less than a minute when adequately matched. My husband, Doug, used it on a screaming baby on the airplane. The mom thanked him, while he explained the technique. I use it with positive affect, too. I’ve gotten absolutely gushy in matching my clients’ enthusiasm. I’m building their tolerance for feeling good.
Back to Julie. I told her mom about the research. Twenty minutes later, Julie ran into the kitchen screaming. Mom responded in the same tone and tune, "That really upset you. It’s not fair!" Vivian calmed instantly. The next time, when the screaming was of an incredibly high pitch, the mom said she didn’t want to match that. Later, however, the matching technique was used and worked.
According to Tronick, in mom-kid and therapist-client relationships (when they’re working) "each individual attempts to adjust their behavior to maintain a coordinated dyadic state or to repair a mismatch." (Tronick & Cohn, Infant-mother face-to-face interaction: Age and gender differences in coordination and occurrence of miscoordination. Child Development, 60, 85-92) Our Vivian doesn’t seem to have the right brain hardware of many her age mates. Her mother’s exact matching, according to folks like Schore and Siegel, will help her build that hardware. I predict, based on the research, that each time Julie”s mom matches her, Julie’s going to grow some right brain neural networks that allow her to self soothe the way her siblings have been able to. I predict a happier mom, too.
It’s true. It works. I just experienced this with my most recent client, although the experience didn’t rise in my awareness to the level of conceptualization, so I had to read about it here to “get it” (thanks!). My client was significantly abandonned emotionally as a child by both parents, although at different points in early childhood. We’re working on resolving the focal points of her abandonment terror, but haven’t yet got them all.
Going directly to calmness, seeking to sooth her with my own engaged but contrasting affective dynamic does not work when she’s locked in the deepest depths of her abandonment terror. She just escalates, as if I’m not getting her point – which is generally about the outrageousness of the people most important to her. She responds quite differently when I engage her with roughly equal instensity. Using words that help her to grasp her experience also seems extremely helpful, but then she’s a fairly naturally verbal adult. I have been thinking of this in terms of her need for primary engagement, from me. I must match her for her to feel engaged – attached in the moment – with me. I must go to her rather than expect her to move toward me just because my calmness feels better than her terror.
There has been some prior conceptualization of dyadic affective “matching” such as this in terms of “mirroring”, so others have noticed this, although the emphasis was a bit different – on elevating self-consciousness by show the client to themselves. But then maybe that’s a part of the process as well.
 Your concluding Tronic & Cohn quote confuses me a bit. Do you intend it to refer to what Vivian cannot do -“repair a mismatch”? Or is that what she’s trying to when she escalates – since Mother is not matching her when she tries directly to calm Vivian…? If it’s the latter, that feels like my own client, in effect telling me that I’m not with her, and I better get there, pronto!
 So, what’s the nature of the deficit? To me it sounds like an inability to respond to a significant other, except under rather stringent circumstances. I note with some clients I need only get their attention to have them move toward my calmness, but with the others that’s not enough. With them I have to join the dance with them (not totally, as they’re out of control and I’m not), to initiate significant affective congruence with them before I do anything else.
 Siegel and Shore? Have you in mind some specific passage in their work? My recollection is that they emphasize the infant’s matching of mother’s affect, rather than the opposite, but if my recall is incomplete on this matter that’s most interesting. I need to go look at this.
Very interesting. (476 words)
Good story, and great explanation.
1. Her mom, a quiet, reasonable person, wasn’t matching V’s level of affective discharge. When she appeared to match, V, IMO, felt connected to, and settled down.
2. V is a very attached kid, who knows how to take in and give out affection and knows how to connect. She’s also brilliant. I do think her “deficit” is in her wiring, and her quiet/reasonable mom doing what worked with the first three kids that wasn’t a fit for this one. There’s bipolar in the extended family, not in her parents,and I think there’s some interesting wiring in different extended family members.
3. I’ve done more listening to than reading Siegel and Schore,(I’m starting the book group to make me read). At the 2000 EMDRIA conference in Toronto, Schore talked about how the hardware gets laid into both the kid and the parent. He talked about a study in which “they” wired up adults who watched a video of a kid who was in danger. Generally, women showed more empathetic response in the right frontal brain, especially women who had been primary caretakers of small children. Men who had been primary caretakers of infants showed more response than women who weren’t parents. There was an anomalous group of men and women, not parents, who rated extremely high on the physical and brain activity scales of response. Psychotherapists! Schore used this example to show that the brain keeps growing relational neural networks. Both baby and mom’s brain grows neural nets as they learn to interact with each other. And so do therapist and client brains.
Thanks for your succinct post Tom!
VERY interesting. I am a clinical social worker and mother of a pair of 4 1/2 year old male twins who were premature at birth. Despite my professional knowledge and personal attachment to these little beings I am continually challenged by their emotional intensity. My rational responces don’t do squat for my boys. I can’t wait to try this technique out!
Let me know how it works and report back.
I just finished A General Theory of Love and well..
loved it, so I wanted to find out what others thought and low-and-behold your site appeared. Just wanted to compliment you for creating such an interesting, well-written site with lots of useful topics. Well-done!