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.