Half a dozen mothers are watching videos of themselves caring for their toddlers, taped in their homes a week or two before. The videos present a montage of each of the mothers with their toddlers in warm moments. The soundtrack: the song “You Are so Beautiful.”
“That is the song,” the group leader tells them, “your children are singing to you.”
The point of the meetings is for each mother to become more aware of her strengths at mothering, and to try to get better at habits that need improvement. So over the ensuing weeks, they will see other videos that show their struggles at caregiving – being too intrusive, or tuned-out, or simply missing cues from their toddler about what’s needed.
The mothers study the videos of themselves and their toddlers, and get coached in how, for instance, to be more relaxed about letting their kids explore and play, or being more sensitive to when a two-year-old wants a hug of just the reassurance of sitting on her lap.
Such simple lessons in mothering may seem pointless, but here they have a purpose. This program, called the Circle of Security, is typical of many designed for mothers who are “at-risk”: alcoholic or drug users, clinically depressed, or single and living in poverty. When mothers have problems like these, they are more prone to being off-key with their toddlers – overly protective or indifferent — in ways that can be damaging to their child’s sense of security. Children of such mothers are more likely to grow up with difficulties in attachment, that most basic key to human connections for the rest of their lives (for more detail, see Chapter Eleven of Social Intelligence).
But if caught early, such patterns can be changed for the better. Mothers can learn to correct the ways they inadvertently disrupt the loop with their toddlers, or to repair such disruption when it does occur. That claim stands not just on one or two studies, but on a meta-analysis of 70 separate assessments of programs involving thousands of parents and toddles, designed to help them connect better.
The verdict was that the programs led to a strong improvement in parents’ abilities to empathize with their toddlers, becoming more sensitive to cues indicating they needed reassuring comforting or were ready to go out and play on their own. In other words, the parents became better at providing a secure base . The more parents’ attunement improved, the greater the toddlers’ sense of security.
To be sure, most mothers or fathers do not need such coaching. But the good news is that the biggest improvements were seen in the very families where help was needed the most – for example, with poor unwed teen mothers, those who were clinically depressed, or both.
Surprisingly, the interventions did not need to be all that elaborate to work; some of the strongest improvements were found in just five sessions of coaching — and even when mothers just watched a 15-minute videotape and were given a Snuggli infant carrier they could use to keep their baby attached to them through the day. And when the coaches were other mothers, they got better results than did highly trained mental health workers.
These programs try to get kids on the right neural track during that an early window of opportunity, the first three years of life, when their brains go through a major sculpting of neurons. And if a child gets off to a nurturing start in life, the resulting capacity for affection and empathy will pay off in a loving adulthood.