The Circle of Security (COS) is a therapy process to designed create or repair the bond between mother and child. The part of our brains responsible for social memory contain both oxytocin and dopamine receptors, which combine to form the almost addicted social preference we call love, this capacity has to be learned after birth. Mothers teach love by example as they nurture babies. But a mother who didn’t get the security and love she needed as an infant won’t be able to teach her own child.
Instead, she becomes part of a cycle of failed attachment that's passed down through the generations.
The oxytocin response is what creates the bond of love between parent and child at the neurochemical level; the infant and toddler must learn this response through her interactions with her primary caregiver, usually the mother.
Their bodies engage in a dance, each responding to the other's gaze, movements, sounds and smells. As they mirror each other, the mother's body teaches the baby's body how to move through different states. Eventually, the baby will learn to"self-regulate."
"Emotional regulation is, basically, a parent being able to join the child in emotional experiences and help them to self-soothe and calm down," says Bert Powell, COS co-founder (with Glen Cooper and Kent Hoffman). "Children come into the world with almost no ability to manage their internal experience. So, early in life, they need someone to manage their emotional experience for them."
But mothers who weren't mothered well themselves can’t teach their kids how to experience ups and downs in a healthy way. Instead, they pass along the dysfunctional behaviors they learned from their moms.
Because we learn what we can expect from our parents emotionally long before we have the ability to form memories or analyze our experiences, these interactions are really hard to understand. COS therapy, based at the Marycliff Institute in Spokane, is designed to uncover these hidden agendas.
"We're focused on teaching parents emotional regulation and what kinds of emotions babies have that literally disregulate the parent's emotions," Powell says.
To do that, the COS staff created an easy to understand model of different styles of attachment, and some intuitive ways to describe what's unconsciously going on between mother and child.
Before a COS group begins, each mother and child pair is videotaped in what's known as a "Strange Situation Assessment." This test, developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s, was designed to show the style of attachment between mother and child. Mothers also participate in a videotaped COS interview.
Says Powell, "A healthy individual is able to express a full range of emotion, and emotions don’t necessarily have to be threatening. Within that range of emotions, you can hold perspective, self-soothe and keep in the range where you can maintain a reflective self."
Kids who don’t learn these skills from their parents are headed for hurt. "The reason people choose drugs or thrills is as a way to manage different difficult affective states, such as depression, loneliness or isolation," he says.
In the program, mothers meet in groups of six weekly for 20 weeks. In the sessions, they watch videotapes of mother/child interactions edited by COS therapists to illustrate not only the central problem in the relationship, but also times when the mother is successful in giving her child what he needs.
The OS team came up with a way to viscerally illustrate how a mom's emotional baggage can interfere with her ability to see her child for himself.
They show the women a video clip of a beautiful coastal rainforest set to two kinds of music. First, serene, soothing music plays, and the women discuss the pleasant feelings it evokes. Next, the ominous music from "Jaws" plays, and, as the mothers talk about the anxious feelings the same setting evokes, they understand how their own emotional tone colors the way they see their kids.
As they watch the tapes of themselves and the other mother/child pairs in the group, each woman begins to identify when a kid is "miscuing," that is, trying to disguise the need to be mothered so as not to trigger Mommy's pain.
"Shark music" becomes a useful metaphor for moments when a mother is reacting to her own sensitivities. She learns to separate her child's longing from her own, and to give the love she never got. Her baby learns to turn to others for love and comfort.
"When the child is excited and feeling delight, the parent can join in their emotional state," Powell says. "It's up-regulating around delight and down-regulating around stress."
This attunement creates actual changes in the child's physiological state. At the same time, his orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the thinking brain that matches social communication with emotional experience, learns that this interaction is part of the state called "love."
He learns, at the somatic level, that if he can be close to someone, his brain will release soothing, healing oxytocin, and he'll feel better.
COS therapists score each child's attachment style during the Strange Situation Assessment and again after the 20-week COS program is completed. The program can help even the most desperately disconnected kids to being securely attached by the end of the program. In one study of 65 toddlers, the majority shifted to secure attachment.
Powell and his colleagues have worked with babies and kids up to five years old. Powell thinks the sweet spot for intervention is when the baby is two or three months old, so that the mother has time to get to know her, but the negative behavior patterns haven't become entrenched.
While most COS projects involve what are known as "at-risk" women -- homeless mothers, mothers in prison, mothers with a history of violence -- there's a project in Perth, Australia working in a hospital perinatal unit.
"It's fascinating to see the level of disorganization in the middle class," Powell says. "We're so focused on the supposed high-risk population, but I really think the middle class is underserved."
Even the most vulnerable of mothers seem to be able to make the subtle changes that can turn a tormented child into one who knows she's loved. "I never cease to be surprised by the resiliency of people," Powell says, "and, given the right circumstances, what people are capable of doing. A child calls forth in every parent this innate, primitive desire to provide proper care. The baby calls the parent out, and all we have to do is help her see the road."