Psychologists Observe Communication Strategies in Special Lab


The setting is what appears to be an ordinary waiting room in a doctor’s office or typical Mother and Child clinic in Israel. A mother is sitting reading a magazine while her child, at her feet, is playing contentedly with some toys. After a few minutes, a stranger walks in and sits near the child’s mother. Then, the mother gets up and walks out of the room. The baby, who has followed his/her mother to the door, cries for the absent mother. The stranger cannot calm the baby down. Only when the mother reappears does the baby, after an initial surge of whimpering, smile and hug his/her mother. The child then returns to playing.

Same room, same initial scenario of events, but a different mother and child. In this instance, however, the child does not look at his/her mother when she reappears, but avoids the mother and goes on playing. If anything, in fact, the child seems to find comfort in the stranger.
The “waiting room” is actually a laboratory, part of the Center for the Study of Child Development at the University, and these scenes, as well as many others, were being observed through a one-way window by, among others, Prof. Abraham Sagi, who set up the facility, and Ms. Tirtsa Joels, a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology.
According to Joels, the child in the first scenario is a secure child who, though stressed by the mother’s leaving, adopts a strategy of closeness. The second child, similarly stressed, has also adopted a strategy, but of alienation, and is insecure. At least the latter child, Joels observes, adopted a coping strategy.

There is a third type, the ambivalent infant; he/she wants closeness to the mother which is mingled with expressed anger and thus cannot bring him/herself comfort. When the mother returns to the room, neither she nor the stranger can calm the baby down. Joels also reported on a fourth type in her presentation at a colloquium on “Disruptions in Communication Strategies: New Observations and Directions.” This last type lacked any strategy, leading to disorganization and anger.

The full-day event, which took place in mid-November, drew several hundred observers--social workers, psychologists, pediatricians, and psychiatrists from the North and Central regions of the country, as well as students. All the speakers were researchers in the unique Center.
Joels explained that the child in the second example was under stress, though his/her apparently indifferent behavior did not show it. Samples of the child’s saliva were sent to Haifa’s Rambam Hospital for analysis, which showed high amounts of cortisol--an indication of stress. The student researcher predicted that when the child matures into adulthood, he/she might find it difficult to develop intimate relations. She/he might think them just not worth while.

The third type of child - the ambivalently insecure - may adopt a closeness strategy, but at the same time may pull the mother’s hair or even bang her with a toy hammer when she returns to the room. The fourth type of child--disorganized, disoriented-- demonstrates a break in strategy adoption. The child becomes paralyzed, not knowing which way to turn. This latter behavior, “coming out of space,” as Joels described it, is not looked upon as normal.

One of the worst experiences the researcher encountered was a near “catatonic” freeze state held by the child for fully six minutes when a stranger came into the room even though the mother was present. The child, bent over the whole time in a way nearly defying gravity, just could not be distracted.
Although the speakers, like the Center (which has won grants from the U.S. government (NIH) to pursue its research), focused on child development, one speaker did present an overview of communication disruptions among adults. Usually these occurred following or because of a trauma earlier in the person’s life, including the loss of a dear one.

Dr. Nina Koren-Karie wanted to see what strategies her subjects adopted, or said they adopted, to handle a trauma when they were young and how they evaluated the experience now. Another objective was to ascertain how they reacted toward their own children, whether through the prism of their past experiences.
Until now, according to Sagi, who is now Dean of the Graduate School, it was believed that both children and adults had an orderly communication strategy, even if it reflected insecurity. More recently, however, he and his researchers have been identifying persons without any strategy or whose communication strategy is disrupted. The result may be manifested in chaotic family relationships, including abuse, or an indication of unresolved feelings over a loss or of a deep trauma.

Nina Koren-Karie told of interviewees who, when asked about the loss of a parent, reconstructed the whole day of the person’s death rather than answering the question directly, changed the subject to the death of a pet, spoke in the present tense as though the person were still alive, or seemed more to be delivering a eulogy than talking naturally about the deceased.
In these instances, the researcher pointed out, there is a distancing of the loss, and it is not organized to the changed circumstance. The unresolved or lack of strategy may be indicated in a change in tone when the person is taken back to a childhood experience or in a disturbance in thinking triggered by a certain question. These breaks in communication, she explained, reflect confusion and a certain fright and may be conveyed to the interviewee’s child.

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