Attachment 101 – Part 3

In my last two posts in this series I introduced the attachment theory and explained how that affects children who have been adopted.  We discussed how to step into your child’s life and take control of their world confidently so that they can attach to you and trust you as their new caregiver.  I explained that children who have experienced trauma in their lives need a lifestyle that is highly structured and highly nurtured.  Taking control and developing boundaries focuses on the need for structure, so today I want to focus on nurturing.

When most people think about adoption, nurture is the picture that fills their mind.  They imagine holding their child, hugging and kissing their child, laughing, playing together and smiling.  They think about all the things they will do together, the sweet little rituals they’ll establish at bedtime and the millions of ways they will try to help their child forget all the grief, fear and loss of their past.

Before your child comes home, you will not be able to truly imagine that reality will set in.  You will not be able to prepare for those days when all you want is to be left alone.  You will not be able to comprehend the strength it will take some days just to reach out and give those hugs, kisses or gentle pats.

The bottom line is that no family is happy all the time, and children working through difficult feelings rarely display those emotions in cute, loveable ways.  It is not easy to be gentle and kind in the face of defiance.  It is not easy to stay energetic and positive when your children are testing every limit they find.  It is not easy to create a peaceful atmosphere with a screaming child.  You will get tired of being followed all over the place.  You will grow weary of a child’s tears, missing the loved one you can never be.  You will crave just one night of solid sleep.  Then you will feel incredible guilt as you think about all they’ve been through.

You will be a parent, not a revered saviour.

Realizing this is a bit of a let down; we all love to feel like heroes.  But it’s also exciting when you realize you have really become a normal family, complete with all the stresses and chaos.

Nurturing consists of those tangible ways we express to a child that he is adored, important and irreplaceable.  It’s caring, warm gestures that go above and beyond, but include, basic survival needs.  Nurturing is essential for attachment.

Children who have grown up in dysfunctional, chaotic environments are often starved for nurture.  However, they will not always respond the way you’d think.  It can be more difficult than imagined to nurture your child.

Touch is one of the most obvious and powerful communicators of love, and obviously important when nurturing your child.  Hugs, kisses, back rubs, holding hands, wrestling and piggy back rides are all great ways to connect with your child physically.  For those children whose love language is physical touch this will be even more important.  In some types of attachment therapy “holding” is considered it’s own exercise.  Some children will take awhile to feel comfortable enough to relax in your arms or ask for hugs or kisses.  Others will be all over you within hours or days.  It may be more uncomfortable than you think having that child who wants to touch you all the time.  Many children struggle to figure out appropriate social boundaries.  They may hug and hold hands with any adult they meet.  They may want to touch your face or body in ways that would be totally appropriate for a baby or toddler but not quite as cute in an older child.  It can be hard to offer hugs and kisses without limit, retain enough boundaries to keep yourself from feeling claustrophobic and teach your child appropriate social boundaries.  It is especially difficult with a child who has been sexualized by adults in their life.  Beware of any sort of touching that the child is uncomfortable with and follow their lead.  If you see signs of provocative or overly sexualized behaviours, be sure to clearly direct your child away from those behaviours.  The goal is to nurture your child, not to lure them back into unhealthy habits.

I remember the first day I met my daughters.  At 7 and 5, they were anxious little whirlwinds of activity.  I wanted so much to be able to just reach out and hold them…but I was a stranger.  While one of them soon snuggled in close under my arm, the other one circled me warily, staying just out of reach.  Now she falls asleep in my arms, but then she needed me to follow her from room to room, looking at everything she pointed out and then letting her retreat again for a while.  The most I got was to let my fingers slide over her silky hair for a second.  My husband, however, won her over by offering piggy back rides 🙂

Food is another basic way to nurture a child.  We all need food and water to survive, but some children have not always had plenty of food or water.  They may remember times when their tummies ached with hunger, or they may cope with anxiety by grossly overeating.  Be sensitive to this and try to make sure you take advantage of the opportunity to give them that physical satisfaction food brings, while establishing healthy eating patterns.  Simply doing the little things like getting a drink of water for them, pulling something from the fridge, scooping food onto their plate or packing a plentiful and appealing lunch can help children feel nurtured and cared for.  For children who hoard or steal food, packing a special snack basket or stocking a cupboard just for them helps reinforce the message that food is readily available when needed.  This helps them realize they are not in danger of being without enough food as they’ve been in the past.  For children who may have missed early infant nurturing, spoon feeding or even bottle feeding is a bonding activity that will reinforce tons of positive messages.

Like many little children, my littlest A loves to snack!  She adores junk food and candy and begs for food anytime she’s bored or slightly hungry.  While this is very frustrating, I’ve tried to turn it around by getting ahead of her and surprising her.  When she’s busy with something else I’ll suddenly interrupt her and tell her it’s snack time!  She’s always delighted to realize she didn’t even need to ask and it’s way more fun for me!  I also like to let the girls lick off spatula’s, have a few chocolate chips when I’m baking cookies or pick out a special snack to go in their lunch at the store.  My grocery bill has definitely went up since I started packing creative, healthy and appealing lunches but it’s a way to send my nurturing along to school with them.

Even though your child may be an independent 8, 10 or even 16 year old doesn’t mean you should never do anything for them they can do themselves.  While promoting attachment you are not focusing on independence.  We all love to be treated with care.  Go out of your way to care for your child.  Pack their lunch, start the bath water for them, help a younger child dress, brush their hair, trim their nails, put their pajamas in the dryer to warm them up while they’re in the bath tub.

Simply having fun and spending time together is a big part of nurturing your child.  Laugh.  Smile.  Snuggle on the couch and watch a movie.  Make eye contact and pay attention when your child is speaking to you.  Make yourself and your home a “safe haven” your child can come back to no matter how he or she is feeling!  Reinforce the message that we all have feelings and they are not wrong in and of themselves, it is what we do with them that matters.

Most of us know how to nurture, it’s just difficult to do it when we’re feeling tired, worn out or frustrated.

Last week I had a bad week.  One of my daughters was sick and I was just not in the mood!  She is a detail person and struggles with anxiety in the best of times, so feeling a little off turned her into a real bear!  The tiny bump on her lip and the fever she developed had equal significance, along with a possibly occurring rash and itchy spot on her left leg!  She woke up multiple nights in a row and knocked on my door in tears, panicking at the thought of not sleeping which then of course kept her from sleeping for long afterwards.  She was defiant and mean at school, tired and grumpy at home.  I am telling you this to show you that even though I know all about nurturing in my head, I fail miserably on a regular basis!  Last week I had the perfect opportunity to show my daughter that I cared about her and would go out of my way to nurse her poor tired little body.  Instead, I was grumpy, irritable and insensitive.  I knew I was failing miserably and instead of choosing to let this motivate me I let my mind take me on a huge guilt trip instead.  After everything this little girl has been through, how could you treat her with such a lack of compassion?!  What a horrible mother!

See, just because my daughters have not been born to me by birth and have trauma in their past does not mean I always find it easy to be gentle and kind.  I am no superhero!

So I hope all you moms out there are encouraged to nurture your little, middle sized or big kids today.  Go the extra mile to make them feel important.  Remember the golden rule.  Take every opportunity to love.  They’re worth it!

Attachment 101 – Part 2

My last post, Attachment 101, was designed to introduce and explain the theory of attachment. As a short recap:

1. Bonding and attachment occurs as an infant’s needs are expressed and met, over and over and over again.

2. When children do not receive consistent, predictable nurturing the internal message becomes “I am responsible to keep myself safe.”

3. Children with interruptions or gaps in their attachment development are essentially brain-damaged. If you could see a picture of the child’s brain that has been nurtured and cared for consistently versus neglected, abused or moved frequently there would be a physical, noticeable difference in the number of connections formed. This is more than just an emotional problem!

4. The good news is that these missing connections CAN be formed later in life! However, it is much more difficult than beginning with an empty slate. There are deeply ingrained survival skills that need to be destroyed before new concepts can be established firmly.

So…

With all that behind us, let’s keep moving forward.  I’d like to talk about the rewiring process and what that can look like for kids and parents hoping to create a secure, loving environment where a child can thrive. There are many different things parents need to remember when parenting a child who has been hurt physically or emotionally.

I won’t be able to cover everything I’d like to share in one post, so I’ve broken it down into several categories to keep it clear and simple. For today, I’d like to focus on the control issue.

Most children who have experienced a past of abuse, neglect or bouncing through the foster care system will enter their adoptive families with their guards set high. They have been let down by many adults in the past and they have learned to rely only on themselves to survive. In the past, this was an essential survival skill for them. Learning how to keep a distance from people, read adult behaviour and predict major changes on the horizon helped them to cope with the incredible amount of losses they’ve had to endure. It made the inevitable goodbyes bearable, kept the fear at bay and taught their brains how to function under major stress.

Now that your child has entered a forever family, it is imperative that they learn how to let go of that control and hand it over to you. The very skill that made it possible for them to survive will now be their greatest obstacle. They cannot bond and attach to you until they are willing to rely on you as their parent and caregiver. Children cannot go through life depending only on themselves. No matter what they may have convinced themselves of, they are not invincible. They are children. They need adults to guide them, lead them, protect them and nurture them. As adoptive parents we desperately want to play that role in our children’s lives and help them overcome the paralyzing fears they grapple with but often times they will not allow us to get that close.

They are afraid of abandonment.

They are afraid of abuse.

They are afraid of feeling weak or powerless or vulnerable.

They are afraid of opening their hearts and then having them broken.

Unfortunately, there is no easy switch to flip. There are brain connections that have never been formed and deeply rooted instincts that will not be easy to change. Basically, it is up to you at this point to take control of your child’s world unapologetically and be the parent!

This will be the beginning of a war.

They will fight you ferociously on this.

They do not realize you are on their team. All they know is that they are in danger of losing the defences that have always kept them safe. They are terrified of losing control but they are even more fearful of someone else taking control.

Interestingly, we all know this feeling. As adults, control becomes a word that raises red flags in everyone’s minds. We do not feel comfortable submitting to authorities we do not trust. We want to remain in charge because we’ve seen or experienced abusive control in relationships around us. However, if we are to form deep, soul level relationships we will have to let down our guard at some point and allow someone to get close enough to potentially break our hearts.

Infants are dependent on their parents for everything. The only way they will feel loved, nurtured, safe; is if someone has complete control over their life. In this environment, they attach and they trust as their needs are consistently met.

This is what needs to be replicated in your adopted child’s life.

It might take months, years or decades but this process cannot begin until you as a parent take control from your child. They will not hand it to you on a silver platter. They do not know what they need. You do.

Hurting children desperately need to be shown that parents are more powerful than they are. They have terrorizing trauma, deep grief, and overwhelming challenges looming before them, and they need to know there is someone strong enough to handle all that. They need to know that they are not too much for you. They need to know that you are big enough to protect them and help them heal. They need to know that with you in control of their lives they will be safe. You will not lead them into chaos and danger as others have.

This does not mean that we march into our children’s lives and take over every little choice they have. This does not mean we abuse our authority over them or become someone they fear. This is what many of them have experienced in the past.

Instead, our primary goal should be to look for every opportunity possible to lovingly send the message,

You do not have to decide that.”

I will take care of you.”

“I will keep you safe.”

You do not have to fight so hard to survive, baby.”

At the beginning, you will need to move into the parent role before you really feel like your child’s parent. Realistically, you are strangers, but this should not stop you from acting like you are in charge.

Set boundaries.

Be active in your child’s life. Know what is going on and show you will handle the big stuff.

Don’t allow another adult to step into the role that is only yours as a parent.

Give choices, but make sure your child is choosing between a few good choices that you have come up with.

Help them with every little thing you possibly can.

Do things for them that they can do themselves.

Make your expectations as clear and simple as possible, with consequences that are logical and simple.

When they cross a line, be matter of fact about consequences but not harsh or angry.

Don’t pick battles you can’t win.

Every time you act or speak in a way that tells your child you are comfortably in charge, you are cementing a feeling of safety in them. This authority establishment is not up for grabs. You are not asking for their permission to be the parent. Instead, you are lifting a huge load off their small shoulders and placing it on your own without a flinch. As they fight to take it back, be firm but gentle. Never forget their fight is really fear.

Many children go through this same stage of testing authority, and much of this will sound familiar. Children who have been hurt, however, have much more at stake in their minds. This is not just testing, this is tearing down the structure by which they have survived so far. Their future depends on you getting this message across to them. It’s not really about eating peas, it’s about being in charge of their life.

The best way for parents to go about taking charge of their children’s lives and sending these safe messages is to parent in a way that is focused on plenty of nurture and plenty of structure.

While children are adjusting to their forever families and attempting to attach, they are under a lot of stress. As most children, they will do best in a home where their days are predictable and structured. This does not mean you need to run your home like a boot camp, but you will need to be prepared to change your lifestyle to accommodate your children’s needs. While they are trying to attach and bond with their new family, children are not going to be able to cope with the flexibility of most children their age. Plan to spend lots of time at home, get lots of sleep and say no to some events or social engagements. As parents, you need to set a pace and rhythm to your home that both you and your children can thrive on. Put up a big calendar that your child can see and let them know what to expect as much as possible. Though you are stepping in to take control of your child’s life, you are not entitled to run it with only yourself in mind. Don’t let your children decide what and how much you do, but make sure you are making the best decision for them. It will take some trial and error at the beginning, but soon you will know how much your child can truly handle.

Making sure your child knows what to expect, is getting enough sleep and is supported by you through each day sets him up for success! It also sets him up to count on you to create an atmosphere he can thrive in. Structure does not mean less fun or less loving. Instead, a structured life for your children will help them to be able to have more fun and it will help your fearful child realize you know what is best for him and will do it!

Explaining decisions you make to your child can be a great way to show them you are dedicated to being a great parent. Let them know that they need to go to bed at the usual time because you know they need sleep to feel good and enjoy the day tomorrow. Let them know that you require them to eat nutritious food because you want them to have healthy bodies and feed good. Let them know they are not allowed to play near the road because it is not safe and you need them to be safe. Let them know that they cannot be left with a babysitter yet because they are still learning how to be a family and they are not ready for that step yet. Though most children tend to roll their eyes or sigh at these parental ‘lectures’, you may be surprised at your adopted child’s reactions. Even though they may not like your decision, they are hearing an important message from you.

I love you. I am taking care of you. I will do what is best for you even if you don’t like it.”

Often children who are starting to feel a shift in their control will try very hard to control all kinds of little details in life. They might ask questions or chatter incessantly. They might follow-up all your decisions for them with comments like, “Yes, that’s what I was going to do.” They will often try to control decision-making, play the parent to a sibling or come up with an idea just a tad different from yours. Though this can be frustrating, try to remember they are feeling nervous and anxious about the feelings of love growing inside of them. I often say things like,

That’s ok, you don’t need to be in charge of that.”

I’ll let you know if you need to know.”

I’ll think about it.”

With a smile and a gentle tone, this clearly conveys the message that you are in control and you will take care of things. It doesn’t have to be a reprimand or lecture, which will most likely throw you onto the battlefield, but your child will get the clear message they do not get to decide or be in charge.

My daughters will often later quote back to me the reasons I have given them for decisions that they didn’t necessarily appreciate in the moment. There is a measure of awe and joy in their voices as they say,

You want us to be safe, right?”

You tell us to eat healthy food ’cause you don’t want us to be sick, right?”

You’re afraid we’ll get hurt if we do that!”

Unfortunately, for an older child parenting in a highly structured manner may cause misunderstanding in other parents. Don’t let this stop you from doing what you know your child needs. While another child may be ready to walk to school on their own, tuck themselves in each night, get a drink or use the bathroom on their own, comb their hair or have a play date at a friend’s house…you need to realize that your child has not come through a chaotic life unscathed. Be sensitive to your child’s feelings, but don’t let what other people are thinking stop you from giving your child the structure they depend on to cope or the boundaries they need to attach to you securely.

While you are pouring in all this structure, however, you need to be spending just as much time giving your child nurturing…but that is a whole new, exciting topic that I will cover next time 🙂

For today, remember:

*Be the parent!

*Hurting children desperately need to be shown that parents are more powerful than they are.

*Take charge of your child’s life confidently and gently.

As I was writing this, I couldn’t help thinking of the many times I struggle and writhe in my Heavenly Father’s loving care. I can look back and see times in my life where I fought against His control, terrified that if I lost control of my life it would result in devastation. But when I finally give up and surrender to those big hands, that strong voice, that enduring love…I feel so safe. To know that He is in control of my life, orchestrating my every move, is such an incredible feeling. There is nowhere I could be safer than in the centre of His will for me.

When I see the especially bright eyes, the relieved tones and the purely joyful words of my daughter after an especially tough battle…I know that it is the same for her. In my love, she will be safe. And someday, she will experience a perfect love that is so much greater than mine. A love that is truly powerful beyond all measure and wider than imagination.

This song by Westlife reaches my soul and makes me weep. To know that this is my Father’s heart cry alongside my own small Mommy desire is breathtaking.

“Safe”

Hard to find a way to get through
It’s a tragedy
Pulling at me like the stars do
You’re like gravity
Even if the wind blows
It makes it hard to believe

How you gonna love?
How you gonna feel?
How you gonna live your life like the dream you have is real?
And if you lost your way
I will keep you safe
We’ll open up all the world inside
I see it come alive tonight
I will keep you safe

Doesn’t even matter to you
To see what I can see
I’m crawling on the floor to reach you
I’m a wreck you see
When you’re far from home now
Makes it hard to believe

So how you gonna love?
How you gonna feel?
How you gonna live your life like the dream you have is real?
And if you’ve lost your way
I will keep you safe
We’ll open up all your world inside
Till you come alive tonight
I will keep you safe

We all fall down
We all feel down
Cause rainy days and summer highs
The more we pray the more we feel alive

How you gonna love?
How you gonna feel?
How you gonna live your life like the dream you have is real?
How you gonna love?
How you gonna feel?
How you gonna live your life like the dream you have is real?

And if you’ve lost your way
I will keep you safe
We’ll open up all your world inside
So you come alive tonight
I will keep you safe

I will keep you safe
I will keep you safe