Some Thoughts on Parenting a Child with Attachment Problems

The following reflections were made by a foster parent of a child struggling with Attachment and Trauma-Dysregulation (also known as Reactive Attachment Disorder). We hope his comments will be helpful and hopeful to you. If you’d like to write to him, click here.

There is so much chaos in our lives and on those (message) boards that it can be difficult to mine for useful stuff. I started out writing a pretty simple message, but it gets complicated. There are so many layers. So read the next 3 lines, and go further when you’re ready. Also, feel welcome to e-mail if you’d like.

I will try to keep my own approach as simple as possible:

1. Nothing matters except your relationship with your child.
2. How is your kid feeling right now? Can you say how it looks like they are feeling? Say it out loud with them!
3. When the pots and pans come flying at your head, when they pee or crap in your bed, when they “accidentally” stomp all over the hood of your car, IT IS NOT ABOUT YOU. In fact, it has almost nothing to do with you, so shut up and drink your beer.
4. AND LOVE THIS CHILD in incredibly obvious ways. Notes under the pillow, their favorite foods every freakin’ day, notes in the lunchbox, saying “yes” to all those silly requests your own parent’s voices in your head scream “no” to. Anything you can do with the kid that results in a nudge, a glance in your eyes to see if you’re serious, and playful pats.

Homework doesn’t matter, housework doesn’t matter, school doesn’t matter, chores don’t matter, extended family, neighbors, your social life, standing in the community. If you have an object that for some stupid reason you really cherish, then store it in a not-too-close friend’s basement for ten years, okay? The kid is IT. All that other stuff can be fixed later and along the way. It doesn’t mean that you can’t make forays in the “real world” and try to make some gains at the sort of stuff other parents do, but it is hard to be so very aware that what really matters is your kid and how they are feeling.

And just because you have called a work stoppage and opened your mind and heart does not at all mean you will find a willing audience in your kid, and it especially doesn’t mean you will find a grateful one. That will take another thirty years, so please bury that bone. It’s one of the most common pitfalls parents of kids who’ve been abandoned fall into, poisoned stakes and all. “We’ve given the kid a safe home and are completely dedicated to him and he has everything he could possibly want or need including love and affection, isn’t it time he shaped up? Showed a little respect or appreciation?”

I won’t bore you with the mechanics of my limited understanding of human development, except to say that you are starting from behind age zero. Anything you can do to find bits of enjoyment in your interaction with the kid is awesome, and make a TOO big deal of it. Also, letting yourself be overheard on the phone talking up the kid is an amazing way to share how proud you are and how much love you have. Make it legit, but audible.

The best lesson I learned was in a class watching a video of a little girl returning to her foster home after a visit with her birth family. She was coloring a picture at the table while the nice couple made dinner. She was coloring a bit, um, intensely if you get my drift, but they didn’t seem to notice being preoccupied with dinner. Then she stops, looks up sweetly at them, and says “May I have some ice cream, please?” The mom smiles and says, “sure honey, you can have ice cream for dessert.” and goes back to the salad. Storm clouds brewing now on the little girl’s face “I really want some ice cream NOW!” The Mom and Dad look at each other, concern on their faces. The video stops. What would you do?

The class is now told to consider what they would do, and why. That discussion was really insightful. Many people in the class came from cultural backgrounds that were fairly rigid in terms of behavioral and family role expectations, and there were comments like “that girl was rude and disrespectful, she not only wasn’t getting any ice cream from me, she was going to bed with no dinner!” to “well, what if she wanted ice cream for dinner every night, you can’t go around letting that habit develop, offering it for dessert was the best they could do, wasn’t it?”

After a long while the teacher chimed in and said, “well, this is just my opinion, but that little girl had a pretty traumatic afternoon and what she really needed was some comfort. It was obvious she felt she couldn’t get that comfort from her parents, and that she didn’t trust them enough yet to provide it. Let her have the ice cream for dinner, people, if it helps her right now. Worry about the long term consequences later if they come up, but right now she’s hurting.”

It’s one of the things I’ve learned working with Billy Kaplan (http://www.hcbh.com/ ), that overacting empathy, sympathy, affection, love, appreciation, awe, are all good tools to form a path toward a hurt kids heart. It is SO SO SO important to be able to understand and respond to what your child is FEELING about whatever, not to get caught up in what happened or should happen or gawd forbid, what you’d hoped would happen. The feeling. Also, I have learned that my kid is pretty good at saying what he thinks he wants and needs at any given time. I may not agree in principal (ice cream for dinner), but those are small sacrifices to make.

And right now, the kid is capable of about two emotions. Rage, principally, and spurts of random joy. One of the most difficult aspects of getting into “feeling” my son has been recognizing that when he’s throwing pots and pans at my head isn’t the time for close emotional work. It is a good time to recognize the emotion at work. Duck. “It sure looks to me like you’re very angry right now! Are you feeling angry? Show me how angry you are! Can we go outside and break dishes? Here, this is a good big one, let’s go smash it to pieces. I want to really see how angry you are. I love you so much and it sucks that I made you so mad. Show me!”

If your kid isn’t throwing pots and pans at your head yet, then things aren’t getting better for them yet. You will know you are really helping your child heal when they start throwing objects you cherish at your head. Later on, you can start to read other, more subtle emotions. Right now, Billy and I are working on sadness, loneliness, desire, grieving with my kid.

Later on, when things are calm, find a way to tell the kid that you have never loved them more than when that pan went through the window. Because you can get a new window, but not a new kid. And even if you could, you wouldn’t get one as strong, as cuddly, as smart or as much fun to be around. And that you are incredibly happy he found a way to show you and tell you how he was feeling.

But don’t get me wrong. I ain’t no freakin’ saint. When he’s throwing stuff at my head, I tell him if he doesn’t cut it out that I’m going to call the police, and then I do it. Which at least interrupts the comedy. Guess what they told me to do? Beat it out of him. Huh.

Since nothing else matters but your relationship with the kid, you can have the freedom to really enjoy those moments with your kid, and make sure to let them know!

What you’re doing neurologically is helping your child to fire up portions of their brain that never developed because they have lived their whole life in crisis up until this point. If they didn’t have YOU, they would spend the rest of their short lives in crisis. Don’t ever think for a second that someone else could handle your kid better. It is YOU. If there is no YOU in the room right next door, there is no one at all.

If you are battered and tired, overwhelmed and miss your old life, suck it up. I have to tell you, your old life wasn’t that great, and this new one really, really is that great. You just gotta work through some stuff along the way.

Bryan Post http://www.postinstitute.com/ is another great resource, he coauthored the Beyond Consequences book. One last bit of clue. Parenting ideas for kids who has a history of being abandoned seem to fall into two very distinct camps or philosophies. One one side, you have the Dan Hughes, Heather Forbes, Bryan Post model which says it is 100% the parents’ job to understand where their kid is at, meet them there, and flex and grow themselves to raise this child who was hurt. On the OTHER side, you have the Nancy Thomas, whole state of Colorado, Love and Logic mentality, which basically seems to be saying “the kid has a lot of things wrong with him, and here’s what you need to do to fix him.”

So I know this didn’t turn out to be a simple message at all, but if you can only take away one thing, NOTHING MATTERS BUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR CHILD. In 30 years, they will remember how you made them feel today, and nothing else.

Best,

A Loving Dad