Emma Goldmann, a political activist from the early 20th century wrote, “No one has yet fully realized the wealth of sympathy, kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure.” Ms. Goldmann’s words aptly describe the attachment injured child. It is as if they are gems waiting to be discovered and polished. Until that discovery, they are viewed as useless and unwanted. In order for these children to reach their value, persons like foster/adoptive parents, teachers, and friends will have to learn the skills needed to “unlock that treasure.”
It might be appropriate to call these children, “Children from the hard places.” They may have known safety and stability at some point in their lives. More likely, most of these children have had a “hard time” and have been forced to rely on themselves. They do not have a sense of safety or stability. A child’s sense of safety is created when the child begins to feel that his needs will be met not only physically but also emotionally. This is called “felt safety.” As a byproduct of the lack of “felt safety,” many children function in ways that seem dysfunctional. These behaviors and attitudes have been useful survival tools. Within a new family system, these behaviors are not only dysfunctional but can are destructive.
Children, who display unwanted behaviors, are often diagnosed with disorders like ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, or Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder. While your child might exhibit and meet the qualities of these disorders, the scope and severity of many of these problems may be exacerbated by a developmental trauma and attachment injury. In a sense, attachment injury is the body’s defense to the lack of safety or care it has received. By this standard, it might be impossible for a child from the “hard place” to function in a “normal way.”
A child who is from the “hard places” functions out of the lower brain. This child has not experienced a stabile relationship where he learned to interpret and understand every day human interactions. He has not had healthy, nutritionally loaded food to eat for brain development. He has likely experienced chronically high levels of fear which compete with higher brain function. More precisely, the events, in utero, infancy, or childhood create a neurochemical set point for how the child will respond in stressful situations. These set points can occur if a mother experiences a stressful or difficult pregnancy, the child has a traumatic birth, or if the child experiences early hospitalization. These are significant and profound ways that children can be programmed to struggle with attachment. Furthermore, a child can also receive attachment injury through abuse, neglect, or other forms of trauma (i.e., an overly critical parent).
Dr. Karyn Purvis, creator of TBRI© (Trust Based Relational Intervention), believes that gaining the trust of an attachment injured child is the integral part of helping the child heal. A child cannot operate at a higher brain function if he remains wary of his environment. This requires that the caregiver learn to respond by first connecting to the child, later empowering the child, and last and least, correcting the child. This seems to be the antithesis of most parenting approaches. This approach, however, makes the most sense. A child who is healthily attached to a parent can whether some emotional turbulence. A child who is not securely attached will be tossed about in that same storm.
Most often, parents fear that if they are not correcting this child, he will not learn. An attachment injured child’s brain will not learn if he is in a constant state of fear. Fear must be reduced for learning to take place and new behavior to be enacted. Connection is the best tool for reducing fear. Connection is a time consuming work, but it is extremely rewarding. Connecting requires that the parent learn to manage her fears about how she is perceived by others as well as managing fears about not being “in charge” of the child.
There are several simple methods for connecting. First, create an environment of “felt safety” by making available high nutrition snacks, attending to a child’s sensory needs (i.e., too loud, too bright, too scratchy, etc.), addressing their physical space needs, and using safe child appropriate language. Second, model the positive behavior desired from the child. This will include using encouraging language. An example: Instead of saying, “Don’t run” say, “Remember to walk.” Third, work to match the child. A parent will make a powerful statement to a child about connection when he is attuned to the child. One of the easiest ways to show attunement is through play. Play by matching the child’s motions and actions; allow them to lead. Last, make both eye and, as allowed, body contact with the child. This will require the adult to get down on the child’s level when talking to them. If a parent can do nothing else with an attachment injured child, it is imperative that he work to make connection with the child.
The sad truth is that many adults in our world are unprepared to deal with developmental trauma and attachment injuries. Attachment injured children not only show up in foster and adoptive homes, they also appear in schools, churches and playgrounds. While these interventions will not “fix” attachment injured children, the connection created is the bridge to helping this child begin the healing process. Understanding and connecting to attachment injured children not only helps the hurting child, but also those who are in the daily struggle with them.
If you are in the midst of the struggle with an attachment injured child and are interested in more information on this subject, seek a licensed mental health professional, preferably one trained in TBRI©. You may also be interested to read, The Connected Child, by Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. David Cross, and Wendy Sunshine.