How to Help Your Attachment-Challenged Child

by ParentCo. December 15, 2016

close up of a boy's tensed eyes

“Give that back to me,” my 14-year-old daughter shrieked in my face as I grabbed her phone. She had broken the house rules again. “That’s mine! I hate you.” She slammed her door hard. Objects pummeled against the already dented walls.

That familiar queasy feeling traveled up my belly. Here we are again. Another rage attack. What will happen next?

I filled the months before I brought my dark-eyed baby girl home from the orphanage in Moscow with delicious fantasies of becoming her mother. Thinking about parenting was an everyday event for me. I longed to snuggle and comfort her. I imagined myself patient and calm through her tantrums.

As she grew and entered her teenage years, I would be her teacher – a rock she could lean on as she separated from me and searched for her own identity. Yes, I felt scared since I was adopting as a single mom, but I had developed a support system, a ready-made family nearby.

“You’ll be great,” my best friend assured me. “After all, you’re a therapist. What better person to understand this child.”

“I’ll help you,” my friends with children said. “I know all the latest parenting techniques... Time-ins instead of time-outs, sticker charts for positive reinforcement, only natural consequences. They work, they really do.”

What I didn’t understand then was that they work for healthy, well-adjusted children, not for kids with attachment issues or full blown disorders. When an infant or young child suffers a disrupted attachment from her primary caretaker, a wound of shame develops deep inside. Often, this wound is masked by intense anger, which rears its head at times of stress, anxiety, or fear of abandonment.

As a psychotherapist, I knew there would be repercussions from her early trauma. My girl had been left in a train station at six months of age, and then taken to one of the 25 orphanages in Moscow until I found her at age two. I thought my love, my consistent availability, and the parenting techniques my friends offered would heal her early wounds.

I was wrong. After months of wondering, why isn’t this working? (time-outs backfired, time-ins were impossible to manage, and consequences did not change behaviors), I finally discovered literature describing parenting techniques for children with attachment disorders. It is truly counter-intuitive parenting, and boy, is it hard! By this time, my girl was no longer a toddler.

Everything that comes naturally for parents when disciplining their children is wrong for children with attachment disorders. It only makes things worse. What parent hasn’t lost their cool and yelled at bad behavior? No, no, no, no, no. Even a slightly raised voice with an attachment-challenged child registers as hatred. This often leads to an escalation of their emotions, usually intense anger. I yelled at my daughter once for her disrespectful behavior. Instead of apologizing, she screamed in my face and ran out the front door.

After several more incidents like this, it dawned on me that if I didn’t change, she wouldn’t either. Thus began one of my most difficult lessons: Calm down, back off, and think before you speak. I had to swallow the rising anger in my throat before it exploded with a screeching “Oh my God! What have you done?”

After many failed attempts, I learned to deliver consequences in a matter-of-fact tone. No emotion, just the facts, ma’am. A dose of empathy offered with the consequence better insured that her behavior wouldn’t deteriorate. “I know this is hard for you, and you may want to misbehave more, but you do have the ability to make good choices. It really is up to you.”

Love, an important ingredient for all parental relationships, is not sufficient in building bonds with attachment challenged children. Providing a safe environment is the number one goal. Children who have experienced early trauma are guarded and mistrustful. They attempt to control their worlds to compensate for their fears. Consistency helps to promote safety. So does the parent being in control, acting at the helm. I remember how many times I gave in to my daughter when she was a middle-schooler.

“Please, Mommy, let me have just 10 more minutes on the computer.”

No big deal, right? Wrong.

I frequently caved, and then was shocked when she threw a tantrum when the time was up. I expected some gratitude. I didn’t understand then the power of my indecision, which made her feel unsafe. It’s very scary for children to experience a grandiose sense of power.

The experts say to never offer advice to your child without asking if they’re open to hearing it first. So hard to stifle on my part. I’ve had to shut my mouth and walk away because, most of the time, my daughter has said no to my inquiry. But the truth is, she won’t hear it if she doesn’t want to. They also say that recognizing your child has the power to mess up their lives increases the odds that they won’t.

It has been quite a journey with my daughter. Although I’ve become more adept at this counter-intuitive parenting, I slip backwards at times. Recently, I found a twig of marijuana in a jigsaw puzzle box, half pushed under her bed. She knows the house rules: no drugs. I was furious.

I grabbed the twig and flushed it down the toilet. When she came in the door after walking her dog, I yelled in her face. She yelled back – louder – and took off. I handled the situation poorly.

A few weeks later, she broke another house rule. A black nose ring hung between her nostrils. This time, I calmly asked her to give it to me, which gave her some control. She knew the consequence of breaking house rules meant giving up the car keys. She hesitated slightly, and then handed it over.

“Boy, Mom,” she said. “You really handled that one much better.”

“Hmmm,” I said, mentally patting myself on my back. “I did, didn’t I? And so did you, sweetie. So did you.”



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