Working With Children With Attachment Disorder: Handling Anger and Violence

By | 2017-01-23T03:50:52+00:00 January 23rd, 2017|

Anger and violence are the most common behavior disorders that children deal with when they have attachment disorder.

It is also anger and violence that tends to convince parents to bring their children in for evaluation and therapy. While there are many other manifestations of children with attachment disorder, anger and violence becomes the most disruptive, which prompts caregivers to seek further help.

When viewed in light of trauma and attachment, anger is just a very primal way of communicating fear. Fear is demonstrated in anger and violence when a child does not have the words to communicate their fear.

When a child feels their physical or psychological safety is threatened, they will go into survival mode, which is a sympathetic response in their brain and body characterized by fight or flee. We see both of these quite often in children with attachment disorder! Fight will look like anger and violence.

If a child feels their safety is threatened, that child might go into freeze mode, rather than fight, if their brain has been wired to more rapidly shift from fight or flee to freeze mode. This involves a shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic through the dorsal vagus nerve (see Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges), and more importantly is another survival mechanism used throughout nature. The opossum playing dead when spotted, or the deer stopping in its tracks as the lion readies to pounce are both great examples of how other animals use freeze as a protective method. This is not so uncommon.

Although parents can become quite fearful when their child shows anger or violence, one must remember that these behaviors that the child is expressing is only masking a scared little child who feels unsafe. Of course, this is why the child may be continuing these behaviors, because anger and violence allows the child to assert itself, therefore helps them to survive when they feel they are in a very scary environment!

When I see anger and violence in a child or adult with attachment disorder, I actually picture that person as a little 2 year old throwing a temper tantrum. In doing this, I am reminding myself that I am really talking to that person’s 2-year-old inner-child that is really frightened, which therefore allows me to respond in a calm and helpful manner.

By recognizing fear and being scared as the underlying root of anger, it can allow a person’s caregivers or teachers to respond in a way that can calm the child and their fear, rather than escalate their anger. If a child sees their anger and violence as effective, they will continue to resort to that survival tactic throughout life, whether at home or at school.

However, the interesting challenge becomes helping the child, who is really scared, when they may not realize the underlying emotion at all. This makes sense, because if the child understood their feelings, understood that they were scared, and if they felt like they could identify and appropriately communicate their emotions, they wouldn’t need to utilize anger in order to communicate what they are internally feeling. This then becomes the challenge of knowing how to help a child who uses anger and violence as their way to express how scared they may be feeling.

How then does a parent best respond to a child with anger and violence in the moment?

The principles of attachment parenting come to play here, as it will be especially important, in these moments, to approach the child with a balance of structure and empathy.

Structure without empathy will lead a child to become resentful, especially when they become older. Empathy without structure will lead to a spoiled child who does and gets whatever the child wants.

Thus it is vital that there is a balance of both structure and empathy in order to best help a child who is dealing with anger and violence within their attachment disorder.

What does structure mean?  

In the face of anger and violence, structure means establishing clear expectations of safety for everyone, while enforcing these expectations calmly and firmly. This is the moment where the child tests the caregiver and asks, “Can I trust you?” The parent or caregiver needs to pass this test in order to build the bonds of attachment with their child.

A clear expectation of safety is never allowing the child to hurt you, themselves, others, or things. This should be communicated with the child once, and then by your actions you will communicate consistency and inner strength, which your child will see as trustworthy.

Empathy should be communicated to the child in the moment, in order to keep them out of shame. Because if not, this can cause the child to feel threatened and will, unfortunately, trigger them to go into survival mode and thus, induce more anger. Empathy is communicated by normalizing the child’s feelings, and by showing that you are going to be right there with them until those feelings pass.

Here is an example of how to perfectly communicate a balance between structure and empathy with a child who is expressing anger can look something like this: “It’s ok to feel angry; everybody has parts of themselves that feel angry at times. Words are a safe way that you can express your anger. It is never ok to physically hurt me, yourself, or other things when you are feeling anger. I will help you stay safe when the feelings seem really big!”

This is an ideal situation and an ideal way of handling the situation. However, let me give you an example that is much more likely to occur:

Your child has lost it, they are screaming and running through the house throwing things or perhaps spitting on you and scratching you. Calmly but very quickly, you corner them and put them in a safety hold. These safety holds can be learned through CPI Physical Restraint Trainings to ensure you are not hurting them or yourself. As you do this, you use your calm and understanding voice to express, “I know this is so hard. You feel very angry and scared right now.”

By now, they are yelling at you about how stupid you are, how they hate you, and how you are hurting and killing them. You might wonder how this could really be building trust. And with the seriousness with which they are screaming “oww!” you actually wonder if you are hurting them.

You hold them safely, repeating the same thought in a calm and almost monotone voice. You start deep breathing yourself to keep yourself calm, though by your example, they may eventually start deep breathing as well. If you are unable to remain completely calm, empathic, understanding, and genuinely express how hard this is for them, you should find other ways or other people that can contain and regulate the child. Because if you allow yourself to become angry, as well and triggered by the situation, which would turn it into a power struggle, and would result in a more harmful situation.

However, though it sounds difficult, this is actually where the magic starts to happen. Providing this containment for them, will start to regulate them over time and they will calm down. Once they are calmed down, you slowly start to let up their containment, providing freedom of one limb at a time, such as an arm and then the other arm, while testing their ability to stay calm.

The tendency in these moments is to talk, otherwise known as, lecturing. This may be blunt to say it this way, but this is the wrong thing to do! A caregiver participating in attachment parenting would use this time to do interpersonal regulation, something that a mother would do to help regulate her baby who can’t calm down on its own either such as, singing, humming, rocking, positive physical contact, tapping, and massage are all excellent choices.

This will communicate the balance of structure and empathy better than any words will ever do. The physical containment is the structure of enforcing that everybody and everything is safe. The empathy is expressed through remaining emotionally engaged and helping to regulate their emotions.

In general, when doing attachment parenting, whenever the parent can communicate with actions rather than words, the better. You can say, “I am here to keep you and everybody safe,” but when you put them in a safety hold at the first indication that they are not going to keep everybody safe including themselves, you reinforce that expectation and your commitment to enforce that expectation much more loudly than with pure words or lectures.

This should not be taken to mean that you do not communicate your thoughts and feelings as you would in a healthy relationship. Your child with attachment disorder has trouble understanding their thoughts and feelings, and has even less understanding of how to communicate those with words. Therefore, it is important to also verbally communicate with them.

Giving them words for their thoughts and feelings will greatly reduce their need to use anger to show how they’re feeling. I also like to express encouragement as a prediction of the future that I know, one day, they will have the words to communicate their thoughts and feelings, since I know they do not like losing control or having to be in a safety hold. I would say something like this, “It will not always be like this, Kiddo! I see good things in your future!”

This is where a parent who is doing attachment parenting can shine and become a superstar, where other parents may never have the opportunity to grow in this manner. Think about it this way: your child has a feeling that is so overwhelming to them that they completely lose control over themselves. This feeling is so big that some kids describe it as big as the sky, an elephant, or a monster.

But for you as a parent to come in and tame this emotion that they have not been able to, and put a leash on the monster and make it sit at your feet and purr, your child will see you as strong! Your child seeing you as strong is the first step towards them trusting you and is a step closer to a healthy attachment.

Have their been times you were afraid of your child’s anger and violence?

What tools have you used to help regulate your child in the middle of a rage?

Encouraging You On,

Dr. Aimie

Related: Working With Children With Attachment Disorder: Frequently Asked Questions

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