Healing a child with attachment disorder requires very intentional effort on the parents and caregivers.
This is not something that will happen by itself over time. The great thing is that parents can easily learn how to create a safe environment for children with attachment disorder, which in turn, would facilitate healing for their child!
Parents who are in a healthy emotional place when they have a child, naturally creates a safe environment for their children subconsciously. It is a natural outflow of their healthy emotional state. As with adult addicts though, it becomes a family disease as it changes the whole family dynamics.
There are two kinds of unhealthy dynamics that usually can occur within a household when there is a child with attachment disorder or any challenging child within the family, but this tends to start with a parent:
The first dynamic is when a parent caters to their child’s moods, attempting to avoid confrontations and explosive behaviors. This results in a parent attempting to love the child enough to change them, but ends in the child’s moods and behaviors running the household.
The second unhealthy dynamic, which is common, is when parents swing too far to the other side that they become almost military: rigid and strict. It is a normal response to protect oneself emotionally and use consequences to help exert power over a child who is losing control.
I, myself, have reacted in such a way when my son first arrived in my home. I didn’t know how to reach out and truly help him; I didn’t know the secret to healing children with attachment disorder yet! I had to learn two very hard lessons! I wished I would’ve known how to help children with attachment disorder heal before I started foster parenting. I believe that if I had known this at the beginning, we could have taken years off of my son’s healing journey! However, learning these two lessons the hard way has changed my life and has given me the opportunity to share this vital information.
Here are the two lessons I needed to learn (and you should know):
- Love will not heal a child who does not trust you. Trust has to be developed before they will allow any love in. Therefore, trust is the first step (before love) in healing a child with trauma and attachment issues.
- Becoming rigid and strict does help in managing behaviors, but it will not heal the heart (a.k.a. trauma and attachment issues).
Let’s break these two lessons down into practical steps to help prepare you for the trenches of trying to heal a child with trauma and attachment issues in the daily life.
First off, love will not heal a child who does not trust you. Trust must be developed before they will allow any love in.
Let me be clear, love is what heals a child or adult with trauma and attachment issues; however, they will not take their medicine (love) if they do not feel safe with you or trust you. If they don’t know or understand for sure that you have their best interests in mind, they will refuse medical care (Love)!
Trust has to be developed before they will accept the healing medicine, because by definition, attachment disorder is a distrust of everybody else and their intentions to hurt and harm that person.
If trust is the first step, how does one facilitate a child with attachment disorder developing trust?
Trust is developed when the child perceives the adult as strong. In fact, for the child to develop trust after a breach in their core trust and the development of attachment disorder, the adult has to be perceived as stronger than the child.
Imagine this analogy: you have to walk down a dark alley through the rough side of Chicago or Los Angeles in order to get where you need to be. You would choose someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger to walk through the alley with you, because you trust that he is stronger and can physically protect you. However, because you know Arnold is stronger than you, you also want to know that if you did come across conflict in the dark alley that he will not abandon you to join the opposing side. You have to trust him in order to allow him to walk you through the dark scary alley.
So is the same for children, without the Arnold analogy. A child with attachment disorder must see and feel that you are stronger than them, meaning that you are strong enough to protect them physically from others who might harm them. But they also need to know that you will not use your strength against them. If they get to this point then they will trust you to walk with them through that dark alley.
If trust is the first step to healing a child with attachment disorder, how do we practically facilitate our child to begin to trust us?
Having a child who has attachment disorder develop trust is easier than one might think. It will be a more natural process for some parents than others, but it is almost always never the way in which you think it is done.
The key to having a child with attachment disorder develop trust is by keeping the guiding principle in mind that trust is developed through the perception of someone being strong and dependable. Some of the characteristics that your child will be looking at to see if they can trust you include being predictable, all- knowing, super strong in character, and consistent throughout all situations. Your child with attachment disorder will give you many tests to see if you demonstrate these qualities and can pass “The Trust Test.”
They will continue to push further in their behaviors until they are satisfied that you are unchangeable (super strong in character), consistent, in control of your own emotions, and able to control their emotions and behaviors. If you react with anger, if you allow their lies or manipulation to continue, or if you break down in tears when they won’t stop because you don’t know what to do, you have just failed the trust test.
On the other hand, if you can calmly keep them and everybody safe, while not let their behaviors and moods alter your own, and if you can make decisions regardless of how they will react to it, they will perceive you as strong. And with similar tests throughout the day, the coming weeks and months, your child will come to trust you if you can continue to show them your consistency.
The development of trust is, thus, a balance of the two dynamics that by themselves, are unhealthy and do not result in the healing of a child with trauma and attachment issues. It is a combination of being a wall, in terms of predictability with very defined expectations, but a wall that will express empathy and will give hugs.
The development of trust happens when there is a balance between structure and nurture, expectations and empathy, boundaries and emotional connection.
The rigid and strict response by parents is because it does provide a predictable, consistent relationship where the children feel safer. However, it does not develop trust, because while the adult is perceived as strong, the parent is not seen, by the child, as being on their side. We could say the child may develop respect for such an adult, but will not trust, and thus, will never lead to love and attachment for that child.
The parent who is only lenient, who hopes that understanding and loving will help heal their child, will allow their child to perceive the parent as weak and stupid. Respect, trust, and attachment will never develop in a child who views the other person as weak and stupid.
When a child sees that they are the ones in control of the family dynamic and are able to change the parents’ moods and reactions with their behaviors, they will see themselves as being the powerful ones, not the parents. When a child notices that they will get what they want if they do a particular behavior or act a certain way that will overwhelm the parent, the child will see him or herself as stronger than the adult. This will often reveal itself in the family drawings a child will create, where they picture themselves as bigger than their parents!
The two lessons I had to learn through personal experience are that love alone will not heal my child, but nor does the strict, rigid approach heal them either. It is a perfect blend of these two dynamics; a balance of these two dynamics will allow a child to perceive the adult as being strong and powerful enough to protect them from themselves and their big scary feelings.
It is this perception of a strong and caring adult that will lead a child through the dark alley and through the progression of developing respect, trust, and then attachment.
What are ways that you have employed to help a child with attachment disorder develop respect and trust?
Did you have any core beliefs of your own that you struggled with to become a parent that would be perceived as strong by your child?
Cheering You On,
P.S. Want to specific help in parenting a child with attachment disorder? Please schedule a consultation with me to better equip yourself in this area.