There is nothing else like raising a child who has trauma and attachment issues, because of the chaos and confusion that arises.
Everything you thought you once knew about raising children, has to be thrown out the door!
Sooner or later, exhaustion will set in because of the constant rejection and demeaning words or actions directed towards you by the child you love.
When I was first approached by the State Foster Care System about adopting my foster son, they said he would be fine as long as he had a loving and stable home.
Unfortunately, that was not true.
In the 10 years I have worked with children and trained families to help heal their children from trauma and attachment issues, I have met the most loving parents. Parents who had the biggest hearts I’ve ever seen!
However, their children were not healing. David and Audra were perfect examples and here is their story.
They had to learn the hard way, as I did, that having a heart for these children is not enough.
When it comes to healing children with trauma and attachment issues, you have to know what you’re doing; just loving them and having good intentions will get them nowhere. You have to have heart and skills.
Due to lack of information on the skills I needed, I started off on the wrong foot with my son, and it cost us a lot. It cost me years of pain and struggle to make up for my initial wrong (loving but misguided) approach. More sad to me is that it cost him many lost years where he could have been a happy child.
My goal is to help save you the trouble of having to learn the hard way! I want to empower you with the information you need to help you be that loving parent while also being an effective therapeutic parent.
In this blog, we’re going to review the first phase of therapeutic parenting so that you know where to start. It can serve as a roadmap with the clear actions you’ll take in this first phase to heal and be ready to move on to the next phase.
Therapeutic Parenting Phase One
Phase One: Where parents begin when helping a child heal from trauma and attachment issues
Goal of Phase One: Development of Trust
Difficulties of Phase One: You will be with your child nearly all day long every day. Some breaks are needed (regular and therapeutic respite), but you are the one doing all the work; others just support you.
Main Therapeutic Parenting Tools: Structure, Nurture, Containment
Behaviors of A Child Who Needs Phase One:
- Frequently disrespectful
- Hurtful to self, others, or property (emotionally or physically hurtful)
- Cannot be trusted to always follow basic commands (Come here, go to your room, stay at the kitchen table)
- Are exhausting rather than fun to be around
Not sure if your child has attachment trauma, here is how I knew my son had significant attachment issues (often referred to as attachment disorder).
If a child is just arriving to your house, start here.
Even if you’re wrong and they end up not needing to start at phase one, it will work much better to start here and move to a more advanced phase, than to start in a more advanced phase and have to scale it back to phase one.
Phase one is for those children who show by their behaviors, words, and choices that they are more often in a survival, scared, and distrusting state of mind rather than in a calm, engaged, and trusting state of mind.
These behaviors will be ones that are disruptive, disobedient, or hurtful to themselves or others (physical or emotional). These behaviors are always out of a survival, scared, and distrusting state of mind.
If your child is disrespectful, cannot be trusted to always follow basic commands (come here, go to your room, stay at the kitchen table), and in general, are exhausting rather than fun to be around, this is a child who needs phase one.
In fact, the behaviors of a child who have developed a solid trust in their parent are those behaviors that characterize the child as respectful, responsible, and fun to be around.
We will keep this in mind as the end point for Phase One, and when a child will be ready for Phase Two.
However, until they’re those things, we, as the parent, must provide for their needs through the most intensive part of therapeutic parenting, Phase One.
In the first stage of healing, a mother is recreating the dynamics of the first year of life in order to help a child develop basic trust. We must go back and meet their basic emotional needs for them to complete the first psychological stage of development per Erikson.
As you can see in Erikson’s stages as shown below, trust vs. mistrust is the foundation for the other psychosocial stage of development.
This is why it is so important! We cannot expect a child to overcome their shame without the foundation of trust.
If they don’t get the foundation of trust laid out at the beginning, all the future psychosocial stages of development will go the wrong way, and they will struggle with shame, guilt, inferiority, and isolation. They will continue to cover these core beliefs and feelings about themselves with disruptive behaviors.
As uncomfortable as it is, and as intensive as a process it requires, we have to look back to the first year of life and meet their psychosocial needs that didn’t get met the first time. We have to parent them in a way that will meet those needs now so that they can develop trust in us.
A trust that is complete, implicit and natural, not one that is forced.
We look to the dynamic between a healthy parent and their infant to see how this infant naturally develops this complete and implicit trust in their parent. We can also glean information from neuroscience to help us understand what one needs in order to feel safe and develop trust in someone else.
So, let’s look at the life of an infant in their first year of life.
Minimizing Their World To Meet Their Needs
An infant is completely dependent on their mother for everything: to feed them, clothe them, carry them, bathe and change them. If a mother does these things well, the infant will trust her. The infant will also get the sense of being seen, heard, and understood without ever being able to say words to the mother, she just seems to know and understand her infant’s needs.
Regulating and attunement are what an emotionally healthy mother does naturally with her infant, which facilitates the trust and attachment of her infant with her.
To review what attunement and regulation are, you can watch this short video and blog.
If she is not always consistent in meeting these needs, the child will not trust her. The child will always wonder, will she be there this time? Will she drop me this time too? If I cry louder, will my needs get met? If I don’t cry at all, will my needs get met?
Key Point: One major aspect of the intensive Phase One is for the mother to take care of all the needs of the child.
This will be extremely hard for a child with trauma and attachment issues, because they do not like depending on another person. This, in fact, is one of their biggest fears!
They especially do not like having to depend on a mother figure, because the initial trauma is registered in their brain as coming from a mother!
The simplest way to be able to meet a child’s needs is for them to ask for everything they need. It is important to do this in a positive way, and for you as the therapeutic parent to use this as an opportunity to say lots of “yes’s” to your child!
Yes, you may go use the bathroom. Yes, you may have a glass of water. Yes, it is my pleasure to give you clean clothes!
In this way, you are going to be minimizing your child’s world (which will help them feel safer), but also you have to be around and close by them all the time.
Key Point: A major aspect of the intensive Phase One is that the mother and child are always close together
To review the reasons why the mother is the most important person for healing a child with trauma and attachment issues, you can take a look at this blog, “The Unique Needs Of A Child With Attachment Disorder.”
Phase One and Choices
Parents call me telling me in detail of how the day starts when they give their child with trauma and attachment issues a choice of cereal or eggs for breakfast, and the child says the most awful mean things to them.
The latest parent complained that their child would roll her eyes and say, “Are you that stupid, or what?” From there, the disrespectful and hurtful comments would only start. Other parents have given me details of their children throwing their plates across the table, dumping their food on the floor or in their laps, and other disruptive behaviors.
When a parent tells me this, I think, “I need to do a lot of education here, because based on this child’s disrespect and behaviors, they are in phase one and shouldn’t be given any choice for breakfast foods!”
Key Point: In this first phase, a child cannot handle choices well and thus should not be given many, if any, choices at all. This is part of minimizing a child’s world so that they can be successful.
Especially if this is how they handle the privilege of having choices. When a child responds to any situation with these types of behaviors and words, the situation is more than what the child can handle at this time in their healing and a parent should not give them this type of choice until the child has shown a significant change in their healing.
We have talked about using the choice test to help us know when a child is ready for phase two, and if a child has had this type of reaction to choices regarding breakfast foods, this might be a great choice test to do later on when you think your child might have met the goals for phase one.
Your Words and Actions During Phase One
Key Point: Phase one is much more about action than words.
It is your actions that will help them to feel safe with you and trust you, not what you say. Their brain is in such survival mode that they aren’t listening. They are unable to hear what you say. Their brains are going a million miles a minute.
You know this to be true for yourself as well! When you’re super stressed and someone is talking to you about something else, you find your mind wandering and tuning them out.
Key Point: So, phase one is NOT the time to ever reason with a child.
In phase one, it isn’t helpful for the parent to engage in conversation with the child about either (1) the child’s behavior or (2) explaining the parent’s behavior and responses to the child’s behavior.
The main reason not to engage in rational conversation with a child in phase one is that in this phase, they are so oppositional, they just want to argue. They aren’t going to listen to your reasons and say “Oh, I never saw it that. Wow! I’m so glad you have explained to me!”
By engaging in conversation with the child about either their behaviors or your decisions as the parent, you’re just setting yourself up for a fight.
While we cannot be afraid of fights as therapeutic parents, we should also know that it works against us and puts or keeps our child in a negative and oppositional state of mind.
The Magical Words Of a Parent in Phase One
Phase one is more about you as the parent responding with decisive actions to their disruptive and fear-based behaviors and words.
When they’re in survival mode and use disruptive behaviors, you can respond with a one or two syllable word, because they won’t be able to hear anything more than that anyways, also you can get your point across faster.
“Oh,” “Wow,” and “Bummer” are my favorite three words to resort to when the behaviors and hurtful words start flying!
These can be immediately followed up with decisive action on your part if necessary to keep everybody safe. If nobody is in danger, you don’t have to respond immediately, and acknowledging the behavior with a look and a word can sometimes be a better response.
The magic about these words is the child’s inability to argue with you. When all you say is “Oh” or “wow,” their behaviors and hurtful words lose their fun and power because you simply aren’t responding to the negativity.
However, if you were to say, “You can’t talk to me like that,” you have just invited opposition and argument. For one, they love a challenge. They love being told they can’t do something because that is exactly what they will do! You have also allowed for an argument about why they think they can talk to you like that.
The Absolute No’s Of Phase One
In Phase one, and really in all of therapeutic parenting, there is absolutely no room for time-outs or countdowns.
When your child has disruptive behaviors, remember, this is just their way of communicating their fear. You bring them closer to you and give them more structure and containment (make their world smaller) when they are communicating fear with their behaviors.
Key Point: Because in Phase One your “love” is still scary to them, you are going to increase the structure and containment to help them feel safe.
You make their world smaller (structure and containment), and you help regulate them with your presence and touch.
You are not going to send your child away to a corner. This will only make things worse. They will feel shame, anger, fear and out of control, and most importantly, they will learn they cannot trust you when they need you most to help them regain control of their emotions.
How To Build The Trust
Children with trauma and attachment issues are able to heal and develop trust and attach to someone, but that only be with people who have certain qualities.
Key Point: This is why having a heart is not enough, you also have to become the person they are looking for in their brain that they could trust.
Their brain is desperately looking for somebody who is big and strong and will fight for them and save them from bad people, yet will be strong and smart enough to save them from themselves.
In order to go through something scary, they want somebody who is big and strong like a movie hero who can win all the fights. Yet, they need that movie hero to be fighting for them and be on their side.
When we accept them treating us in demeaning and hurtful way, they see us as weak.
While we think we’re being nice, they see us as weak and we have sabotaged that trust we had building.
The strength we’re talking about in a therapeutic parent is inner strength and self-control over one’s emotions, though outer physical strength also helps and it definitely helps to be in shape!
The children see themselves as smart, powerful, yet ironically, do not trust themselves, and are also scared of their own lack of control over their emotions and their overall sense of being out of control.
In order for them to trust in us, we have to appear in their eyes as smarter and stronger than they are, and most importantly, in control of ourselves and our emotions.
Key Point: We need to be in control of our own emotions. They cannot make us angry or depressed.
When they try to make you angry with their behaviors and their words, they are testing your ability to stay emotionally calm.
When they see you get angry and lose control over your words or actions, they interpret that as you not being any more stable or stronger than they are. So, of course, they do not trust in you and in your ability to help them or protect them.
It is absolutely essential we learn the specific tools we need in order not to get angry at their behaviors. We need to learn the essential tools to help us be in control of ourselves and our emotions, while also being able to calm them down (regulate their emotions) and help them understand themselves.
In this video, I review the importance of having “Soft eyes” at all times with a child with attachment and trauma issues.
Phase 1: Showing A Deep Understanding And Acceptance Of Who They Are
Key Point: Showing a deep understanding and acceptance of who they are and all parts of them is necessary for them to develop trust in you.
Before a parent is trained in Phase one, they are usually so burned out and scared of their child’s behavior, that they have mostly shown anger rather than an understanding and acceptance of their child.
(Reminder: acceptance of the child does not mean allowing or being ok with their disruptive behavior. Acceptance means understanding why they are behaving the way they are, and then doing something about to benefit and heal them.)
When you say to them the feelings they are expressing, and why it makes sense they would that that way, you are showing them that you acknowledge who they are and their body on a level they don’t yet understand themselves. All at the same time, this will show them you accept them despite their big feelings.
This is helpful on so many levels!!
For instance, if you tell them that it’s bedtime and they decide to throw their toy, you can say something like, “You’re feeling angry. It makes sense that you would feel that way.” If seems that they’re listening, you could even say, “You want to play more, and I’m telling you it’s bedtime. You don’t trust me that tomorrow you’ll be able to play more, and so you feel angry that you can’t play more tonight.”
I would also remind you that much of their anger is actually sadness and deep grief over what they have lost in their life. It is super helpful to start to identify sadness for them.
Besides communicating an in-depth understanding of them and by identifying their different emotions, you’re also giving them the tools they need so that they can learn to communicate those feelings without using behaviors and actions. You are bringing some organization to their thoughts and feelings, and this will help them feel less scared of their emotions and less out of control.
With time, you’ll see less behaviors, and eventually, they’ll start to be able to communicate their feelings with words rather than just acting out in ways that feel uncontrollable.
Understanding the different parts of themselves is extremely essential, and you can watch this video where I can explain “Parts Work” and give you more examples.
Living with children with unresolved trauma and attachment issues is the most awful experience in the world as a parent.
Healing a child with trauma and attachment issues is the most wonderful experience in the world as a parent.
The only difference between the two is having the knowledge and skills. Without those, you are lost, hurt, exhausted, and beaten into the ground by the constant behaviors and demeaning words of your child.
However, with knowledge and skills, it changes everything! You now walk with confidence because you know what you’re doing.
Phase one is where you start with healing a child with trauma and attachment issues. It is the hardest and most intense of the phases and the one with the fewest rewards from your child. This is why few parents do this or get through it.
Yet without this foundation, I have never seen a child heal because their default is still to resist, oppose, and control out of distrust and fear.
I wish it were different just as I wish love were enough. However, wishing won’t get us anywhere. It didn’t get me anywhere!
It is time to strap on the gloves, train hard, acquire the knowledge and skills we need to win, and then step into the rink to fight for the lives and healing of our children.
To The Strong Parent In You,