Attachment involves a feeling of being understood and having our needs met. This requires attunement from the caregiver. If you’ve walked away from an interaction feeling “that person gets me” then you’ve experienced attunement. Even with good caretakers, this is disrupted on a regular basis. The process of recognition and repair of this feeling of being out of sync is how infants and children learn self regulation. It is also through these early relationships that children learn to see themselves or develop a sense of self. This is where children learn if the world is basically a safe place or a frightening, unpredictable one. These assumptions about people and situations are applied to every new situation and relationship.
There are many stories of how families were formed by adoption but in each story, the adoptee lost their earliest attachment figures. This is a profound loss. This loss becomes compounded when the early attachment figures are prominent in the child’s story of abuse and neglect.
My approach to attachment therapy
I help the child and family tell their story. My experience is that when children don’t know the details of their lives before joining their adoptive family, they fill in the gaps. This leads to many problems. The child’s truth may be harsh but it makes more sense to them than what they have imagined to “fill in.” When children don’t know the truth, they often blame the people they are with now (adoptive parents) for how they feel. In treatment we explore what the child’s earliest relationships were like, what these relationships taught the child and how this impacts their current relationships. This is done in a developmentally sensitive way, taking into account the child’s ability to process and understand the information. The research in this area has consistently demonstrated that when we are able to make sense of our past, when we can tell our story, we can move beyond the trauma we have experienced.
Another facet of attachment therapy involves strengthening the relationship between the child and parent. Attachment enhancing techniques are explored and encouraged, together we look for opportunities for the parent to connect with their children. When families begin treatment, the parent child relationship is typically very troubled. My goal is to help the parents and the child learn new ways of relating.
Value is placed on the parents’ role in the child’s healing. I provide a lot of support to parents during the treatment process with the understanding that parenting these kids is hard. Parents often feel that they are blamed for their child’s difficulties by friends, families, teachers and therapists. Parents share that they feel alone, with no one on their side as they struggle to parent. It is important that parents feel supported by me during the treatment process. I am on your side!
What about the behaviors?
As you’ve discovered, parenting techniques that work for typical kids don’t work with kids with attachment issues. These kids learned early in their lives that caregivers can be unreliable, inconsistent and preoccupied. They are often uncomfortable with chaos. If you’ve tried traditional therapy it was probably recommended that you use some sort of behavior chart. These behavior modification systems make the assumption that rewards, consequences and praise hold a certain kind of value for the child. They also assume that the child has the skills needed to effectively regulate their emotions and behavior. However, kids with disrupted attachment need to be taught these skills.
I am not a proponent of “chasing the behavior.” Chasing the behavior happens when an undesirable behavior is identified and reward/punishments are applied. I prefer to look for what is motivating the behavior. An understanding of the child’s early attachment relationships and living situations allows us to look at situations where the behavior worked or even was necessary.
I work with parents to help them learn to effectively set limits and create structure. We work together to identify when a child is reactive or receptive. We work to develop techniques to increase a child’s capacity for receptivity.