Have you ever tried parenting a child who puts his fist through a wall when you ask him to do his homework? How do you parent children who are in so much pain that they cut themselves, starve themselves, or won’t let you touch them because they have learned that touch brings more pain? Children who have suffered intense and chronic abuse, neglect and multiple placements are the most complex children on the planet. Imagine parenting a child who does not respond to typical parenting strategies. How long could you parent such a child, feeling as though everything you are doing is ineffective?
With overwhelming feelings of guilt and failure, too many adoptive and foster parents make the decision to disrupt by having the child removed. For foster youth ages 12 – 17, the disruption rate is 25%.1 Each subsequent move for the child furthers his belief that he is unlovable, and deepens the well of pain that he carries with him into his next placement. Too many parents do not get the ongoing specialized training and support necessary, not only to parent, but to heal a child of loss and trauma. For the courageous parents who are willing to open their hearts and homes to these children, the least we can do is equip them with the necessary knowledge, tools and resources they will need in order to be successful. We know that they will need specialized skills and training in order to successfully parent the child of complex trauma. They will also need a complete paradigm shift with regard to their parenting approach and style; a shift in the way they think about, understand and ultimately respond to a child’s behaviors and needs.
“What a traumatized child needs most to heal…is the thing he/ she fears the most”
Traditional Parenting Strategies
Current parenting approaches and styles in our culture are predicated upon the child having a secure attachment relationship with their parents. When things go well, attachment precedes discipline. The first two years of a child’s life are meant to be filled with thousands of sensory-rich experiences of affective attunement between child and mother/caregiver. An infant who cries from the pains of hunger and is gently rocked, sung to and then fed is learning that her parent is responsive, dependable and nurturing. If this pattern of behavior continues, the child will seek proximity and engage in attachment facilitating behaviors, because a secure attachment pattern has been established. When children are deeply and meaningfully attached to their primary caregivers, the foundational emotional dance that facilitates the maximizing of the child’s developmental potential has been established.
Traditional parenting and discipline strategies utilize the principals of loss, punishment, and emotional distance to change a child’s negative behaviors. When children are securely attached to their parents, these approaches are typically effective. The loss of privileges is a commonly used technique when a child makes a mistake or misbehaves. If a young boy hits his sister, he may lose his screen privileges for the day. Punishment is also frequently used in response to children’s negative behavior. In the latest Gallup poll, 65% of American parents were in favor of spanking children. Parental anger and frustration at a misbehaving child is actually utilizing the rupture in the secure attachment relationship to motivate the child into behaving pro-socially. Children who are securely attached are motivated to repair the rupture in the parent-child attachment relationship because they are intimately connected to and impacted by what their caregivers feel. Little Johnny cannot feel good until his parents feel good, therefore, an ego-centric desire to feel better motivates the child to repair the attachment rupture. This strategy is particularly effective when children are young, as they are still very emotionally dependent on their primary attachment caregivers.
Another very commonly used parental strategy is emotional distance or isolation in response to misbehavior. If a child refuses to clean up his toys, he is sent to his room or into time-out. This emotional distance from the caregiver is often motivation for the child who is securely attached to correct his behavior. One of the strongest human needs is our need to connect, and for young children, their need is to seek proximity and closeness to those with whom they are meaningfully attached.3 The separation from their secure base/safe haven creates internal distress which motivates them to repair the rupture in the attachment relationship.
What a traumatized child needs most in order to heal, a deep, meaningful, sustained primary attachment relationship, is the thing he/she fears the most. The majority of abuse, neglect and trauma are committed by parents or those in charge of caring for the child. For children who have been exposed to chronic maltreatment at the hands of their caregivers, a template of intimate relationships is built upon a foundation of fear, distress, pain and violence. As a means of coping, the child learns attachment-deflecting and/or attachment-distressed behaviors as a way to avoid or minimize the overwhelming feelings associated with interpersonal relationships. Added to this already formed pattern of distress related to primary attachment relationships is the repeated trauma they experience with multiple moves within the foster care system. The average number of moves for children in the foster care system is 3.2. But for some, the picture is much more bleak: 1 in 5 of all children currently in the foster care system started his/her stay over 5 years ago.4 Too many children experience foster care drift, with upwards of 10 – 15 placements, and eventually emancipate from the system without a permanent family or adult attachment. The future for these foster care “graduates” is typically grim: only 46% of foster youth who age out of the system finish high school, compared to 85% of all 18 to 24 year olds; 56% become unemployed; 36% become homeless; and 27% of male former foster youth become jailed. These outcomes for our nation’s most vulnerable children are not acceptable when we know what they need most in order to feel whole, valued and connected—a permanent family.
The inherent challenge for the parent who is parenting the child of loss, trauma and multiple placements is that their traditional view of parenting, which is primarily based on the way they were parented themselves in combination with what is considered to be culturally acceptable, will be highly ineffective. This is no surprise given the high rates of disruption for these complex children. Without an established primary attachment relationship, traditional parenting strategies and interventions are met with oppositional and defiant behaviors (attachment precedes discipline). Once the negative interactional pattern between parent and child is established, the parent quickly begins to feel ineffective and overwhelmed, and the child continues to feel isolated, rejected and unlovable. No amount of pre-child training can assist parents in avoiding this crisis stage of placement, when the trauma-reactive child moves in and their traditional world view is turned upside down. It is this very crisis that leads to the opportunity for parents to learn, unlearn, and re-learn what it takes to create and sustain a healing relationship with a complex, traumatized child.
Shifting the Paradigm
The traditional world view most of us have about children is that they are happy, playful and eager to learn. What if the child that just moved into your home and life is angry, hostile, and eager to be difficult? The truth is that we are social-emotional beings and we are deeply impacted by the emotions of those around us. Emotions are contagious. A child’s angry/hurtful behavior is often mirrored by a reactive parent. In fact, the use of parental frustration and anger in response to a child’s misbehavior has the effect of reinforcing the misbehavior. A child’s negative behavior solicits a negative parental response. In order for the parent to begin to establish a meaningful, sustained, primary attachment relationship with a trauma-reactive child, a new template must be formed. The parent must learn to lead a dance with the child that creates the primary parent-child attachment relationship, from which the child’s development can be maximized.
As the leader of the dance, the parent must be able to set the affective tone in which a trusted, committed, permanent relationship can be established, and eventually, over time, create the context in which healing can occur. The leader of the dance allows for missteps by the apprentice who has never successfully danced in any “permanent” way. A child who has had too many changes of partners leading the primary dance of attachment is a child who will have developed many defensive strategies to avoid further psychic pain and trauma. They prefer the dance of isolation to the continued suffering that occurs with the repeated rejection and loss of rotating caregivers. Since most parents have never experienced this amount of core trauma themselves, as they begin to intimately dance with their trauma-reactive child, the experience often feels overwhelmingly painful and/or distressing. This crisis creates a critical opportunity for the parent to explore their own parenting history and style as they are now in the heat of the dance. They are not sitting in a class theorizing what it might be like or reading a book about getting prepared; they are on the dance floor with a real child with real pain. For most parents, a traditional template that has been deeply embedded within the core structures of the parenting dance is the automatic default in establishing the relationship. Shifting the paradigm will require the parent to learn a new dance, a new way of being in the parent-child attachment relationship. No easy task to learn the waltz if you have only danced the two-step!
Pathways to Permanence
The field of neuroscience has blossomed over the past ten years and has reinforced what we knew anecdotally and intuitively: the brain is built and shaped by early interpersonal experiences and it is an organ of great adaptation that changes in response to new experiences. The best time to learn a new dance is while one is actually on the dance floor. And, while it is good to learn as much as one can about the different kinds of dances, their histories, the basic steps, the various rhythms and music that go with each, how much does that really prepare one to actually dance the dance?
Pathways to Permanence 2: Parenting Children who have Experienced Trauma and Loss was created in response to the high rate of disruptions that occur during the crisis stage of placement, when the traditional parenting dance collides with the traumatized child’s dance. Empowering parents to take the lead in creating and maintaining a deep, meaningful interpersonal relationship with a traumatized child means that parents must have access to the right kind of learning environment, knowledge, skill building and peer support during their most critical times of need and/or crisis. Preparatory classes for parents and caregivers before a child comes into their home are essential, but it is not enough to simply provide those classes to parents and then wish them well when the child is placed. We know that the real challenges occur on the dance floor, as a new dance begins between a parent and their newly placed child. Utilizing a developmental perspective to decode complex behaviors, practicing attachment-facilitating behaviors, and reflecting on shared experiences from their peers in the trenches are all a part of the richness embedded in the Pathways to Permanence 2 curriculum. Since we know that experience is the architect of the brain, let’s make sure that we are equipping our parents with the experiences they need in order to successfully learn and teach the dance of permanence.
1 Child Welfare Information Gateway, Adoption Disruption and Dissolution, http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/s_disrup.cfm
2 Hughes, Daniel A. Facilitating Developmental Attachment: The Road to Emotional Recovery and Behavioral Change in Foster and Adopted Children. Jason Aronson, Inc., 1997.
3 Bowlby John. Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. Routledge, London, 1988.
4 Public Policy Institute of California, Foster Care in California: Achievements and Challenges 2010, www.ppic.org
5 Child Welfare League of America, Programs and Resources for Youth Aging Out of Foster Care, May 8, 2007, www.cwla.org
6 Cozolino, Louis. The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain. W. W. Norton & Company, April 2010.
Allison Davis Maxon, LMFT, is the Executive Director for the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. As a clinician, educator and advocate specializing in adoption/permanency, attachment and trauma, she is passionate about creating systems of care that are permanency competent and strength-based. Allison is co-author and expert trainer for ACT: An Adoption and Permanency Curriculum for Child Welfare and Mental Health Professionals, and Pathways to Permanence 2: Parenting Children Who Have Experienced Trauma and Loss. She is co-author of Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency: A Comprehensive Guide to Promoting Understanding and Healing in Adoption, Foster Care, Kinship Families and Third Party Reproduction, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2019.