When our family adopted Natalie from Russia nearly fifteen years ago, very little was known about Attachment Disorders. It wasn’t even a topic brought up by our international adoption agency at the time, so obviously not on my radar. I already had two biological children, thankfully, and had a “typical” gauge to go by. Had I not, I may have made many more mistakes than I did. And I made a boat load of mistakes. A Titanic boat load!
In contrast, the term “Attachment Disorder” has now almost become a buzz word with parental support groups growing in exponential numbers by the day. The more the disorder is discussed, debated, and bantered about, awareness spreads. That is a wonderful thing, and I believe it holds the key to a child overcoming. Here’s why:
Natalie demonstrated all of the typical behaviors of a child with Reactive Attachment Disorder, including stealing, hoarding food, lying, manipulating, destruction of property, and self harm….but I had no label for it….no measure of understanding. Consequences never worked. She wouldn’t turn and go a different way no matter how strict, firm, or steadfast I remained. The thought of her using behavior as a way to control her life, to guard her heart from being hurt again, never entered my mind. Most days, I am embarrassed to report, I felt like I was raising a future criminal who was headed straight to the slammer once out of my care. Having never experienced what she had experienced, empathizing was an impossibility. I never connected the dots. In my mind, a child who was rescued from an orphanage (especially at such a young age) would be able to leave that “short” past behind and begin a new, positive, productive life in a family. That love would conquer all. I was terribly naive.
As a result of my own ignorance on the subject, Natalie’s behavior continued to escalate. By the time she was a teenager, she had become a real danger to herself and others. I’ll never forget the day a middle school principal told me if things didn’t change, he would be forced to involve Juvenile Services. My greatest fear was becoming a reality. I began to have dreams of the police taking her, of her wearing an orange jumpsuit or stripes, eating from a tin tray, and being harassed by other prisoners in a small barren cell. I worried she would miss out on having that first job, getting married, and giving me a grand baby to dote on. All of my dreams for her (and for me) were threatened.
From that point on, I took Natalie out of school (began homeschooling her) and went into survival mode, purely reacting to whatever the kid hurled my way. She carved hateful words on tables, walls, and into wood floors….she raged, became physically violent with me and her siblings, attempted to run away, cut herself, and in general, lost herself. My home became a war zone. Eventually, she entered long-term psychiatric care, spending four years of her life going in and out of therapeutic boarding schools. We were living life on repeat. She would return home, would do well for three or four months, and then the cycle of aggressive behavior would begin again, resulting in her having to get long-term help….it happened over and over and over again, becoming a vicious cycle that I despised…resented. Friends abandoned me. Family couldn’t understand. As a believer, I cried out to God, sometimes in desperation, but more often in fury. I couldn’t imagine how a God who loves so deeply could allow my beautiful daughter to self-destruct, especially when she was an innocent victim of circumstances.
After the diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder, which came rather quickly after her first stay at a mental hospital for youth, I found a relief I cannot fully describe. That diagnosis finally gave me something to dig my heels into. It gave me power to fight this thing. To this day, I read everything I can on the subject. Reading about other children who have experienced childhood trauma and who have responded in the same ways as Natalie, is liberating and gives me a strange sense of normal. For such a long time, I was bound in chains, with no answers, but at the first mention of Reactive Attachment Disorder, I was instantly set free to explore, to learn, and to finally help my daughter overcome. The diagnosis was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received.
Upon the revelation, I immediately involved Natalie in all of my research. I made it my mission to teach her as much about the subject as I, myself, was learning. Sadly, this didn’t begin until she was a teenager, well after many years had passed with a set behavior pattern. Bad habits had not only been formed, they had become as much a part of her as her brown eyes and cute smile. I knew it would be a monstrous undertaking to break the pattern. Even now, it is a daily, intentional process, but we are doing it together. Figuring out how to differentiate between feelings that are REAL and feelings that are being manifested because of her early childhood trauma is not easy, though. It requires trust. A lot of it. Because these children were not nurtured during the first years of their lives, trust is the underlying culprit that taunts and torments them. Trusting momma, understandably, is the biggest hurdle of all. She is the one most of these trauma kids want love from the most….and if they dare open their hearts to accept a momma’s love…. well, they expose themselves to a potential heartbreak that could be devastating.
Because I know trust is the primary factor directing most of Natalie’s destructive impulses, I try to take myself out of the equation as much as possible when it comes to Reactive Attachment Disorder. I want her to own it herself, without having to depend upon me. We utilize a lot of independent scientific research on the subject, supplemented with mothers who blog on the subject. We giggle often when we read of a mom who is just discovering her child has the disorder, recognizing all the similar behaviors to Natalie when she was just a little girl. And that laughter heals. The knowledge heals too. I see it happening before my eyes. She IS overcoming!
Here are the steps that are working for us:
First, communicate. Consider this: If a child is born without his arms, for instance, that is certainly a subject his family is going to openly discuss regularly as they figure out ways for the child to become as independent as possible. It would be poor parenting to leave the child to figure it out on his own, and worse to pretend nothing is atypical about his condition. Just because an Attachment Disorder does not present itself in an obvious physical way, that does not mean it should not be treated in exactly the same way. If parents will explain to their children the concrete reasons “why” they have the impulses to steal, to be destructive, to be impulsive, to lie, to hoard food, etc., then understanding can take place….which will necessarily lead to acceptance. Talk about it NOW! On your child’s level.
The second step to overcoming an Attachment Disorder is formulating a plan of action to deal with the impulses. For example, with Natalie, when she feels an impulse to do something destructive, she leaves the house to go for a walk…if she feels an impulse to hoard food or to overeat, she grabs her adult coloring book or a puzzle to keep her hands/mind busy…if she feels an impulse to lash out in anger and rage, she walks away and counts to 50, taking deep breaths, and then returns so we can talk it out. She is seventeen, so the way we deal with her disorder at this age looks much different than it would for a child who is only eight or nine, but the process is the same. As parents, it is our job to offer a defined plan of re-direction that will hopefully take root and grow into a life-long healthy habit. This isn’t about obedience, but about instruction, much like when teaching a child how to dress himself, how to do math, or how to play a musical instrument. So, if (and when) he/she fails, instead of focusing on consequences, better results are produced by re-formulating the plan or by simply encouraging the child to try again.
Third, look for ways to make sure your child succeeds. Easy, right? Find opportunities that will ensure success. When he/she succeeds with the small things, it will make him/her work more diligently on the tougher things. Success will always breed more success.
Last, take care of yourself. My two youngest children have Down syndrome, are non-verbal, and have major sensory issues. I’ve often said the two of them are a breeze to raise compared to Natalie. That is the honest, brutal truth. Parenting Natalie requires me to be thinking at all times, actually out-thinking her. haha. I must be on guard to head off a potential wrong-turn, because if she goes down the slippery slope….well, I may not get her back. It is a mental battle causing constant fatigue. To do that kind of work, I must take care of myself and you must do the same. I hired a trainer and go to the gym every day without exception. By working out, I become both physically and mentally stronger. In addition, I make sure I get to the library one night a week, all alone in quiet, to write. Whatever relaxes you and keeps you healthy, do it. You’ll need it, and your child will always need you!
All my love and support~