Impact of Broken Attachment
Attachment – either healthy or unhealthy – falls on a spectrum, or a sliding scale. On one end you have healthy and secure attachment. This is the type of attachment you see in infants and children who are loved, cherished, and wanted from conception. These children have devoted parents who either intentionally or maybe even seemingly by instinct met the needs of their precious little one during their infancy and early childhood.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have personality disorders. These disorders aren’t diagnosed until adulthood and are extremely difficult to treat (IF they can be fully treated at all.) Very often, there is a strong correlation between personality disorders and untreated trauma and attachment problems earlier in life.
And then you have everything else in the middle. Notice that diagnosable Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) area takes up a significant portion of the spectrum. That's because there varying degrees of severity and manifestation of it. You’ll also notice that in the grand scheme of things, secure and healthy attachment actually only occupies a very small portion of the spectrum. This is because a child is either securely attached or they are not. If they are not, they will fall somewhere in the attachment disorder spectrum.
- Death of a parent
- Emotionally unavailable adults (both before and after birth)
- Medical trauma (long term illness and/or hospitalization)
- Undiagnosed/untreated painful child illness that can’t be soothed (colic, ear infections, etc)
- Premature Birth
- Poor prenatal care
- Young mothers with poor parenting skills (especially if they have little support)
- Military deployment of a parent
- Caregiver depression or substance abuse
- Abuse of any kind
- Neglect (physical and emotional)
- Inconsistent care (sometimes it’s there, sometimes it isn’t)
- Multiple caregivers
- Frequent moves or placements (foster care)
- And the list goes on...
Even though it might appear to be a natural instinct, it is not. It is a learned skill that comes from thousand of iterations of the healthy attachment cycle. My son was absolute evidence of that. When we first met him, life was all about insuring his physical needs were met. He was always far more interested in what was in my bag than he was in playing with us. If we were doing something that met his needs, he would engage with me and my husband. Otherwise, he played much better with our daughter. When we tried to get close or impose boundaries, he did everything he could to be naughty, evasive, aggressive, silly, prove he was in control, push us away emotionally, or shut down and make us not want to get close to him. Yet at the same time, this child was and still is so very, very, VERY scared of being hurt, of losing me, and that he will once again end up in a place where no one will take care of him.
Regardless of how perfect the kids seem or how ideal the situation surrounding their adoption may have been, EVERY adopted child (or any other child who isn't living with the woman who birthed them) has still experienced a broken attachment. At some point in their lives, that broken attachment IS going to be a big deal, too. It might show up when they’re kids or it might not be until they are teens or young adults and start to wrestle with their own identity. Just like shattered glass, even when those attachments heal and are functionally strong, they will never look or feel exactly like an attachment that’s never been broken.
No matter how awesome and how amazing your family is now, and no matter how much love you pour into these kids, if you’re parenting a foster or adopted child who has had multiple attachment breaks or has experienced multiple things that cause them (such as neglect or abuse on top of abandonment), and ESPECIALLY if you’re parenting a child who was institutionalized (even just for a relatively short time) or was bounced around the system or between various relatives at all during their first few years, your child is at very high risk of having attachment problems. That risk level is so high that it's almost safe to assume they DO have some kind of attachment issues that will need to be recognized and properly addressed. If that same child experienced significant trauma on top of their multiple attachment breaks, that risk increases even further...really, almost to the point that it's a given.
It really doesn't matter if your child been formally diagnosed with attachment problems or not. The whole diagnostic thing has it's own set of problems anyway (which we'll talk about later.) It's kind of like that age old question "If a tree falls down in the forest and no one was there to see it or hear it, did it really fall down?" Of course it did. It likewise doesn’t matter if the symptoms are manifest externally or internally or are obvious or subtle. A break is a break is a break. Just as you wouldn't expect a broken arm to heal properly on it's own without some kind of intervention, it's kind of naive to think broken attachments will heal properly if ignored. The sooner those problems are recognized, accepted for what they are, and they are appropriately treated through parenting and/or therapy if necessary, the more likely it is that the children will be able to heal and have functional, healthy attachments and all types of relationships throughout their life.
-Diana (who blogs at From Survival to Serenity)
The fact that your neglected kids aren't doing so well doesn't mean that LOTS of equally mistreated kids will face similar challenges.
It's possible that the entire medical establishment (all licensed providers - doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, PTs, OTs, etc) knows nothing about trauma and attachment -- and the importance of both when caring for kids. But it's equally possible that those providers understand it just fine and you just don't like the answers you're given. That healthcare providers who disagree with the "therapeutic parenting" approach that many self-proclaimed trauma mamas practice (based on Heather Forbes, Katherine Leslie, Karen Purvis) might have a rational basis for doing so. At the very least SOME providers *do* - and give solid treatment plans, based on peer-reviewed, evidence-based, peer-reviewed studies. It's impossible that every single healthcare provider you encounter is stupid, ignorant or both about attachment/trauma.
(It's kinda like finding a bug in your salad at every single restaurant you go to -- at some point you should clue into the fact that the bugs are on *you*, ie you have bugs and every salad you encounter has bugs in it BECAUSE of this).
This "therapeutic parenting" business - does it involve giving your kid "time-ins", permission to destroy stuff, encouragement to poop/pee in inappropriate places (to take away the thrill of the forbidden) and/or micromanaging your kid's encounters with the world at large (ie going postal if the sunday school teacher gives your kid a candy bar, freaking out if your kid's teacher fails to alert you that there will be a fire drill on Tuesday, cutting people who love you and your kids lives if they violate one of the billion dictatorial edicts you've told them to follow)?? Have you considered that *your* the unreasonable one?? That perhaps every teacher/doctor/relative isn't out to get you??
It's a free country and you're certainly welcome to adopt any parenting approach you like and cut folks out of your life for any reason (life/death critical or simply whimsical)... but it's worth noting that many alcohol/drug-exposed, abused and neglected kids (Rebeka Geer, BFF and her sisters, among others) have done super-duper well using an approach that differs significantly from *your* "therapeutic parenting" efforts.
How are *your* kids doing relative to the successes of differently-parented kids from "hard places"? Are they on an equally successful track??
Here's a fun little mental health riddle -- involving kids who experienced significant trauma who demonstrate behaviors that sound *exactly* like RAD + FASD. But are caused by something else entirely (according to prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Science):
I agree with you that not all kids are suffering with attachment disorders just because they are coming from traumatic lives. Not all kids that are adopted struggle with this. I think the extreme kids are the exception. I think their families are lucky to find other families struggling. My personal goal is to help those families find appropriate ways to help their families. I do not support many of the treatments and therapies that are out there. I personally think they can hinder attachment. I do NOT force my children into doing what I want them to do. I focus more on finding ways to have fun, express their feelings and thoughts appropriately, building a healthy relationship together in whatever way my child wishes and can handle, and providing a safe home to do that. I have higher expectations about my own actions and model appropriate boundaries and behaviors. I allow them to make huge mistakes without shaming them. I am considered by everyone that has personally viewed my parenting style to be very laid back, committed, accepting, protective, open, and loving. I have tried other ways but this is what works best for me and my children. I believe in natural consequences not punishments. My children learn more through conversations than through strong sitting, restrictions, and lectures.
With all that said, I know desperate families that have been willing to try all the other ways in order to help their families. (I will not be liked much for things I say here but I feel strongly it needs to be said.) These moms come looking for help to fix their kids when what really needs to be fixed is their expectations and reactions to the child. I have seen it myself. I also have been strong enough to say it to them. I will always be willing to put myself out there and tell a mom that she is doing damage to her relationship and/or her child. I have no problem telling a mom she needs to look at herself and try a different way because her's is not working or is mean spirited. I have told mothers that they may not be the right mom for a child based on their comments and complaints. I think the truth can be said in a supportive way that doesn't make them defensive. Believe it or not, this is what is happening in our support groups and our retreat. I have seen groups that are all about supporting moms and their delusions that the problem is all the child or that they are always right. We are NOT that kind of group. Every mom that has stayed has been thankful for the honesty and taken a hard look at themselves. Most have made changes trying to be a better parent for their child not increased their expectations for their child to be a better child.
I know many moms and therapies think that they need to be the one in control of their kids. Like you said, micromanage every move. I am not that parent. I do not feel that is healthy. I can't say I haven't tried it because I have. I was desperate. It felt unnatural to me. I prefer to take a step back and let my kids have the control of most areas in their lives. They are happier and trust me far more when I do step in to help them make a decision. I had to give up MY control issues to show them they were safe and be a good role model for them. I make huge mistakes. I show them how to apologize and make amends. I talk about my feelings and thoughts and ask theirs. Over time, they have chosen to follow to my lead.
When I agreed to take over ETAAM, I had to stop and think about what my visions for this group is. We changed the name to Beyond Trauma and Attachment and added some online support groups to reach more families. My vision is to provide support, honesty, and education. I knew some would stay and some would go. I had to be OK with that. I am. We can't help everyone. We can only help those that are willing to step out of their comfort zone. My philosophy is that when we know better, we do better. I welcome your thoughts and experience. I think it is vital to our growth to surround ourselves with people that disagree with us. It's a great way to learn. I want to hear from you. I would prefer it to be in a respectful way but you do not have to agree with me. I don't always agree with the blog posts here. I love that we can put it out there and talk about it.
I am open to further discuss anything any of you wish through email, as well. It's on the front page. Enlighten me any time.
This book goes into new research of 2 add'l (fearful-avoidant already present and accounted for) "disorganized" subtytes of the 3 primary attachment categories.