Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Parents who have children who were adopted from orphanages often have to ‘teach’ their children to acknowledge pain to themselves and to express pain to others. Although Z came into our family at only nine months of age, she had already learned not to react to her body being hurt, or to express hunger or thirst through a baby’s only language (tears).

Instead, she expressed herself primarily through screaming if being put down at any time. Once she found someone to hold her at length, a single person devoted only to her and her brother (to whom she was immediately attached as well), she was not about to be abandoned. This was particularly acute during her first weeks with her family, during which not only did she demand to be held at all times but also to be walked around while being held, resulting in SEVERE sleep deprivation for all concerned.

Arriving home, we embarked upon a plan. I had heard that children whose most basic needs for comfort have not been met may present a range of developmental and emotional challenges and I had bright ideas to “fix” some of these potential issues. Reacting to pain came first: a strategy of exaggerated response to any possible injury quickly taught Z that if something happened to her that potentially did not feel good, and there was someone nearby to help, she could get a response to her feelings and be the beneficiary of comfort measures, such as an ice pack or the proverbial band-aid.

To this day, though, Z doesn’t even blink an eye at pain when she thinks no one is looking! I have watched from the kitchen window as she has fallen – hard, or been accidently but vigorously wacked with something from afar by her clueless brother. She never makes a sound…or even a face. I wonder: did she somehow never develop some important aspect of the neurology to feel pain because of those early months of neglect? Is she just brave as heck? Does she feel the pain, but less?

G and I, being highly sensitive personages, have to work really hard not to scream when we, like, step on a stray drop of water (no - really), so this is definitely a germane question in the Full Spectrum family.

Whereas a casual hidden observer could probably catch G or I writhing privately in agony several times a day, I’d wager that observer would never see the same in Z. Z has learned that public expression of discomfort leads to results, but when there is nothing to “gain” by reacting, she seems to have decided not to waste her energy.

Similarly, she doesn’t seem to notice hunger or thirst unless in the environs of potential indulgers, in which case she will avail herself of various and sundry treats. G and I, within an hour or two of not eating, invariably find ourselves starving, even trembling, with hunger. Much longer and we become vague, lightheaded, nauseous. I happen to be hypoglycemic, and G may be too; perhaps equally significant is the fact that we both had our needs met as infants. Our physiology (sensitive) and our early environments (sensitive to our needs) matched. 

Z, in contrast, seems to be able to function indefinitely without eating, unless food is offered to her. That is, her energy stays high, her focus sharp, her spirits strong -- whether she eats regularly or not…[Obviously, I haven’t performed experiments on her, I am going on seven+ years of observation.] It’s hard to imagine she could be experiencing hunger in the profound and extreme way that G and I do and still function so well, but, as must be asked vis-à-vis her pain, doesn’t she feel some hunger? She knows her situation now is one in which her needs can be met, and yet she still self-limits on those needs…unless – and this is a real possibility -- her physiology just really is that different.

That her response varies so widely according to context potentially indicates a reduced sensitivity to her own body’s cues and/or a self-imposed (conscious or un-) denial of self-nurturing and/or a really advanced mastery of social capital. Would Z be more sensitive overall, and therefore more vulnerable, had she been nurtured differently in her first months?

People sometimes ask me to blurb their books or products or blogs on this blog and I recently agreed to read a novel about reactive attachment disorder (RAD) by a reader named Michelle Weidenbenner. Her book is called Scattered Links ( and it is about a Russian orphan’s journey. I haven’t finished it (and it seems to have some Christian undertones, which may be a plus or a minus or neutral for different readers), so I haven’t yet got a blurb. I was struck powerfully, though, by this sentence from the preface, which is written in the orphan’s voice:

“We never learn how to ask for what we need because when we do, no one listens.”

I’d never connected Z’s inability to acknowledge pain or hunger with her inability to ask for what she needs or wants. Z’s refusal to ask for things comes across as regal, but it’s at base a survival strategy, a sad concession to a disappointing start.

The other day we saw a “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” bumper sticker and Z asked what it meant. I explained that women have often been taught to do as they are told and that doing so, just for the sake of obedience, makes women unhappy. Women should follow their own dreams and beliefs, I told her, and then they won’t get “the blues.” But sometimes the other people who make the rules -- and the other people who follow the rules -- don’t like when you make your own rules, and they might call you “wild” or “different” or “crazy,” even. And that’s okay, because you will be happier -- and stronger -- for following your own heart.

Of course, she’s still too young to make up her own rules. And I assured her I still get to boss her around for a Long Time. But I want her to know, and I will continue to say to her:  if something (or someone!) hurts you, or if you are hungry for something, speak up, my daughter!!!! How we feel – in our hearts, our bellies, our bodies, our beliefs – matters. YOU MATTER.

Now, let’s eat!

Full Spectrum Mama


  1. Thanks for including a little spot about SCATTERED LINKS in your post today. When my daughter was in elementary school the teachers would say to her, "If you need help you have to ask." It used to drive me crazy. Often times kids with RAD don't know they need something and never ask. They haven't learned how. Is it because when they were infants their needs weren't met? Did their cries go unanswered so they quit crying, quit asking? I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that it's taken a long, long time for our dau (now 18) to speak up and ask for anything--even a new pair of jeans. But when she does, I'm there to encourage, listen, and work with her on a resolution.
    Great post, "Mama."

    1. Hope you saw my reply, Michelle - I forgot to press "reply" when i did so...

  2. SO TRUE. Thank you for opening our eyes to this. My daughter is a woman of power and full of personality so this issue was not initially apparent. So we now try to teach our children (and we know it has another layer for daughters) to speak up...But how do we begin to help them learn how to feel/discern what they need? Funny, because this is a challenge on the autism spectrum as well, for very different reasons.
    I look forward to reading the rest of SCATTERED LINKS!
    Thanks and love,

  3. It's almost Buddhist in a way. If you don't feel desire, wants, or needs, you can't suffer. And that includes acknowledging that need even to yourself, without anyone else knowing.

    I have a very hard time asking for help because too many times I've had my request go unanswered... and it just goes from bad to worse. First you ask for help with a small thing, and you get pushed back, so you don't ask for help the next time, until you absolutely can't avoid it anymore, and then when you get pushed back again the hurt is even bigger, so next time you wait until your life depends on it... and on and on. In the end there is just no way you can disassociate asking for help with immense emotional pain. So you shut down and don't even acknowledge to yourself that you're in pain because of an unmet need.

    1. Dear @autisticook,
      It would be nice if this were enlightenment...but I think that happens AFTER not only knowing your needs but finding ways to meet them and THEN deciding that the endless cycle of needs may cause suffering and choosing, thus, to avoid that cycle.

      However, on THIS plane, it's so true that there's a lot of pain around unmet needs - ESPECIALLY when it's a hard road for many of us (whether on the spectrum, with attachment disorders, or for whatever other reasons [dysfunctional families, anyone?]) to even discerning and feeling what we need, never mind asking for it!!!

      BTW, your wise writing teaches me that while you may shut down on some levels you have incredible sensitivity on others.

      Fun, right? ;)


  4. "if something (or someone!) hurts you, or if you are hungry for something, speak up, my daughter!!!! How we feel – in our hearts, our bellies, our bodies, our beliefs – matters. YOU MATTER."

    So powerful! She does matter, we all matter. Z is lucky to have you as a mom. All children need to know they matter and that they have a voice. As a child I was painfully shy and never asked questions. As an adult who has found her confidence I can't stop asking questions. Thanks for sharing so deeply!

    1. Dear Carol,
      Thanks so much for your kind response. I love your linking confidence with questions - THAT is a deep and important connection!


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