There are not as many advocates for attachment disorder awareness as there are for the other areas of advocacy I explore, such as adoption, autism, and sensory processing differences. For this reason, I regularly revisit this theme for this one-topic anniversary post.
Over the years, I’ve tended in this blog to focus more on autism awareness and advocacy because our experiences with attachment disorder feel somehow more private, more inflicted. Attachment disorders cause children (and adults) to act in ways that are often unhealthy, even anti-social, all because of negative childhood or early life situations that did not allow them to form healthy attachments, or prematurely severed such connections. Unlike autism and other neurological differences, typically inborn states that do not fundamentally need to be “cured” (I write a great deal on this elsewhere), attachment disorders are a sometimes incapacitating psychological condition that can benefit from intensive treatment, primarily through therapeutic parenting or work with an experienced therapist.
I share our Full Spectrum family struggles with my daughter Z’s attachment disorder for two reasons. First, because families all or partly formed by adoption or fostering may be facing this condition unawares, and may be desperate for help; and, second, because one of the central reasons we are a Full spectrum is because my children are so divergent – and this is partly because of Z’s attachment disorder.
I will offer a little background. As you read about my daughter, please do so bearing in mind that her condition was/is not her “fault” – and is therefore nothing to be ashamed of...
When Z came home she was furious - with good reason. She was ultra-demanding, starving, relentless. As she got older she began to steal, hoard, and lie compulsively. She became controlling - and a master manipulator. Constant power struggles with a tiny person were exhausting for the whole family (including Z!). Her tantrums continued to disrupt almost any environment she found herself in, well into her ninth year.
Her acting out was most overt with me, her mother, because she trusted me the most -- and thus needed to constantly test me. Highly challenging attachment-disordered behaviors may well be reserved for the home environment, or particular individuals, such as a parent or teacher.
While she was small of stature, adorable, and enormously charming – traits which her therapist pointed out were actually a disadvantage to healing, because they masked the ugliness of her behavior – Z’s behavior much of the time was destructive in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
If you have a child who is exhibiting such behaviors, GET HELP. Trust me, you’re going to need to learn to do things very differently than you might expect! For example, many families with children who were adopted attempt to make up for any pain caused by the loss and turmoil of the adoption process by being indulgent and extra-doting with their children. Conceding to a child’s every demand, even with loving intent, can be a recipe for disaster with a child who has an attachment disorder. Look for a therapist with expertise in this area, and read everything you can find. I’ve talked about some specific strategies here and here and here, as well as below.
Children (and adults) with attachment disorders desperately need to feel SAFE. To that end, they try to control the things and people around them. It might sound counterintuitive, but – in a very real way – such attachment disordered behaviors emerge in a painful search for safe, strong attachments. Unfortunately, attachment disordered actions tend to result in forming primarily conflict- and need-based relationships, rather than healthy, loving ones.
TMI? Successful therapeutic parenting in one sentence? Yes:
Create an environment with
so that your child can feel safe
-- and so can channel his or her energy into healing and growth.
As unknown as they are, attachment disorders are very real. They can be debilitating for families; they are also sometimes almost completely curable. In our family, many years of consistent therapeutic parenting, at times under the care of a therapist who specializes in attachment disorders, have resulted in a child who is light years healthier and happier than she would have been without this specific mode of therapy.
As Z heals, her true character – brave, loyal, funny, quick, loving - begins to emerge, unhindered by a condition imposed upon her by chance through her birth circumstances. She’s strong, in her own words, “Tiny on the outside but HUGE on the inside!” She’s a wonderfully practical girl, sometimes a bit more blunt than she was raised to be...but these things are characterological, part of her disposition, not just a result of trauma. In fact, we see a myriad of traits, such as being an astute judge of character, that merge positive aspects of her natural self with lessons learned from living through an attachment disorder. Perhaps best of all, while she’s never going to be the world’s most sentimental person, she’s cuddly in a way I could not have dreamed of even a few years ago.
She feels safe enough to relax in my arms...versus her previous inclination to demand that I carry her around at all times. The wonderfulness of this shift cannot be overestimated.
Children are terrifically resilient and, like plants, they just want to GROW. They just need the right conditions to do so in the healthiest way possible for their unique needs.
Full Spectrum Mama