Monday, January 27, 2014

Second Anniversary Lists II: Attachment Disorders

I posted my first second-anniversary list, on Advocacy, about two weeks ago. Immediately following that post, I had a startlingly depressing IEP meeting, hence, the delay in this second list – and this disclaimer: none of us knows what to do all the time! Sometimes life is hard, and there are major and minor disastrophes, however hard we try.

It was “funny” to have this second second-anniversary post in the back of my mind as I endured one of the most attachment-disordered weekends we have had in recent memory.  The drama was epic, with violent and threatening tantrums starting Friday afternoon - and the consequences (effective or not) were many. Still, I stand by my lists – I just may need to adhere to them with more vim and acumen myself!

This time last year, I wrote about attachment disorders in general and listed some of the things I wished I’d known about them before embarking on some painful and discouraging times with very little knowledge of how to help my child. I had moments of desperation, regret and despair that I would not wish on anyone. If you are looking for general definitions and tips, or are new to attachment disorders, here is the link to that post:

This year, I decided to write about our current state of slightly more advanced (partly more healed…and partly more “subtle,” as fine-tuned by Herself, La Z) mild to moderate* attachment disordered-ness.

Thoughts on “Advanced”Attachment Disorders

  1. Therapeutic Parenting helps.
Thanks to what we’ve learned and implemented about therapeutic parenting, Z’s tantrums are down to once a week or less. They usually (usually – hahahaaaaaa) occur on Sundays, when we have spent what feels to G and me like a relaxing weekend. While G and I both desperately need such extended sensory/social breaks, they entail much less stimulation/world domination than Z, even on a purely kinesthetic level, craves and needs. Either “side” usually has to compromise on a given day, but on slow weekends tantrums are likely…Less likely, however, than they were during the Pre-Therapeutic Parenting Era!

  1. The Sooner the Better.
I know: they say this with ALL interventions…And sometimes you just don’t know what is going on.  (For example, G wasn’t diagnosed with autism until second grade.) But if you do know that your child has an attachment disorder, and are dilly-dallying…Don’t. I know single moms who are raising teenagers with attachment disorders -- big, male teenagers – and it’s a lot harder to tackle in that dynamic than it is for me with Ms. Puny Stuff over here.

  1. Cycles/Patterns.
It’s so important to bear cycles and patterns in mind when things seem bleak: change will come, for better or worse (hopefully the former!).  Z, as I have explored at length elsewhere on this blog, has certain times of year (spring in particular) and certain types of events (holidays) that seem to trigger her most disordered behavior. Other times, we may have positively peaceful stretches; these are what we look forward to – if we can remember to do so – when times are rough.

  1. Presumed Omniscience.
Presumed omniscience seems to be a hallmark of many people with attachment disorders, including Z. I’ve recently had to disavow her of the habit of saying “I was thinking that,” or, alternatively, “I was just about to say that,” every few minutes. She tells her friends she has done/seen [fill-in-the-blank] “about a thousand times.” Also, she openly pities those pathetic and inferior individuals – and this is not limited to fellow children -- who have not done/seen/known [fill-in-the-blank].

“I’ll be the mom” is a phrase that is in common usage chez the Full Spectrum, especially when Z (8) mimics my instructions to G (12) regarding his “teenager practice” activities (you know, eye-rolling, grunted replies to all questions, slouching at all times…). As one might imagine, G does not take kindly to his bossy peanut of a sister’s reprimands.

Omniscience also encompasses the alleged inability to make (admit) mistakes. So when Z and I are working together on learning a new skill, say…sewing, mistakes are not made in the usual sense. Rather, the thread often “needs help” – or the fabric “has a problem.”

This omniscience may represent efforts to make sense of a world that feels unstable. It’s something we, as individuals with attachment disorders (or in interactions with those who have an attachment disorder), or as parents of children with attachment disorders, should consider.

  1. Control.
Children and adults with AD may feel the need to control their environments because on a very basic level they feel unsafe. Although the connection may not always be evident, that fear impels a state of constant inner vigilance and is expressed in controlling behaviors.

If we don’t have any potential human servants non-family people at the house, much of the time Z spends at home is spent corralling one or both of our cats. She will – for long stretches of time - hold one cat very close and march him or her around the house, ignoring any wiggling or desire to escape, and “showing” him or her the views out of our windows and so on. Alternatively, she will bring both cats into a small, enclosed space and “play” with them.

We have really nice cats.

Adults need to set impeccable boundaries so that, on the one hand, a child with these challenges may feel more safe and, on the other, the child (and their pet{s}) really is safe. With attachment-disordered adult relationships, this may be more tricky. In my experience, though, the principles of boundaries and consistency will hold across quite a Full Spectrum and so it certainly cannot hurt to try this sort of healing work.

Here is a really fascinating example of boundary setting: last night, I politely asked Z to put away the deck of cards with which she was playing. She continued to spread out the cards. I reminded her of my request and she explained that she “wanted to show [me] the cards.” I insisted that she do as I had asked. Therapeutic parenting? Done! For that moment at least…

As potentially boring, relentless and annoying as such boundaries may feel in their enactment – and from day to day it can feel endless -- these baby steps help heal that frightened impulse toward constant control.  

  1. Subversion.
The first thing I learned about therapeutic parenting was that everything I was doing as a progressive, choice- and respect-offering parent was wrong. To put it in less-loaded language, it was not working. My child needed me to set strong boundaries and make most choices on her behalf in order to feel safe and learn to trust. Bit by bit I got this down. But Shawty is SMART. She turned it around on me!


Z: “Can I go in [G]’s room?”
Mama: “Sure.”
Z: “Can I take three steps in the hallway?”
Mama: “Z, come on.”
Z: “Mama!…Mama! Can I walk through his door?”
Mama, shouting (nicely) upstairs to bathroom while doing 17 other things: “[Z], please wash your hair now!”
Z: “Okay.”
One minute later, Z again: “Mama?”
Mama makes way back to bottom of stairs from doing 19 things: “Yes?”
Z: “Should I now rinse my hair?”

I think you can see where I am going with this.
[Insert informative “Answer Section” with instructions on how to handle this development.]

  1. Refusal to Ask.

Does Z need me to charge one of her contraptions? Does another toy need batteries? Does she know how to sew a complicated project without ever having been taught? Is there something important that she wishes or requires? I won’t know unless I ask her. Because she Will. Not. Ask. For. Anything (Help-Related). See: Control. See: Presumed Omniscience…

That being said…is this an “Attachment Disorder” thing? Or is it…

  1. Temperament
Z is a strong personality in a family of strong personalities. It’s hard to imagine she would have been the shy, retiring type under any circumstances. Some of Z’s less-pro-social behaviors are personality-derived, some are rooted in her attachment disorder. I have to try to strike that elusive balance between accepting Z as she is – obviously not a unique issue in any relationship -- and helping her to heal those aspects of her being that are affected by her attachment disorder. Whereas with G, who has aspergers syndrome, I use general health-promoting practices and promote radical acceptance of neurodiversity, I do actively want to “cure” Z of her attachment disorder, insofar as that is possible. As we grow together, I hope all the different parts of Z’s life  - personality, environment, history, dreams… -- will come together in increasingly healthy ways.

The main themes here can be summed up in a two concepts:

TRUST – and trust promoting actions, and
BOUNDARIES – and setting them consistently.

This latter should, ideally, set a foundation for the former. NB: this process may unfold in a remarkably extended and painstaking fashion! I hope someday Z, as her trust in the world grows, will be able to look upon such things as letting go a bit, or needing help, or not knowing something as normal human activities – both in herself and in others.

Meantime, do you know everything? Do you never need to ask for information or help? Do you never make mistakes? Are you in command and control at all times? Do you not need new batteries? Just in case the answer to any of these is “no,” I will leave you, dear reader, with these words, uttered by Z when I lost a mean game of Apples to Apples: “Sorry you’re kind of a loser.”

Coming Soon: Anniversary List III: Choosing Your Battles…

Full Spectrum Mama

* I have written elsewhere on the differences between severe and mild attachment disorders, and there is much available on this subject online. Z has what is known as a “mild to moderate” attachment disorder.


  1. Very interesting post.
    I adopted a Russian orphan 16 years ago. (She was 25 mos old.) She will not ask for anything but is getting (a little) better. She's never been diagnosed with RAD or autism although Northwestern University tested her in the second grade and said she had many similarities to kids on the high-functioning autism spectrum, but she was not autistic--just had a receptive and expressive language disorder.

    Because we live in such a small community there was no help here. They put her in speech therapy. Sheesh, what a joke, but hey, they wanted to feel like they were helping. I home-schooled her in 5th and 6th grade hoping to gain more progress on communication skills and trusting me.

    When I started researching RAD for a YA novel I was writing I found Daniel Hughes who put me in touch with a therapist an hour away from me. I interviewed her for my book but ended up bringing my dau to her too. In the end, I felt like all we could do was accept her for the way she is and love her for who she is, but we can't change her.

    I still worry about her functioning in the working world, but so far she's trying. (She works at a pet store and has to greet customers and check them out. She's introverted and doesn't speak very loud so this is giving her practice.)

    I'm so glad to have "met" you here. I'm going to send you an ecopy of my book since you "get" the RAD thing. Thanks for leaving your email here.


    1. Dear Michelle,
      Tank you so much for your thoughtful comment.
      Please feel free to put a link to your book here.
      Sounds like you have worked so hard to both get tyour daughter what she needs and to love and accept her as she is. what else can we do? Beautiful.
      We were lucky with Z in that we found, through other parents with children who had been adopted, in our rural but more diverse community, a therapist specializing in RAD when Z was 5 or so.
      Good luck with your family and your book.
      Please do keep in touch.


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