“He just got kicked out of his second preschool program! We’re nearing the end of our options here. What do we do?” I could hear the desperation in the mother’s voice as she described the past few months with the 5-year-old she and her family were fostering and would soon be adopting.
“He threw a chair at the teacher and punched a little girl, and nothing we do seems to make it better,” the father explained, describing the detailed behavior plan on which they had collaborated with a well-meaning social worker.
“And it’s not just at school,” the mother continued. “Even when he’s home with us, he often gets out of control. He even peed on his dad’s lap” — her voice lowered to a whisper — “on purpose!”
I nodded my head, empathetic to the immense strain this family had been under for the past several months. The mother and father were friendly and confident, well-educated and sincere. They had wanted to do something good for the world by fostering and adopting children in need. They had so much to offer. And yet here they were, barely surviving each day and feeling the shreds of normalcy slip through their fingers as this little boy pushed every emotional button they had, leaving them exhausted and discouraged.
My years of experience working with the Secure Child In-Home Program and the Virginia Child and Family Attachment Center helped me to frame their experience in terms of attachment. The situation they were in was not unique among parents who had adopted a child or made the decision to provide foster care, the initial good intention and early excitement slowly turning to exhaustion and sometimes regret. Often, these children who need it the most push away every offer of help and comfort that is provided to them.
Where healing happens
So, what do we do when parents who have adopted a child or are providing foster care come to us, asking for advice or counseling for their troubled child? Certainly, there is benefit in providing these children with play therapy, giving them a chance to form a new relationship and to express themselves through their own language of play.
And yet, that strategy speaks to only one side of the coin. Attachment theory tells us that children heal best in the context of secure caregiving relationships. And parents are the ones who provide the day in, day out caregiving, wielding the most influence on the development of new patterns in the child’s relationships and behaviors.
According to attachment theory, a child is biologically wired to turn toward a caregiver in times of distress. When the child’s emotional needs are met, the child develops patterns of soothing and regulation that are essential for healthy development. When these emotional needs are denied or rebuffed, however, or if the child experiences the caregiver as frightening, the child learns dramatically different adaptive strategies. The child may become withdrawn and inhibited or bossy and aggressive. These patterns aren’t quick to change when a new caregiver comes along. Add to this the trauma of abuse and the loss of a biological parent, and you have a situation full of misunderstanding and relational strain.
New caregivers often come into their role with little awareness of the child’s experiences and the patterns necessary for surviving a young life filled with turmoil, anguish and uncertainties. When these coping strategies show up in the new relationship, parents are (understandably) distressed and often seek help to “fix” the child’s confusing and challenging behavior.
What these parents may not realize is that their own ability to read through the confusing signals and meet the child’s emotional need is the place where most of the healing will happen. If the parents can provide both a secure base from which the child can explore the world and a safe haven for the child to return to, the deeply rooted patterns of behavior and interaction will begin to shift. This is not a quick and easy process. It is messy to be sure, often following a pattern of one step forward, two steps back. However, if parents are given the support they need, it is certainly an attainable and worthy goal.
The counselor’s role
So, what is the counselor’s role in helping form new patterns of interaction, leading to more emotional stability and better child behavior? How can we help move these relationships toward greater security, helping each family to become a haven of safety for children who have experienced significant neglect, rejection, fear and loss?
I’d like to offer some suggestions for counselors who desire to help these parents form stronger relationships with their children and experience a reduction in the difficult behaviors that create such chaos.
- Provide empathy and understanding to parents. Often, by the time parents seek out a counselor, they have already been through a great deal of distress, frustration and turmoil. Yes, they are coming to receive help, but first they need to feel heard and understood without being judged. Parenting is extraordinarily difficult, and parenting a child with extensive emotional needs is even harder. Take the time to empathetically hear these parents’ concerns and welcome their expressions of distress.
- Educate parents about normal development and the impact of trauma/loss. Sometimes foster and adoptive parents have already successfully raised biological children, so these difficult behaviors on the part of the child they are adopting or fostering don’t make sense to them. What they did with their other kids doesn’t seem to work with this child. Spend time teaching these parents about how their child’s brain may have developed in a dramatically different way due to the impact of neglect, trauma and loss. Talk about the fact that forming new secure relationships takes time and how important their role is in this process.
- Help parents to practice observation skills. We human beings so naturally take in information and draw conclusions without even realizing we are doing it. Unfortunately, we aren’t always right. Parents who are living in highly stressful situations may have trouble stepping back and paying attention to what is happening in the moment. Help them to slow down and notice their child’s body language, facial expressions and tone of voice before making assumptions about what the behavior means or how to stop it. With foster and adoptive children, parents often say they don’t know what is going on inside the child; this is often the most important place to help them learn. It is essential that they obtain a developmentally accurate view of the child’s inner experience, feelings and thoughts in the context of the child’s earlier experience and relationship patterns.
- Invite parents to pay attention to their own experience. How does mom feel when the child is screaming that he hates her? What is dad’s experience when his request to come for supper is repeatedly ignored? As parents become better at observing their child, it is important that they also attend to themselves. What are they feeling in these moments, and what is their body language and tone of voice communicating to the child? Help them to consider their own needs and to find ways to regulate their own strong emotions that are activated when the child is pushing them away.
- Encourage parents to think about what the child is feeling in these difficult moments. So often, the focus of parents is on how to manage the child’s behavior. Traditional strategies that use rewards and punishment are rarely successful with children who have experienced neglect, trauma and loss. Although the child’s behavior doesn’t make sense at first glance, there is often much to be learned if we slow down and pay close attention.
Have the parents set aside quick assumptions and, instead, help them to observe carefully, giving consideration to what the child might be feeling. The child might look and sound angry at first glance, but might he or she instead be feeling scared or sad? The child already has emotional and behavioral sequences established that, once activated, run automatically. These unintentional and automatic patterns need to be shaped into healthier ones.
- Ask parents to think about what the child needs from them. Does the child need to feel heard and validated? Does the child need comfort, protection and co-regulation of automatic well-learned patterns? Does the child need the parent to stay close by and help him calm down because he feels out of control? If the child is anxious, might she need the parent to provide soothing rather than correction?
- Encourage parents to try new strategies aimed at fostering connection. Instead of putting the child in timeout, try bringing him in close for a cuddle and some conversation. Instead of sending the child to her bedroom to calm down, try going with her and staying close by. Remind parents that new approaches may not work right away, but with persistence and practice, they can begin to make a significant difference.
- Facilitate parents’ exploration of their own attachment histories and how this influences interaction with the child. We know from research that a foster child’s initial relationship patterns are often a mismatch for a parent’s natural caregiving patterns. We also recognize that parental patterns of attachment have a strong influence on the child’s patterns. Increased reflection on these experiences can help us become better caregivers.
Invite parents to think about how their own experiences with caregivers have influenced the way that they react and respond to their child. What expectations do they hold? What automatic reactions are happening outside of their awareness? What automatic reactions happen outside of the child’s awareness?
- Celebrate small (and large) victories. The little moments are the big moments. Provide plenty of affirmation and support for parents as they try new approaches and persevere in the day-to-day tasks of parenting. Acknowledging their efforts and celebrating successes, however small, can go a long way toward giving them the courage to continue through the hard times.
Working with these families can be immensely rewarding. They are often highly motivated and desperate for support. As counselors, we need to be aware of our impulse to provide a “quick fix” to try and make things better. We can make concrete suggestions, but we also need to recognize that the process of building stronger relationships and changing behavior takes time.
The type of relationship that we build with the child’s parents can itself be a catalyst for change. We can provide a place where the parents feel safe expressing their distress and their shortcomings, knowing that we will support them in their efforts to help guide their child on the path to healing.
A different path
As I continued working with the family mentioned at the beginning of this article, I could see the changes taking place. They began having more positive interactions with their child and seeing new qualities in him that they hadn’t noticed before; they were thinking about him in a different way. Their own self-reflection helped them to catch themselves before they reacted and think more about what he needed from each of them.
“I noticed that the collar of his shirt was often wet from him chewing on it. I stopped reprimanding him for this and realized that it meant he was feeling really anxious,” the mother told me one day.
“Yeah, and this was a sign that we needed to pick him up and give him some reassurance,” the father quickly added. “It really seems to calm him down.”
The mother continued: “I think that before when he was anxious, his behavior would spiral out of control. And the behavior chart was part of what contributed to his anxiety, which just made things worse instead of better. I don’t think we need it anymore.” As she spoke, she glanced at dad and noted his nodding head.
“They still use one at school,” she said, “but we’ve been talking to his new teacher about how to connect with him and what helps relieve his anxiety. Also, I stuck a picture in his book bag of the three of us together so he can get it out and look at it when he is at school. I think it helps him feel more secure. It’s a way for him to carry us with him.”
As I listened to them share these stories, I couldn’t help but smile. They still had a long road ahead of them, but they were headed down a very different path than the one they were on originally. We celebrated each of these moments together and reflected further on their experiences with their child.
I continued to come alongside them to support them in this journey for a little while longer, serving as a secure base and safe haven for them. Soon, however, they decided that they no longer needed counseling. Through a lens of attachment, they saw that their relationship with their son was much stronger, and although his behavior was still challenging at times, they possessed the confidence that they could handle it, moving forward together as a family. Once again, the experience of a healthy attachment proved itself to be a powerful force, propelling another family toward greater health and healing.
Somer George is an adjunct professor at James Madison University and is currently completing her doctorate in counseling and supervision. She also works for the Virginia Child and Family Attachment Center and the Secure Child In-Home Program, where she helps to provide comprehensive attachment assessments, intensive in-home therapy and research-based parent courses. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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