Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Reliable research data tells us that 80 to 85 percent of adopted and foster children may have major struggles in attaching to parents and significant caregivers. These struggles are often placed in a category called “disorganized attachment” which is typical of children with Complex Developmental Trauma/Reactive Attachment Disorder. Just hearing these terms mentioned can send a shiver up our spine or remind some of us of the “knock-down-drag-out battles” you may be having with your child over even the simplest of things like making their bed or just sitting down for a meal. But please do not despair, for there is hope!
As I discussed last week, there are particular approaches to parenting kids with major attachment problems. These approaches are not one-size-fits-all; however they are useable for most all attachment-challenged children, and have shown positive results. Below I have listed some helpful approaches suggested by two of the foremost attachment experts in the world, Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross (authors of the excellent book “The Connected Child”). These are time- and research-tested strategies that have been lifesavers for many parents and their children.
1. The use of healthy touch, including massage. Parents must be sensitive to their child’s reaction to physical touch, especially if the child has a history of physical/sexual abuse. However, once a level of trust is built up, a touch on the shoulder, a hug (side-hugs are most appropriate for dad to daughter) and even light massage (excluding dad to daughter, of course) can have positive results. Research has shown that physical touch produces two chemicals in the brain called Serotonin and Endorphins that can help offset depression, stress and anxiety. (Those of you who are athletes—particularly runners—have experienced the “endorphin high” when or after you run). Physical touch also decreases a stress-causing chemical in the body called Cortisol. For infants, research has also shown that babies who are massaged sleep and eat better.
2. The importance of non-competitive play. I recall helping my wife in a first and second-grade children’s class at church. Occasionally we would play a game to begin the class. One little guy in the class did not like to lose at ANY game. Even though our games went very “light” on the competitive aspect, this little fellow would practically spiral out of control if he was on the losing team. He couldn’t handle the loss because he had internalized that he was a failure as a person. Therefore, play with our kids should be non-competitive as possible. Playing on a playground, playing catch, jumping rope, setting up a safe obstacle course in the back yard and running through it are all good examples. This type of play releases those “good chemicals” in your child’s brain and builds relationship trust between you and your child—something critically important for kids who have difficulty with attachment.
3. Some of you know all too well that bedtime can be really difficult for your child (as well as you!). This is especially true for children who have lived in orphanages and slept in a room with many other children, or for children who have been sexually abused. I recall my wife and I tag-teaming by laying in the bed beside our then 4-year-old daughter for many months so she could go to sleep without crying. Our daughter’s “hammer-lock” grip with her arms around my neck told me that my presence with her at bedtime was important for her feeling safe in a room all by herself. While setting a time limit, you can sing songs, read books and tell stories to your child, all of which can be calming for her while allowing her to build a trusting relationship with you.
I hope this series of blogs on attachment has been helpful to you. I welcome your feedback!