Attachment Disorder: A Primer


I have mentioned in previous posts that I am raising my late sister’s children.  I have written primarily about Kenneth and Patsy – they happen to offer the greatest learning opportunities for me at this point.  I will write more about Megan and Cristi as well in the future.  When they all came to live with me 6 years ago Cristi was 13, Kenneth 9, Megan 7 and Patsy 4.  I was very aware of the grief they were experiencing in the loss of their mother.  I also knew they had all been abused in multiple ways over many years by their mother’s husband (the step-father of Cristi and Kenneth and biological father of Megan and Patsy).  I was incredibly naive about the depths of impacts suffered by these children and what it would take to help them heal.

It took me 4 years to fully understand the implications of the trauma all 4 of the kids experienced in their early years  and beyond.  Unfortunately too late to be able to help Cristi find peace and stability while I still had the opportunity to influence her life.  She has opted to continue her preferred coping strategy – which is avoidance.  I remain fully prepared and committed to help her proactively take c0ntrol and responsibility for her decisions and life at any point that she decides to do so.

What I learned is that when young children experience extreme and/or extended stress, their brains are constantly flooded with adrenalin.   This overdose of adrenalin impairs the brain’s ability to function, grow and develop.  It primarily impacts the areas of the brain that control mood, emotions and the fight, flight, or freeze response.  In a nutshell, at the earliest sign of stress -their brain moves immediately into reacting as if their very life is in danger.  Their brains have not developed the capacity to rationally intrepet the threat, analyze the options and determine a logical response.  In addition to this physiological impairment – they also have faulty assumptions about the intent, motivation, reliability, and trustworthiness of the adults and authority figures in their lives.  It was imprinted so early in their experience that no-one will consistently meet their needs, soothe their anxiety, relieve their pain and discomfort or unconditionally love them – that they simply cannot perceive it could be different now.  

Everything I had been doing in the first 4 years to help the kids manage their behavior ended up being contraindicated, in some cases even making things worse!  Traditional therapy and behavior management only reinforce their world view that they are not instrinsically loveable, valueable, or deserving of good things.  Not to mention that these interventions actually increase their anxiety and stress – sending them into emotional crisis mode even more frequently.

Ouch – that was a blow to my Ego’s pride in my Master’s in Behavior Disorders!

What’s more – everything that will help these kids requires me to act against the most sacred of our family rules – Respect your elders.  The most challenging part, however, is that it is absolutely necessary to completely remove Ego from Parenting.  This is no small task.

The good news is that when I am successful – it really does make a difference.

This morning Megan and Patsy were downstairs playing “chest” as Patsy told me.  According to Patsy, she got mad during the game, so then Megan got mad and wouldn’t play anymore.  Patsy said “Megan just needs to understand that I get upset easily when I am playing games”.  I asked, well, since you are the one that got mad about the game, do you think maybe if you apologized to your sister she would be willing to finish playing?  All that succeeded in doing was to turn up the drama dial.  Patsy informed me (in her loudest, highest pitched voice) that I always took Megan’s side and I don’t care about her, I never listen to her and that she HATES me!

I was smart enough to shut up at that point and just leave her be.  She went into her bedroom, which is just next to mine and proceeded to throw every toy in her room at the wall we share.  She included several fists bangs for good measure along the way.  I finished doing what I was doing and went downstairs.  A few minutes later she brought me a note and stomped off to take a shower.  Her note basically reiterated her earlier verbal rampage.  When she finished with her shower she stomped up to me and demanded to know if I had read her note.  I answered that I had and that it must be awfully sad if that is what she believes.  No wonder she is so upset.

She stood there a minute, then walked over to the sofa, sat down and started brushing her hair.  I turned to her and asked her if she wanted to join us on a picnic and taking Gracie Mae to the dog park.  She said “sure”, hopped up from the sofa and began doing her chores.

And all I had to do was to remember lesson #1 taught to me by our attachment therapist, Shirley – give empathy for the feeling without reinforcing the behavior.  Brilliant strategy that is simple in concept and takes a great deal of self-awareness to execute. 

One thing that really does help that is a traditional technique – take a deep breath and count to 10.

copyrighted 8/23/09

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