Debra Wesselmann, MS, LIMHP
Yesterday morning I was speaking with a colleague who is collaborating with me in the treatment of a 9-year-old boy who was adopted 3 years ago from foster care. We were both very concerned, because the adoptive parents use a punitive style of parenting and they are skeptical about our suggestions regarding a more mindful and attuned approach. Due to defiance and stealing behaviors, the parents have removed all items from the boy’s room except for his bed, and he is grounded from all of his toys, now until the end of time…or longer! The parents believe it is the only way to “break” the little boy from his patterns, and they have explained that their source of information about these methods is the internet. Not surprisingly, the child’s behaviors have become more and more difficult.
My colleague and I decided that we needed to set up a “parent meeting” and speak together with the parents to explain that the information they are obtaining from the internet is sadly out-of-date. The fields of traumatology, attachment, and neurobiology have advanced and converged over the past couple of decades, making it increasingly clear that the behaviors associated with attachment disorder are driven by early attachment trauma.
Infants are born wired to love and be loved, and they are completely dependent upon their parents for their very existence. Imagine the disappointment a young child feels when he is hurt by the parents to whom he is completely devoted…the parents from whom he desperately wants nothing but love, closeness, and attention. When a child experiences deep hurt again and again from his attachment figures, he becomes deeply traumatized.
My colleague and I decided to present Francine Shapiro’s “Adaptive Information Processing” model to the parents, which describes the typical way ordinary experiences are processed and stored in comparison to the way traumatic memories are stored; in separate neural networks in unprocessed form, encapsulated with the feelings and perceptions present at the time of the trauma. This will help the parents understand how their attempts to discipline might be triggering stored traumatic memories and lighting up their child’s brain with fear and anger. The parents also will need to know that we have compassion for the challenges they have been facing, and that we have confidence that we can help. The truth is, within a supportive environment, children’s traumatic past can be effectively addressed (EMDR is one evidence-based method), allowing them to overcome the impact of their earlier experiences and have healthier attachment relationships lifelong.
Clinicians working with complex children and their families also need support. Working collaboratively as a trauma therapist and family therapist team and consulting with and supporting one another to keep up morale can help us stay mindful and present to the families we serve. After our conversation yesterday, my colleague and I both felt re-energized and armed with the language we needed to help this struggling family.