help4yourfamily

Create the family you want to have

Caught in the Loop: Why People Repeat the Same Bad Choices Over and Over

train circle

train circle (Photo credit: bitmapr)

written by, Kate Oliver, LCSW-C

When I met Aaron, he was 10 years old and living with his parents who had adopted him after three failed placements.  Aaron’s parents were at a loss about what to do with him.  They were committed, loving parents who wanted to help him make better decisions; however, after living with them for over a year, Aaron continued to have bizarre behaviors that they did not understand.  In addition to continuing to steal from his parents any time he had the opportunity, his parents had just figured out that he had also been urinating into the vents in his room.  Aaron’s parents were at a loss as to how to help him change this behavior and they were terrified that it would continue to get worse.

Children who have experienced trauma can seem to continually engage in activities that can be baffling to parents.  I have had many a parent come in to my practice and describe a foster or adopted child who seems to seek attention in negative ways and to actually work to recreate the circumstances that were traumatizing to them in the first place.  From rooms that seem to get instantly messy immediately after cleaning them, to repetitive behaviors that pluck even the calmest parent’s nerves, these children can seem intent on turning their parents into a recreation of the child’s biological parent or earliest caregiver.  There is a name for this phenomenon.  It is called “traumatic reenactment.”  The best way to explain traumatic reenactment is to first understand how trauma works, and the ways we store it in the brain.

Think of your brain as a computer.  The files in your computer are stored in different areas.  There is a short term memory file that stores what you had for breakfast today and yesterday.  There is a long term memory file that stores the stories from your childhood.  There is the work file, the running “to do” list file, and many, many more.  Days that go as planned are pretty easy to file away.

But what happens on a day when something traumatic happens?  An easy definition of trauma is anything that impacts you in such a way that it causes you to feel as though your life is in serious danger, with the possibility of death, or that changes who you perceive yourself to be in a negative way.  To show how people typically store traumatic memories, let’s take the example of a car accident.  You do not wake up in the morning thinking this is probably going to be the day you are in a car accident.  If you really believed that, you would probably never get into the car.  But, there you are, driving down the road and someone sideswipes the car you are in.  No one is hurt, but there are a few moments of panic and your car is seriously damaged.  What do you do?  Well, of course, as an adult you make sure everyone in both cars is okay, call 911 to make sure no one is hurt, and then the insurance.  But what is happening with your memory filing system?  How are you filing this memory?  It sure does not go in the breakfast file!

What happens with trauma is that, until we file it, it acts like a virus on our computers.  If you have ever had a virus on your computer, you know what happens.  You go to get on the internet and think you are checking your email, only to find all kinds of unwanted images popping up on your computer.  Then, if and when you are able to get to your email, you may find out you sent a bunch of messages to people that were not even from you!  You never sent that!  This is how trauma works.  Until you file that traumatic memory you just got from the car accident, your brain is going to be working overtime to file it.  You will go to get in the car and up will pop the memory of the accident and maybe another accident you had a while back.  You will start to remember those terrifying moments when you were out of control and you did not know if you were going to live or die.

Healthy adults file traumatic memories as they verbally process the trauma.  Remember how you called the police?  You had to tell them what happened so they knew who to send.  You were processing the memory.  Remember when you had to call the insurance?  Same thing.  Did you sit in your car for a moment and do some sort of self-soothing like deep breathing to calm yourself down?  Maybe you got a hug or reassurance from someone.  Perhaps you reminded yourself that you have been in cars thousands of times and the vast majority of those times nothing bad happened.

If you did any of those things, you were processing and filing your memory.  Another part of filing trauma is finding a way to understand the event.  This includes thinking about whether you could have done something differently, how you got through it, and how you can avoid the same thing happening again.  Therapists call that mastering the situation.

Now, think about the child you have or have had in your home who has experienced trauma but did not have anyone to process it with and did not have anyone to soothe them, nor did they know how to self soothe, after all, who would they have learned soothing from?  The clinical term for the way this “virus” manifests is “traumatic reenactment.”  It goes like this.  A trauma occurs.  It is not filed appropriately because there is either no, or not enough, processing or soothing for the child.  The child tries to gain mastery (understanding) of the trauma by subconsciously putting themselves back into the same situation over and over again in an attempt to understand or “master” it.

Remember Aaron?  When Aaron lived with his birth parents he was repeatedly locked in his room for days at a time when his parents went on drug binges.  When his adoptive parents brought him in to see me he was lying and stealing constantly, then, they had recently discovered that when they sent him to his room for punishment, he had been urinating into the vents of their home.  What became clear was that this child had found a way to experience a traumatic reenactment with his adoptive parents.  He lied and stole, then got sent to his room for punishment.  While in his room, he had the emotional experience of feeling trapped again, just as he was trapped when he was very young.  In his mind, being sent to his room meant he was not allowed to come out even to go to the bathroom.  When he had to go, he did what he had before, went in the vents, so he did not have to be around a wet spot in his room.  His loving parents had responded in every way they could think of to change these behaviors, but it was not until they understood where the behaviors were coming from that they were able to adapt their responses to more accurately fix the underlying problems.

In therapy, Aaron processed the trauma, learned how to soothe himself and to be soothed by his parents.  It really did not take long for the vents to become dry again so his parents could focus on new ways to address other issues related to his early abuse and neglect.  For traumatized children, I strongly recommend counseling, with a therapist that specializes in trauma, as a resource to help them process traumatic memories to improve behaviors and help parents find a way to adapt parenting styles in ways that are most beneficial to the child.

January 15, 2013 Posted by | attachment disorder, child development, discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

PLACE Parenting for Children with Attachment Disturbance

A mother holds up her child.

A mother holds up her child. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

When you have a child with any sort of attachment disturbance, you also have a child that is very good at making you feel like you don’t know what you are doing.  In one training I went to on attachment disturbance, the presenter, Art Becker-Weidman said one of the parents he worked with described it something like this:  ‘It’s like you as the parent are the control station for a radio station, then the kids come up and play with all the buttons until they find one that gets the response they are looking for.  When they find that button that gets them what they want, they just keep flipping the switch over and over again.’  I have used this description with the parents that come through my own practice and find it resonates deeply with them as well.  What to do when you have a child that is constantly pushing your buttons and finding creative ways to make you feel like you don’t have a clue what you are doing?

Daniel Hughes and Art Becker-Weidman are working to popularize a parenting attitude that really can work wonders if parents are able to maintain it when they have an attachment disordered child (or any child for that matter).  It is called the PLACE mentality, it stands for: Playful, Loving, Accepting, Curious, Empathic.  I find that while the words are familiar it can be easy to misinterpret the meanings of those words in this particular context so let’s look at each word to see what we are talking about when it comes to parenting children using the PLACE mentality.

Playful–  The most common misinterpretation of this quality is that parents believe I want them to throw a parade in their child’s honor every time they do something desirable to the parent.  What I mean by playful is just finding an approach that has a less authoritarian tone.  Instead of telling kids where to go to find their glasses, encourage them to play a little game with you where they have to look at your face for them to give you a hint where the glasses are.  When they look into your face and lie, come up with a playful response “That’s a good one.  I’ve always known you were creative.  Tell me another!”  Often being playful can help everyone tone it down a notch.  If you have a child with a history of abuse or neglect, it can also keep them from getting triggered into believing that they are in huge trouble and helps prevent them from going into fight or flight mode so that you have some chance of them hearing some of the words you are saying.  A way to really get playful is to learn from a parent that really gets this stuff.  Christine Moers is a mom raising adopted children with attachment issues.  She posts vlogs on youtube to help other parents (and to keep herself sane).  Her video blog:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HDAALaVG27k&feature=fvwrel is a wonderful example of how to discipline in a playful way.   I would recommend you look at her videos when you need help staying sane.

Loving– When I think of saying things in a loving way to children, what really helps me to stay in that place is remembering my purpose for saying the words in the first place. Yes, ultimately I may be asking my child to do a task because I want it done. But the bigger picture reason for asking children to do a task is to teach them so that they know how to do it, to give them a system for tackling problems, to get them into the routine of caring for themselves and planning how to fit everything into a schedule, or something else like that. In the end, our job as parents is to make it so that our children no longer need us in order to make it through the day. When we remember that we are asking our children to do something because we love them and want them to be happy, healthy adults, we can state requests in a more loving way. By remembering this, I believe the primary change is our tone of voice, which makes a world of difference to children with attachment disturbance.

Accepting– One trap I see so many parents walk into is the argument with their child(ren) about whether their child is having a reasonable feeling or not.  Both the child and parent find this is a way to feel crazy pretty quickly and I would like to present an alternative…acceptance.  Here is how it goes, maybe it sounds familiar:

Child comes down to breakfast dressed in a completely inappropriate outfit for school

Parent (being curious):  Wow, is there something going on at school today?  That’s an interesting outfit.

Child: I knew you wouldn’t let me wear it!  You never let me wear anything I want!  You’re such a witch!  You want me to be the ugliest girl in school!

Parent (accepting):  That made you mad.  I can see how you would be mad if you thought I wanted you to be the ugliest girl in school.

It’s that simple- do not engage in an argument about whether you want her to be the ugliest girl in school!  If that is her belief in that moment, accept that her feeling is appropriate for the interpretation.

Curious– In my office, I often frame this curiosity as being a “feelings detective.”  I tell kids I ask lots of questions because I am a very curious person and sometimes it takes me a while to understand things.  Get curious about your children.  In the above example, rather than arguing about who wants whom to look ugly, you might get curious about it.  “I wonder what made you think I wanted you to look ugly when I asked about your outfit.”  Another way to help with getting kids to understand you are curious (not judgmental) is to say something along the lines of, “I’m curious what got you so mad because I don’t want you to feel that way again. ”  When they tell you what got them mad, again make sure you avoid arguing about whether that is really what happened (accepting) and then …empathize.

Empathy– Empathy looks like this,” If I thought someone felt that way about me/ said that to me/said that about me I can see how you would feel mad/sad/ scared too.”  That’s all empathy is being able to see something from the viewpoint of another person.  Empathy does not involve any discussion about whether someone is right or wrong for feeling the way they are feeling.

So, why does this work?  It works because our children with attachment disturbance find the things we need to do most often, educate, speak with authority, and parenting, to name a few, to be triggers to them of things that remind them of times they were hurt or  neglected.  When kids do not learn the typical role of parents early on, they easily misinterpret the actions of parents.  Using the PLACE mentality is one way of reducing the number of triggers for your child, not to mention that it just makes parenting more fun.  I use it with my own securely attached children as well.  Of course, this is a very quick overview of the PLACE mentality.  It is important that if you feel you are in a position with your child(ren) where you need to utilize the PLACE attitude more and could use support in doing so, that you see a therapist that has an attachment informed practice.

October 18, 2012 Posted by | attachment, attachment disorder, help for parents, parent support/ self improvement | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Spectrum of Attachment

This picture by Sovanna Ly -csc- can be used f...

This picture by Sovanna Ly -csc- can be used for any purpose, provided that his name is credited. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

When we look at children’s attachment styles, they typically fall into one of three categories, secure, insecure and disorganized. I explained some about these categories in my post, “What is Attachment Disorder?” This post will go more into attachment disturbance and how to tell the difference between an attachment “issue” and an attachment “disorder” and some of the symptoms you might see from a child (or adult) with attachment issues. If you are interested in learning about attachment disorders, you can find the diagnostic criteria here. I personally do not find it helpful to diagnose a disorder vs. disturbance of attachment unless I need to as a means for getting insurance reimbursement because if you look at attachment across the spectrum, you would find that we all have attachment issues.

In my world, where I see many actions through the lens of attachment, I think of it like this: picture the security of a person’s attachment on a scale from 1-10. A person with a 1 would be a person who feels worthless and unlovable in all situations across the board. They do not believe they have the power to make any positive changes in the world, nor do they believe that anyone cares about or wants to help them to make positive changes. This person would constantly live in the moment, since they do not feel as though planning helps anything and would constantly look to meet his or her own needs (without distinguishing between wants and needs) by whatever means necessary. A person operating at a  “one” steals and lies constantly, manipulates with as much sophistication as possible for their developmental level, does not seem capable of forming any lasting relationships, etc. A” 10” would be a person who never worries about rejection or abandonment from the people they love, knows they are loving and loveable at all times, and understands that all problems can be solved, etc.

The way I see it, most of us fall between a 4 and an 8. From 1-4, I would say you have a disorder: an attachment style that presents major problems in your day to day life that requires specialized therapeutic treatment. A 5-8 is what I would call a good, healthy neurotic: while therapy is an option for difficult times, the gaps and insecurities in attachment are manageable most of the time as long as life is relatively stable for you. Yes, you worry about people leaving you sometimes and might avoid conflict when it might be healthier for you to confront an issue, or make a confrontation out of something that really could have been a constructive conversation, but, overall, life feels manageable and you have areas you do well in even if there are parts where you feel you struggle.

All of our internal feelings and perceptions about ourselves can be seen through behaviors. To figure out if someone has serious attachment issues, we need to look at what the symptoms are of an attachment disturbance. Here are some of the things practitioners who see people with attachment disturbance look for:

Difficulty maintaining eye contact with primary caregivers (especially when someone is saying something loving)

  • Constant lying
  • Manipulating situations
  • Lack of language to express feelings
  • Lower developmental age than chronological age
  • History of multiple primary caregivers (foster care, adoption at an older age, frequent changes in child care providers)
  • Stealing
  • Identification with the villain in movies
  • Playing with fire
  • Bullying and/or blindly following others who are a bad influence
  • Abusing animals
  • Seeming lack of remorse or conscience
  • Difficulty empathizing with others
  • Lack of understanding of cause and effect
  • No trust in authorities
  • A constant seeking for control of every situation

Now, before you start worrying that you and your child will be featured on the next segment of “Kids who Kill” on 20/20, let me point out that it is a combination of all of these features that would point toward a diagnosis of attachment disorder. Even though headaches are associated with brain tumors, you would not automatically assume you have a tumor every time you have a headache. Also, it is not only the presence, but the severity and consistency of the symptoms that informs the diagnosis. For example, we have all probably lied a few times this week. We said we were fine, or even great when asked “how’s it going?” rather than saying, “Well, everything’s going well except for my job.” Or maybe a telemarketer called and asked you for a few minutes of your time but you said you were busy when really you were not.

Just like with attachment being on a spectrum, so are the symptoms. If you stole $20 out of your mother’s wallet once when you were 13 and felt awful about it, that is very different than being 13 and stealing from your mother, your brother, and the teacher’s desk at school whenever you get the chance, and your stealing includes anything from candy and treats to money, toys, and clothes. Also, when you were 13 and stole that time, maybe you had a specific purchase in mind or something you were going to do with the money. That too is different from stealing whenever the chance presents itself as if you needed to fill a perceived lack with any and every chance that comes along.

I have mentioned before Daniel Hughes book, “Building the Bonds of Attachment.” This, to me, really is the best book with the most readable format* that explains what happens with a child with attachment disorder, while simultaneously showing how secure attachments are made.  You can easily link to find his book, and other books about attachment that I recommend on Amazon by clicking on the “Amazon widgets” link at the top right corner of my webpage.**

Something that can make an attachment related diagnosis difficult to make, is differentiating it from other diagnosies, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or even early bipolar disorder or schitzophrenia. That is why, this post should never substitute for seeing a mental health practitioner. It is possible for children and adults to have any or all of those issues and each needs to be carefully treated. If you are concerned that your child needs therapy for attachment disorder, please find a mental health practitioner. I give tips on how to do this here. I give tips on how to get insurance to reimburse specialiazed therapy here.

What are your questions about attachment? Do you have a question about something that your child does and whether it is attachment related? Please feel free to ask here or comment. Or you can contact me directly, helpforyourfamily@gmail.com.

*If you are not a practitioner, I would suggest that you skip or skim the first 50 pages of the book.  Even as a practitioner, I found them difficult but I am glad I kept reading after that.

**see disclaimer page

June 8, 2012 Posted by | attachment, attachment disorder, help for parents | , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Is Chimpanzee good for your child to see if they are adopted or have lost a parent?

See description on File:Chimpanzee mom and bab...

See description on File:Chimpanzee mom and baby.jpg. I cropped it slightly to remove the original black frame. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Written by Kate Oliver, LCSW-C

Just from watching the commercials, we can easily see that  the new Disney movie, Chimpanzee, is going to be all about adoption.  While it is predictable that the movie will have warm fuzzy messages about adoption overall, if you have an adopted child, or any child who has lost a parent through divorce, abandonment, death, etc. it is a good idea to take a moment to consider whether this is a good movie for your child.  Of course we know all children are different and only you can decide what is right for your child so please do not use my post as a replacement for your own judgment since obviously you know your child way better than I do.  Also, spoiler alert, you will know all about the movie by the time I’m done with the post.  My hope is to attempt to address the adoption related issues in the movie so you can make the best decision for you and your family and to be ready for any conversations or feelings it might bring up for your child (and you).

First, let me say, the movie was pretty entertaining for the children seven and up in our group, the youngest (5) got bored half way through and I saw several younger children leave during the movie.  The parents were thoroughly entertained and there were quite a few “aww’s” and chuckles throughout.

The movie starts in an idealic world where little monkeys are taken care of by mommies (no mention of daddies).  Little Oscar and his mom, Esha, are the focus.  Children who were not taken care of by their first mommies or whose first mommies have left them in some way may have some feelings about the portrayal of moms in this part as the idea of mommies taking care of babies is presented as the only way things can go.  I can see how a child who feels bad about having a mommy who did not take care of them might be triggered if they carry residual feelings of guilt or believe it was their fault their birth mother did not take care of them.  Additionally, the mention of dads is not just downplayed, it is completely non-existant in this part of the movie.

Soon, the idealic world of the chimps is threatened by another group of chimpanzees who want to take over their territory.  Esha keeps Oscar safe during a particularly scary time when this group attacks and the movie continues to highlight Oscar’s reliance on his mother and her role in keeping him safe, fed and protected.  Sadly, the other group of monkeys attacks a second time and it is during this attack that Esha and Oscar are separated and Esha disappears forever with the assumption being that only death could keep her away.  It continues to be quite heartbreaking as we see Oscar get harshly rejected by several other female chimpanzees who already have children (triggering for children who have been in multiple foster care placements).  During this time, Oscar tries, and fails, to find his mother.  Obviously, no one is able to explain to him where she is and he is left to fend for himself.  Oscar is sad and lonely and experiences difficulty finding food and caretaking.  Do I need to point out the many opportunities for adopted children and/or children who have a parent that is not in their lives will have to identify strongly with this section of the movie?

After suffering for an intense ten minutes or more during the movie, Oscar begins to follow the alpha male, Freddy.  He begins gently befriending Freddy (there is a good conversation to be had about shadowing adults and learning from thier modeling behaviors here).  Freddy, who it was earlier emphasized in the movie, had no interest in the younger chimps, slowly also begins turning toward Oscar and teaching him to get food.  Over time, their friendship grows and, in a particularly heartwarming scene, Freddy grooms Oscar and lets him ride on his back.

During this portion of the movie, there is no mention of moms and, knowing that I see children with attachment disorder in my practice who work pretty hard to come between their parents and who often punish the mom and complian to the dad (because moms are scary for them since they represent the original abandoning mom), I can see this particular part of the movie reinforcing that behavior a bit.  Additonally, I can see how children who have struggled to bond with an adoptive parent would be triggered to wonder what it is about them that caused them to be first rejected or abandoned by other parents if that is their emotional experience.  Those children who struggled to bond with an adoptive parent may also wonder why it is so easy for Oscar (no internal loyalty struggle here, also no negative behaviors from Oscar) to bond with Freddy and just what must be wrong with them that they have difficulty bonding.

While Freddy and Oscar are bonding, however, trouble lurks nearby, the narrator, Tim Allen, says that while Freddy and Oscar have been building their relationship, Freddy has neglected to protect his area and the other chimpazee group is closing in for another attack.  Freddy senses this and begins to do some team building again.  Oscar feels ignored by his new dad and we see him again feeling lonely because he does not understand why Freddy is turning away from him to take care of other chimps.  This made me think about moms or dads taking care of new babies or other siblings and the triggers that has for many of my adopted children, not to mention kids in step-parent families.

I can see this movie being especially nice for single and/or adoptive dads as it reinforces that dads always protect their children even if they didn’t always know how to parent at first.  I can also see it being an issue for moms and other primary, nurturing caregivers (including dads) who, like I said before, have a child that uses them as a representation of all abandoning people in their lives, and for children who did not have a mother that took good enough care of them before entering an adoptive family.  I would also recommend it for children who are able to articulate their feelings about adoption, parental loss, etc. over children who are still unable, or unwilling to discuss those issues.  Ultimately, it is up to parents to decide what is right for their children.  Either way, in the end, the movie has a happy ending where Freddy and Oscar get to be together and Freddy focuses on Oscar again.

I see multiple opportunities for parents to bring up good conversations for kids about: whether Esha’s disapperance was Oscar’s fault; how Oscar must have felt when the other mom’s rejected him; how Oscar befriended Freddy and whether they loved each other right away; how dads and other parents protect children even though sometimes it is hard to see how (like when they go to work or pay attention to other kids); and why Oscar had an easier time of bonding with Freddy (because his first mom was good at teaching him how to love other chimps).

Have you taken your child to see this movie?  What did you think?  Did I miss anything?  I would love to hear how the experience was for your child.

April 23, 2012 Posted by | attachment, resources/ book reviews | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Finding a therapist for a traumatized and/or attachment disordered child

Some elementary school counselors use books an...

Some elementary school counselors use books and other media to help their counseling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As therapist who specializes in both trauma and attachment disorders, I can tell you it is important if you are searching for a therapist for one or both of these issues, that you find the right therapist for your child.  Doing so will save you a lot of money and aggravation and is more likely to speed the healing time for your child.  To start, look at my post on  finding the right therapist for you or your child (you can find the link at the bottom of this post).  With these particular children, and probably people with other specialized issues as well, there are further steps you would want to take to ensure that you have the right person.  I see the steps for this particular issue as follows:

1.  Figure out if your child has “only” trauma, or has trauma with attachment related issues.  Here is the distinction, a child with trauma without attachment disturbance usually experienced a one time occurence, or something that happened over a relatively short period of time and was quickly identified.  Trauma with attachment related issues is trauma that also impacts a child’s ability to bond with their caregivers in a healthy way, for example abuse or neglect by a primary caregiver or ongoing abuse or neglect that a child did not disclose.  If you feel as though your child’s trust in adults to provide care for them has been altered significantly, you will want to see someone with knowledge of attachment related issues.  To clarify this distinction, a teenager carrying on a short-term, secret relationship with a much older adult that they thought was younger or who was tricked into a situation where they kept a secret because they were breaking the rules when they were traumatized does not fall into this category of attachment disturbance.  It is within reason to anticipate that teenagers will try to stretch or break the rules and it does not signify a break in a child’s core ability to trust that their parents will care for them.  A teenager whose step sibling was abusing them for an extended period of time whenever their sibling came to stay at the home does fall under the category of possible attachment disturbance.  The difference is the primary caregivers were around at the time of the trauma and did not know to stop it, while in the first example, the teen was doing an activity it would be reasonable to assume is developmentally expected but someone took advantage of them inappropriately.  When in doubt, I would see someone who specializes in both trauma and attachment.   If you find that there is an attachment related issue for your child’s situation, I would always make sure to take the child to a therapist that understands attachment because in order to work on attachment disorders or disturbance, you must know about trauma since the two go hand in hand.

2.  Once you have determined whether you are looking for a therapist with trauma training or whether you need someone with an attachment and trauma focus, follow the steps from my first post on finding a therapist and ask these additional questions.

  • What is your training in attachment and trauma?
  • What recent trainings have you attended or conducted that relate to attachment and/or trauma?
  • How do you conduct your sessions?

The answers to these questions, if you are talking to the correct therapist, should indicate that the person stays actively engaged in seeking training for attachment and trauma related issues.  Additionally, an attachment specialist will indicate to you that you will be in the room for most, if not all, of the time that your child is in therapy with them.  Attachment oriented therapy is significantly different in that a therapist focuses much more on your relationship with your child rather than their relationship with your child.  In traditional therapy including therapy for singular trauma, you would take your child to see the therapist, you might check in with the therapist at the beginning or the end, then your child would see the therapist alone for the majority of the session.

While traditional therapy is effective with many children, for children with attachment disturbance, it can actually damage a child’s relationship with their parent.  I have seen this happen, since a child with attachment disturbance has a tendency to reject caregivers, and, while they are alone with a therapist they may talk to their therapist about how terrible and difficult their parents are.  The therapist and child will bond over this and the therapist shakes their head in disbelief, meanwhile they may be overlooking a parent who is really trying their hardest to meet the child’s needs while reinforcing for the child that the caregivers in their lives are, in fact, inadequate.  Remember, children with attachment disturbance see adults as unsafe on some level and tend to fit them into these categories.  A skilled attachment therapist will spot when a child is doing this and help them to retrain their system of trust by teaching them how to find trustworthy adults and by training the adults in their lives to be trustworthy in the way the child needs them to be.  To learn more about attachment disturbance you can see my post linked below “What is attachment disorder?”

**A note to providers- I understand that you have seen parents who are, in fact, inadequate.  For this post, I am assuming that a parent who cares enough to read this post is adequate because they are involved and caring enough to research this issue.

Stay tuned for my post on getting specialized treatment for your child- the things insurance companies won’t tell you that can help you get your child’s treatment paid for.

April 16, 2012 Posted by | attachment, attachment disorder, health insurance, help for parents, thinking about therapy? | , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Parental Reframes When Things Don’t Look So Good

through the frame

through the frame (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

written by Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

Alright, so you did something you are not so proud of.  Let’s be clear, we’re not talking about major screw ups- like anything that meets criteria for abuse or neglect- we’re talking the overly harsh words or failure to understand the depths of need of our child if they have been trying to tell us about a problem.  You know, the things we routinely beat ourselves up for as parents.  First of all, I want to say (I may have said this before and I will probably say it again because it is such a wonderful statistic) that being “good enough” to support a securely attached child means we meet their needs a mere 30-40% of the time.  This is not meant to give permission not to meet your child’s needs, but serves more to allow us to forgive ourselves when we miss something or respond differently than we would have liked and to see some of the positives in otherwise difficult situations such as divorce, death of a loved one, illness, trouble at school or with friends.  Parental reframes work in all kinds of situations.

What do I mean by parental reframe?  Well, you know how you can take the same picture and put it in different frames to make it look different?  Depending on the frame a picture is in, you may notice more of one thing or another.  Life can be the same way.  A large part of parenting, as I see it, is to help children (and ourselves) find the most appropriate, helpful frame to put our issues in.  Notice, I did not say it was to shield children from all difficult situations.  First of all, that is impossible and we would only be setting ourselves up for failure.  Secondly, you would not want to do that since childhood is precisely the time we need to learn to handle difficulties while we have our parents to protect and guide us.  We are there to help children frame the pain they will inevitably have- not to keep them from any pain.  So, what is a parental reframe?  It is taking a step back to look at the frame we have put around a situation, then asking ourselves if there may be another frame that we might like to use instead.  There really are so few absolutes in life and really our reality can be framed in many different ways.

Take a look at the picture below.

Do you see the baby?  If you are like me, it will take a minute for you to find it but once you do, you will see the baby was there all along.  The toes are in the branches on the right, the head is made where the trees come together on the left.  Once you see it, you can’t un-see it, even though it was there all along.  That’s how a reframe is.  We get stuck on a story: divorce ruins children for example, or maybe even a worry more universal to parents like the feeling that our child never helps around the house.  These times are precisely the times when we need a reframe.

How in the world are you supposed to reframe issues, especially beliefs or worries about your child that feel deeply entrenched?  Let’s start the easy way first.  When you have a few minutes, stop and take a few breaths while you pause to see if you can think about this issue in another way.  It can be easier to do this if you ask yourself what your most loving friend might say about this issue to you.  Ask yourself if it is possible that there may be alternative possibilities from what you have come up with so far.  If you think it would be helpful, take a moment to brainstorm other possibilities for the belief you are clinging to.  After all, this is only a belief and there are very few absolute truths out there.  Let’s take our example of kids that don’t help around the house.  Is it possible they try to help in some ways, just not the ways you wish they would?  Is it possible they need more instruction to help?  Is it possible you are asking (or demanding) for help in ways that are not effective for your children?  Do they have something going on that prevents them from focusing on helping you like their age, ability level, extra-curricular activities, schoolwork, etc?

Next, take a moment to consider what you would like to believe about your child.  Create an affirmation about what you would like to believe.  My child is helpful around the house in many ways.  Think of ways this affirmation is true.  Say the affirmation many times over the next few days.  Point out when you child does helpful things and begin stating ways they can help you as if you expect them to do those things.  Be surprised when they haven’t picked up their items off the dining room table!

Just changing our attitude about a situation can help our children to change theirs.  I have seen this work too many times to think otherwise.  I have many clients with attachment disorders.  Many times when they first come to see me their parents lament about how they are constantly in trouble.  Their parents, who usually adopted them at an older age, often adopted them with the desire to show them how wonderful life can be!  These parents want their children to have new and exciting life opportunities and they come in so frustrated that their children continue to get into trouble that requires the parents to keep them home more over and over.  We reframe the statement of “my child is constantly getting into trouble and can’t ever make good decisions” to “my child gets easily overwhelmed by new experiences and transitions.”  When we re-frame the child’s acting out behaviors from “bad” to “overwhelmed” the feeling as a parent changes significantly as well from a hopeless stance, to protective.  While the child may still not be allowed out to do much, the intent and feelings behind the parents decisions feel more loving and come across that way to the children.

I know this may all sound a bit Pollyannaish to people. Additionally, I do not want to say that a reframe on cleaning is the same as a reframe on divorce.  However, there are helpful aspects to all experiences in life.  If the technique of thinking it through is not working for you, please take a moment to read my previous blog “How to know if you or your child need a counselor” (link below).  Reframes are a lot of what we therapists help people to do.

Having trouble with a reframe?  Let me invite you to post the belief you need reframed, or a belief you have reframed and tell me how it worked.  While I can not diagnose or treat via a blog, I would love to have feedback on this topic (or any others).

April 10, 2012 Posted by | help for parents | , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Discipline vs. punishment

FCC program offers child care, career - FMWRC ...

FCC program offers child care, career – FMWRC – US Army – 100916 (Photo credit: familymwr)

written by Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

People might wonder why it is that I would wish to make a distinction between discipline and punishment since we often use the terms interchangeably.  However, I believe there is an important distintion to make.

Discipline is a word that originates from the word “disciple” which means one who accepts and teaches the learnings of another.  If you think about that word, and it’s origins, we can narrow it down to discipline being about teaching.

Punishment is different and mainly refers to inflicting consequences on another.

Deutsch: Historische Federzeichnung einer schu...

Deutsch: Historische Federzeichnung einer schulischen Körperstrafe. Handschriftlicher Begleittext in Original: Tyranis di Magistrum (Tyrannei des Lehrers). Randzeichnung im Buch Lob der Torheit von Erasmus von Rotterdam English: Schoolboy receiving bare bottom birching, from a medieval source (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a quote we use in attachment to teach parents about how children learn to see themselves in the world.  It is by Thomas Cooley, “I am who I think you think I am.”  This is the truth for children.  The full quote from Cooley is actually, “I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am.”  I find this to be so true for every child I have ever seen with the “I” being the child and the “you” being their parents.  Think about your own childhood.  Did you come to know yourself as a child by virtue of what you thought your parents thought of you?  Have you ever struggled with finding out who you are as you moved away from what your parents think of you and who you are, to be who you truely are?  The same is and will be true for your children.  They believe they are who you believe them to be.  What does this have to do with punishment vs. discipline?  It gives us a framework for making decisions about what to do when our children display behaviors we find undesireable (or desireable too).  In many ways, we are Gods to them.  They are your desciples.  What will you teach them?  Or, alternately, will you punish them for things you do not like?

In case you have not figured it out, I am all for discipline, not so much for punishment.  As you will see in the other posts I have written and will keep writing, I do not believe that to teach children new behaviors we mush punish them.  In fact, I think punishment tends to do the opposite by taking the focus off of the behavior and onto their relatonship with you and the conflict you are experiencing with each other.

So, what is the big deal and how will it look different day to day?  Well, in the end, it may not look that different, the discipline framework I am referring to is more a question of the intent of you as a parent.  When we come to our children as loving teachers, the same intervention can have a different feel to the child.  For example, both a disciplinarian and a punisher might decide not to allow their child to go out the weekend after they break a curfew.  However, the disciplinarian would say something like, “Sure, you can go out until 11pm after I have learned to trust you to come in by 10 reliably.  Guess we’ll have to see whether you can do that next week.  Tonight, I want you with me so I don’t have to worry about your safety like last time.”  A punisher says something more like, “You were late last week.  You know the rules, if you break curfew you’re in for a week.”  The tone of discipline is on loving the child and expecting them to do their best for them and for you while punishment is more about, “I’m in charge and you’re in trouble.”

Lots of times discipline looks more forgiving and tolerant of a child’s choices and people can make the mistake that it is overly permissive.  Please let me clarify that discipline allows more for natural consequences with the understanding that children can learn best by age appropriate experiences.  An example of this would be allowing for a bad grade then remarking about how difficult it must be for your child to see themselves earn a grade that is beneath them.  You could also remark on how you are surprised by the grade since you know they are a good student (I am who I think you think I am).  Not only is discipline easier for us as parents (let’s face it- when your kids are punished so are you), in my view of it, we are teaching our children to love themselves and expecting that they will love and respect us in return.  By expecting and giving love and respect as part of our ongoing give and take relationship with our children, we teach them that who they are is important and worthwhile while building the foundations of positive self-esteem that will last a lifetime.

April 9, 2012 Posted by | discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Trash Your Behavior Charts!

Kids (film)

Kids (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a pet peeve as both a parent and as a clinician about behavior charts.  You know, those charts where kids get stickers for doing things they are supposed to be doing anyway, and then they get a treat or prize for doing it enough times?  I am aware this opinion may be upsetting to some clinicians and especially school professionals where behavior charts are relied upon so heavily.  As a parent, I just think they are annoying and hard to follow for me.  As a clinician, I believe they set up a tit for tat system in a family where everyone starts measuring who did what when.  For my parents with children with attachment disorder they are especially frustrating because by the time a child has earned the prize, you might feel as though you are so angry about all the work it took for you to get them to do the chore/ desired behavior that you don’t really feel like giving them anything.  Sometimes kids make you sorry you gave the prize after the fact by deciding now that they earned the prize they don’t need to do anything for a while.  What a pain.

I have a much better alternative to traditional behavior charts.  It’s the only one that works and it requires little effort from you!  This will take all of two minutes of your life.  Here’s how it works:

  1.  Take a piece of paper and write down one or two (I would only do a couple at a time because it’s easier to keep track of) things your child does that bug the heck out of you i.e. lying, “forgetting” to do their chores, sassing back.  Pick something that is realistic for their developmental level.
  2. Think of a few prizes you might like to earn that involve self-care: a massage, getting a cup of tea with a friend, take a long bath, etc.
  3. Let your child know that you are now giving yourself a behavior chart.  When you are able to successfully handle this behavior from your child in a manner you feel is appropriate (without you yelling, whining, engaging in a back and forth battle), you get a point!  Decide how many points you need to earn to get a prize.   Tell your child that when they engage in that behavior from now on you (not they) will earn a point.
  4. When they do engage in the behavior, calmly remark on what an opportunity this is for you to earn points so you can take care of yourself.  It’s important for parents to take care of themselves when kids are giving them a hard time.  You can wonder aloud how long it’s going to take to get your prize.
  5. This is the most important step.  Follow through!  When you earn your points, do the thing you said you would do to take care of yourself, even if you don’t feel like it.  Remember you picked things you like to do so perhaps they can help you now.

I have successfully used this “behavior chart” with many parents now and I have used it myself.  It works like a charm.  I used it with my own daughters who kept coming in at night to have me take them back to bed when they had their normal cycle of lighter sleep.  I modified it so that if one kid came in, she earned her sister a point!  Guess who sleeps without interruption for weeks at a time?  This lady, right here does! J  It’s really a win-win either way since even if you don’t get the desired behavior right away (and you will because kids get annoyed at the idea of earning you a prize) you at least get some self-care.

April 5, 2012 Posted by | attachment, discipline, help for parents | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

What is attachment disorder?

Mother and Child watching each other

Mother and Child watching each other (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the areas I specialize in is working with children with attachment disorders.  If that term is new to you, please allow me to explain.  Attachment is the relationship a child forms with their early caregivers that shapes how we form connections to other people throughout our lives.  We are all born relying completely upon adults to meet our needs.  I am no animal expert, however, I believe humans are one of the few species that cannot feed ourselves soon after birth.  For basic nourishment and caretaking, we rely heavily upon adult caretakers for a relatively long period of time.

As infants, while we are relying on our caretakers, we are also building the neurotransmitter systems in our brains.  When babies look into the eyes of their parents, literally thousands of neurons per second get activated and the building of this neuron wiring sets up the building block of our attachment system or structure.  When you think of it this way, it is simple: if baby gets her needs met “enough,” she develops what we would call a secure attachment, if baby does not get her needs met “enough” she develops what we would call an “insecure” attachment.  By the way, “enough” has been studied and it means that we meet our babies/ children’s needs 30% of the time (or preferably more).  That does not mean that 7 out of 10 times are gimme’s!  Think about when a baby is crying.  You try to figure out what is wrong…diaper?  No.  Hungry?  No.  Rocking and singing?  Bingo!  You just got it wrong twice and right the third time.  The trick to this is to keep trying to label and meet a child’s needs and to help them learn to label and name their needs to make it easier for you as they grow.  But I digress…

Securely attached children tend to think more along the lines of:

  • The world is a safe place.
  • I am loving and loveable.
  • I get my needs met.
  • Adults are reliable.
  • If I have a problem, I can usually fix it or get someone to help me.
  • My choices make a difference.

Children with insecure attachments tend to think more along the lines of:

  • I need to get my own needs met.
  • I am bad.
  • When I trust people I usually get hurt.
  • My choices don’t make any difference.
  • I need to fix my own problems.
  • People are not trustworthy.

In the classification of insecurely attached children there are two categories.  I see these categories as insecurely attached with a structure (anxious or avoidant) and insecurely attached without structure (disorganized) .  Why the distinction?  Because if you have a child who tends toward anxious/avoidant, you are more likely to be able to predict behaviors and their response to different challenges.  However, with a disorganized structure, because the child has no system for tackling issues in place at all, it is incredibly difficult to predict what the child will do in a given situation.

To find out more about attachment disorder please visit the website I participate with www.attachmentdisordermaryland.com.  There you will find a wealth of information on this topic.

Stay tuned for future posts on attachment as well!

March 31, 2012 Posted by | attachment disorder | , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

   

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