Being a parent to a child with a history of chronic trauma and attachment difficulties can be the most challenging thing you’ve ever done. It’s as if they’ve quickly found each of your “buttons” and seem to get some perverse satisfaction from pushing as many as possible. They can be so defiant and disrespectful you wonder exactly what you’ve gotten yourself into! You’ve sacrificed so much. Isn’t showing a little appreciation and respect the least they can do? It’s only natural that you eventually snap and get angry, no matter how much you try not to. After all, you’re only human!
You’re in good company. Those of us who’ve parented a hurt child knows exactly what it’s like. Even children we’ve adopted as babies can manifest these behaviors sooner or later. In my case, three weeks after my five year old daughter entered our family, I found myself in a child psychiatrist’s office weeping over her defiance and lack of respect. He said, “You’ve had her how long? Three weeks? Do not expect respect out of a child with her history who’s only been with you for three weeks. If she’s still doing this when she’s 16, come back.” Chastened, I decided that respect at that time should not be my priority. Good decision. But try as I might, it took me a long time to stop taking it personally, and I still got angry at her attitude.
We went to one therapist after another, hoping for help and insight. None of them were helpful, with one exception. An attachment therapist, who was otherwise unhelpful because she didn’t think it necessary to connect with my daughter, did have a bit of helpful advice for me---don’t get angry!
“How can I help not getting angry when she’s so defiant and disrespectful?” The therapist told me I should just go home and try it, because anger was making my daughter afraid of me. She also gave me another bit of advice. “Don’t take it personally. Her behavior is not really about you anyway.” Maybe she’s right, I thought. It can’t hurt to try. So I did for a week. “How did it go?” she asked at my next appointment. “Much better. But I really don’t get why.”
What I learned was to calm myself down before I responded to her volatility and not say anything, but offer a comforting presence. Whenever she insulted me, I just said, “Okay. I’m sorry you’re so upset.” I learned to detach myself emotionally, but not physically. While she still vented, she directed it less at me. I also accepted her feelings and didn’t try to argue or talk her out of them, no matter how much I disagreed.. I also began to empathize. Slowly she learned to trust me and to understand that I wasn’t going to be another adult who rejected her. I could now see that she was testing me to prove to herself that I was just another “mother” who would reject her and give her away for being a “bad kid.” I stopped getting sucked into the game and eventually, she stopped it, too.
Think about how you would treat a friend who is very upset. You’d do much better to be a calm and empathic presence, instead of giving unsolicited advice, criticizing her, or telling her what she should or shouldn’t be feeling. If we didn’t do that, we’d soon find ourselves without friends! Our children are the same way. They won’t let you in if they’re not feeling safe and accepted.
Children who haven’t had a secure and consistent attachment figure are very dysregulated emotionally and physically. This isn’t volitional, it’s how their brains developed under conditions of extreme stress. They don’t trust adults for good reason. When we get angry and punitive, it’s very frightening for them, so they push back. Our goal is to first build a secure attachment, much like we do with our infants---loving eye contact, physical care, playfulness, and lots of nurture. We don’t yell or get angry at people we want to get close to.
By the same token, we can’t shape our child’s behavior the same way we do with a secure and attached child. Abused kids have a lot to be angry about. They’ve been hurt and betrayed by their caregivers repeatedly. Since they view punishments as more abuse and rejection, be mindful when you discipline. For example, use “time-in” instead of “time-out.” Say, “I can tell you’re feeling overwhelmed right now, so I think you need more mom time. How about you sit beside me and sort socks from the laundry, draw a picture, make a salad---etc.” Time-in allows you to co-regulate with you child so she can calm herself down. Eventually she’ll be able to it herself, but it’s a major challenge for herself and those around her because her brain has been wired to sense danger and threat. Most kids will be able to improve their fight flight and freeze responses to differing degrees, but for many, it’s hard-wired intotheir brains. A child’s ability to self-regulate will be the major key to her growth and success, but it takes time and the loving assistance of caregivers to grow new brain circuits. Yelling, anger, and punishments can set back progress. Also, avoid behavior modification techniques until you’ve developed a more secure relationship, if you use them at all.
I’ve addressed the special needs of abused teens in other blogs. One thread that runs through all discussions of abused children is how much they need and crave respect. From their experiences, it’s something they’ve never had and we have to avoid anything that feels like a put-down or refusal to be willing to hear their point of view, feelings, and opinions. Respect and a willingness to put aside their behavior to understand what lies beneath, is critical to the child’s learning trust and allowing an attachment bond to form.
But what about their behavior? Doesn’t that count too? Of course it does, but it requires buy-in from the child, a willingness to please. So, first things first. Build a playful loving bond with your child first. The rest can come later, and it will come. With mutual love and a modeling of respect, she‘ll find that she can get what she wants from acceptable behavior and will want to please you. Relationships can be about mutual pleasure, and not pain.