This reflection is one of a series written on behalf of a mom who placed her children at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development several years ago. She writes from a place of love as a woman who has endured the feelings of love and loss after adopting children with reactive attachment disorder. Her boys are now grown men. These are her reflections and memories, from life experiences and the wisdom that time bestows. And from a place of frailty that only a parent can know.
(The author uses pseudonyms for the protection and privacy of her children.)
Most babies are born into a world surrounded by joy, excitement, affection and love. What happens to a baby’s “heart” when such treasures are not present? What happens to a baby who cries in hunger and is not fed? What happens when a loving caregiver does not soothe an infant’s tears? What happens to this fragile vulnerable being when violence and neglect dominate her earliest months of life?
Instinctively, a baby innocently relies upon and expects adults to protect, nourish, and love him. Yet, what happens to the heart – the “emotional brain” – whose expectations are disappointed repeatedly, day after day?
This is the story of so many children who suffer from reactive attachment disorder. In a certain way, their wounded hearts are analogous to a physical injury to the body. How does a “shattered” heart handle the emotional rigors of human relationships? Understanding the affects of trauma on these children’s ability to attach to others is so complex that I have often employed metaphors to help me understand and parent them.
So many of my child’s behaviors could be understood by the image of a shattered heart. Is this why my child could not seem to contain the love I gave him? It just seems to pass through the fractures into an eternal abyss. Is this why my child could not contain deep joy? He could laugh superficially with self-indulgence. But to truly feel joy or give enjoyment to the family seemed impossible.
It seemed to me that a heart so injured, so bruised, wanted to avoid the sensation of real feeling. This is, I posited, why my child struggled to hold sorrow for another. Why my child could not seem to feel empathy for another. The only feelings he expressed were anger and self-pity, emotions that were self-protective, not vulnerable. They were emotions he could use to ward off relationship and emotional connection to the family. Another way perhaps to protect a broken heart.
The Love and Logic parenting I learned at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development helped me to understand how to create an emotionally safe environment in the home as a step toward healing the traumatized heart. When I maintained a calm and matter-of-fact response to behaviors aimed to upset and push me way, the fragile heart of my child could relax. He could slowly learn to trust the soothing reality of a parent who could handle all his unconscious disruptive behaviors.
Just as we would be gentle in handling a fractured limb, children with emotionally wounded hearts need caregivers who can be gentle and empathic. Even as we watch our children make terrifying mistakes, we cannot act upon our own triggers. Even as we are frightened by our children’s behaviors, we cannot react angrily or with hysterics. These reactions only cause a child to feel emotionally unsafe. The heart of a traumatized child can feel frightened and even re-traumatized by such reactions. Instead, we can consistently give nonreactive responses to strengthen their trust and attachments.
And just as a broken arm needs a firm and consistent structure to hold it in place while the fracture heals, so does the broken heart. Children with reactive attachment disorder need us to have clear and unwavering boundaries that become the structures they can count on for healing.
Parenting to restore a shattered heart of a child can be a slow and grievous task. Yet, any small movement toward healing a child’s ability to trust and make a heart connection to his caregiver is as priceless as a baby’s first breath. And, it is a lasting gift to the world.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT REACTIVE ATTACHMENT DISORDER AND HEAR FROM FAMILIES AT THE INSTITUTE FOR ATTACHMENT AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT, PLEASE SEE OUR VIDEOS & MORE PAGE.
Image courtesy of usamedeniz at FreeDigitalPhotos.net and fotographic1980.