One more reason why behavioral methods are not effective for children with disorders of attachment is that rewards and consequences are conditional on behavior. The positive regard from parent to child is felt by the child to be conditional. In other words, “I know I am bad. My parents reward me when I am good, but deep down I know I am bad and not really worthy of a reward. They don’t love me when I am bad so that proves I am unloved/unlovable.” Parenting children with relational trauma requires therapeutic parenting. Providing your child with unconditional positive regard (not just love) is essential to gradually growing the seeds of a positive sense of self. This is about accepting your child as he or she is (while not permitting your child to do as he or she likes). Consistent unconditional positive regard for your child in the face of obnoxious or violent behavior is one of the keys to reducing the deep shame the child feels. As you remain open, kind, and calm in the face of your child’s dysregulation, he or she learns that no matter what, you accept the worst he or she has to give — the smeared feces, the broken lamps, the urine on the carpet, the terrorized dog and the disgruntled neighbors. As the child experiences your love of the “bad child” whom he or she knows he or she is, along with the good child you want him or her to be, the child can begin to trust that you won’t leave, hurt, or shun him or her. Because you pay attention, care, understand, and accept the child, the shame has a place to heal.
So when parents ask, “What do I do?” I reply, “Create physical and emotional safety. Be calm. Be kind. Be accepting.” Connect heart to heart with your child by staying close.
Be wise and confident as you reflect his or her feelings so he or she can learn to under- stand them. Talk about what happened only when your child is calm and able to listen. Work out what to do (repair, give restitution, reconcile) only after your child’s emotions and behavior have re-stabilized through your positive regard. Natural and logical conse- quences need to be short and occur when the child is calm and hopefully, willing. Parents of children with attachment disorders should not expect to change behavior, but to teach that limits can be safe and not shaming. The change in behavior will occur through the process of the development of attachment as the child’s shame is reduced and self-regulation develops. Emphasis needs to be on relationship repair not punishment. Try to end the event with you and your child feeling as close as, or closer than, when it began. In fact, it isn’t over until you are.
This article was shared with permission by EMK Press. EMK Press publishes a variety of books and helpful resources to guide families through the journey of parenting.
Mary-Jo Land, CPT, CDDP, has been certified as a child psychotherapist and play therapist, dyadic developmental psychotherapist, sensorimotor psychotherapist level 1 and an attach- ment-focused therapist, consultant and trainer. She is a registered attachment clinician with ATTACh and currently president of ATTACh.. As a private practice therapist, she assists foster and adopt parents and children in their attachment and bonding while resolving early trauma and neglect. Land and her husband were therapeutic foster parents for twenty years. They have 5 children, one of whom is adopted and 2 grandchildren. She can be reached at www.maryjoland.ca or firstname.lastname@example.org.