Below is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Therapeutic Parenting: A handbook for parents of children who have disorders of attachment. This handbook was written and published by ATTACh, a membership organization which understands the critical importance of attachment in human development and the difficulties of raising and treating children affected by early life trauma and disrupted attachment.
This chapter explains the principles that are keys to successfully parenting children who have disorders of attachment, and how to apply these principles to real-life parenting challenges. Because the academic and professional thinking about disorders of attachment, attachment therapy and, thus, attachment parenting1 have evolved and changed rather dramatically over the past few decades, this chapter begins with a brief history to provide context for the current thinking.
A brief history of attachment therapy
In the 1970s, a new treatment approach was developed for children who had histories of maltreatment and loss and who were resistant to traditional forms of therapy. This approach was called Rage Reduction Therapy (Zaslow & Menta, 1975), and included catharsis, provocation of rage, and intense confrontation.
Over the next two decades, findings in the fields of trauma, neuroscience and attachment began to discredit those coercive approaches (Kelly, 2003), supporting instead therapeutic approaches that emphasize sensitivity and attunement. Examples of such therapy include narrative therapies, some play therapies, and other methodologies focused on increased emotional regulation and trauma processing.
In 2003, ATTACh officially separated itself from its early roots and embraced the current prevailing thinking about effective, appropriate treatment of children with disorders of attachment in its first position paper, ATTACh Position Statement on Coercive Therapy. The current white paper on this subject (2006) is available on the ATTACh website (attach.org), and parents are encouraged to read it.
The principles presented in this chapter are based on the current thinking about attachment therapy, as described in ATTACh's position statement. As research in the field of attachment continues to yield deeper understanding of these complex issues, ATTACh will continue to evolve its positions and practices accordingly.
Regulation and dysregulation
Attachment parenting requires an understanding of the concepts of regulation and dysregulation. These terms refer to the physical and emotional state of the child:
Regulated--able to flexibly experience, tolerate, and manage a range of emotions, both positive (e.g., joy, excitement) and negative (e.g., sadness, fear) without becoming overwhelmed, and is able to easily regain an emotional balance in which he or she is calm, receptive, and able to process thoughts and feelings
Dysregulated--in an overwhelmed, overwrought state
Research has shown that children learn best during times when they are regulated (Schore, 2001). But children who have experienced attachment-related traumas often are very easily triggered into a powerful dysregulated state. Some children have lived in these fearful, agitated states so long that the "states have become traits" (Bruce Perry).
What these children need is active, helpful, empathic assistance in transitioning to a calmer state. When parents provide that kind of help, they are providing critically important corrective emotional experiences for their children. But it's no easy task--children are often most resistant to this help when they most need it. Indeed, their distorted perceptions and negative beliefs often cause them to quite literally misperceive the intention of help and resist it.
What would you do?
Amy was at her wits end. They had to leave for the airport in an hour and there was still so much to do! Instructions for the dog sitter, garbage out, medications to pack and the kids had been bickering constantly since the moment they woke up. Amy wanted to sit down and cry. Just then a football came sailing into the kitchen, knocking a glass of orange juice off the kitchen table on its way.
Some possible endings:
A - Amy stormed into the next room screaming, "Who threw that football?!?" The boys both pointed to each other saying, "He did." One child poked the other as he was pointing at him, and received a hard punch on the arm from his brother in return. Amy grabbed both boys and dragged them to the couch, putting them at opposite ends. "Don't MOVE!" she screamed, giving them "the eye," and stomped back to the kitchen to resume her tasks.
B - Amy walked into the next room, and calmly said, "I don't care who threw the football, but both of you need to clean up the mess, now." One boy whined, "But I didn't DO anything." The other one whined louder, "You did TOO, I'm not cleaning up your mess." Amy calmly said, "When the mess is cleaned up, we'll leave. I sure hope we don't miss the plane, though, because then you'll have to buy us all new tickets, and that will take months and months of chores!" Amy resumed her tasks.
Most parents would probably respond as Amy did in Scenario A, acting on emotion and instinct. However, this approach is guaranteed to escalate the situation into a full-blown power struggle, prolonging the children's state of dysregulation and, thus, the misbehavior. It is also likely to incite real fear in the children, as the physical nature of the intervention may trigger memories of earlier trauma.
Scenario B is a better choice, as Amy's calm reaction should help the children move to a more regulated state. Backing off when a child escalates helps to create an atmosphere of safety and trust that is the basis for attachment to occur, and helps the child learn to regulate himself. However, as implemented in this scenario, it is purely a behavioral intervention, designed to obtain the desired results of getting the orange juice cleaned up and helping the children learn to take responsibility for their actions using logical consequences.
As you'll see next week, there is an even more therapeutic approach!
This excerpt may not be altered, copied or distributed without the expressed consent of ATTACh. ATTACh will not be responsible for or endorse any content which has been altered. A copy of the complete handbook is available on the ATTACh Members Only Site, for members of ATTACh, and is also available for purchase. Please visit the ATTACh website at www.attach.org for membership, conference, a list of therapists, and further information regarding attachment-focused therapy.
Read Part 2