For this weeks installment of Therapeutic Thursday I want to begin with one of the three cornerstones of Trust-based Relational Intervention (TBRI), developed by the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, for parents raising children from hard places. The three cornerstones of TBRI are Empowering, Connecting, and Correcting. I thought I’d begin with one particular tool we have been applying to promote Connection with our two adopted sons.
There is an unrealistic expectation I have seen when it comes to adoption, that love is enough to solve any problem or issue that arises after adoption. That is an unfair expectation place on the adopted child and on parents raising kids who come from a life of early childhood trauma, neglect, or abuse, because those early life experiences taught them that “love” is scary, unpredictable, untrustworthy, and even painful. These kids have a very different set of experiences with love then you might have which can result in a “Clash of the Titans” showdowns.
This is especially true when you have adopted a child with attachment issues or a diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder.
When the first behaviors arise, there is an arrogant ideology that you can love the pain away. With that unrealistic expectation comes feelings of resentment when that child rejects your love and responds to each effort to get closer with behaviors designed to push you away. The more you try to love their past out of them the more they rebel in word and action.
Over time this takes its toll on a family. You morn the loss of the family you thought you’d be after adoption and the loss of who you once were. You find yourself evolving from loving mother to a Marine Drill Sergeant. Since loving acts are reciprocated with destroyed property, physical aggression. and hurtful manipulation we desperately find ourselves moving into the camp of stricter consequences and the tactic of, “punish the behavior out of them.”
We soon discover this to be an equally ineffective tool as these behaviors are not defiance behaviors, rather they are survival behaviors. These hurt kids can no more accept our love or be moved by our consequences than I can fly to the moon. They are prisoners of their past trauma and are driven solely by the fight, flight, or freeze response of their brains.
Much like a cornered dog who has spent years chained up and kicked, these kids from hard places don’t “growl” out of aggression, but out of fear and a need to survive.
They are terrified by the love we offer. They have been burned before by the very adults that were supposed to love, nurture, and meet their most basic needs, and as a result learned early on that adults are untrustworthy, attachment results in pain, and that they can only depend on themselves to get their needs met.
This survival mindset is the foundation for the most difficult behaviors associated with RAD kids.
So, while our instinct might be to first address the behaviors that are causing havoc in our homes, we must first address the cornerstone of connection, because as Dr. Karyn Purvis always said,
“Connection must come before correction.”
So, for the next few weeks I will be talking about some of the strategies we are using in our home to foster connection.
In an effort at transparency I will admit this is by far the most challenging aspect of the program for me. Connection is easy with people who treat you kindly, but requires intentional, Christ-like effort when trying to connect with someone who wakes up daily with the sole goal of hurting you and pushing you away with their behaviors.
Loving a child from trauma can be likened to hugging a porcupine, the closer you pull them to you the more you get poked.
It requires consciously and deliberately letting go of years of hurt and the mountain of resentment and say, “I am stepping back into the minefield, for the sake of my child’s heart and healing.” It requires humility. It requires the ability to forgive (and forget) 20 times a day. It requires looking at your child through the eyes of trauma and seeing those hurtful behaviors as survival behaviors. And it requires getting closer, when all you want to do is step away. It is an exhausting test of devotion. And it starts with Connecting…reaching out and reacquainting yourself with the child you have been holding at arm’s length as a means of self-preservation.
And it isn’t easy,
But it works.
For the next few weeks I am going to share some of the strategies I have been applying in an effort to connect with my adopted son. And the first strategy I’d like to introduce is giving your child the gift of “Yes.”
This one seems so backwards and counterproductive when viewed through the lens of parenting a child who hasn’t experienced trauma. In fact it goes against everything I did as a parent to my older kids. In an effort to raise humble, grateful children that didn’t carry the “entitled child” stigma of their peers, we made every effort to say “No” more than “Yes.” I saw the effect of too much indulgence in the children of friends who parented differently than we did and was determined to not have our kids grow up believing the world owed them something. We consciously made an effort to say “No” more often than “Yes”, so that the yesses were appreciated more and so our children saw every small blessing as the gift it was.
This idea of intentionally saying “Yes” more than “No” goes against everything I believe. But this is what I needed to understand about the difference in my older children’s upbringing and my two little boys’ upbringing. The older three were given a million “yesses” in their early years, while the two younger boys were told “no” time and time again…and I am not talking about verbally “yesses” to what they wanted at Dollar Tree. I am talking about every “Yes” I gave them as infants when I came to their cry. I am talking about every feeding and changing, and snuggle I said “yes” to when I met their most basic needs. I am talking about the thousands of times I said “yes” to their need for comfort after a nightmare, or “yes” to their request for help when they couldn’t do something on their own. I think about the millions of “yesses” they received for every time they were hungry and asked for food, or thirsty and received a drink. When reflecting back on my bio kids early years, I would not consider myself a permissive parent, but when I consider the many ways they were told “yes” by simply nurturing and caring for their basic physical and emotional needs I can see clearly the millions of “yes” answers that were invested into their trust bank which is what they are healthy, attached children.
I wish I could say the same for Ozzie and Tyler, but their starts were much different and those basic needs were not met regularly or consistently. Their parents said “No” to their requests when they didn’t meet their most basic needs as infants and toddlers. Because of that they learned quickly that adults won’t take care of you and can’t be trusted. They became their own keepers and continue to apply those survival strategies today.
Our goal is to balance those early years filled with “No” with an abundance of “Yes.” They more we can say “Yes” and meet their needs they more they will trust us to meet those needs, thus feeling safe enough to abandon those survival strategies they depend on.
Saying “yes” builds trust.
Saying “yes” leads to attachment.
Here is a great video about the power of “yes” from a TBRI parent:
I urge you to pick a day and give it a try. When your child asks for something, bite back the impulse to answer with the automatic “NO,” and consider whether this is a request you can say “yes” to. See how many “yeses” you can log in a day, and watch your relationship with your child transform and you feed his/her trust tank with each yes…
And with each met need.
That is how connections grow.
This is how our children heal.
This is how attachment forms.
Next week we will delve into another connection strategy we have had tremendous success with: “One on One Time.”