Healing in an Attachment Disordered Child
by Susan M. Ward

It is sad but often true, that the challenges our children faced in their early months and years, can impact them profoundly. Some older adopted children slide into their lives easily and smoothly, with affection, compliance, sincerity, and a conscience. Others, due to a combination of their background, personality, and compound biological issues, develop attachment issues and reactive attachment disorder (RAD).

Families generally go through four stages of living with an attachment disordered child: 1) Struggling to live with a challenging child and questioning your parenting abilities. 2) Realizing that something is wrong and fighting to get a diagnosis. 3) Undergoing attachment therapy with your child and implementing therapeutic parenting. 4) Learning to live with a child who is healing and becoming a "regular" kid.

None of these phases are easy. Adoption, medical, and psychological support personnel are often unfamiliar with reactive attachment disorder. There are very few attachment therapists available. Insurance often does not cover attachment therapy. Friends and family question the family's struggles.

However, there is a slow but steady change occurring. Some adoption agencies are working to better prepare families about attachment before adoption. Some physicians, psychologists, and psychiatrists are better able to identify the characteristics of attachment disorder and recommend an attachment assessment. Books and booklets are available about the causes and therapy for attachment disorder. There are very few resources available, however, to discuss the healing aspect of an attachment disordered child.

In brief, a child in attachment therapy changes their view of themselves and the world. Healing is different in each child but may include a new level of compliance, expression of real emotions, development of a conscience, new honest affection, and often, a disappearance of rage-filled violence. They learn that what happened to them isn't their fault. They re-live many of the baby and toddler activities that they missed. They learn to feel and identify emotions. They learn new and proper ways to "spend" the energy from their emotions. They begin to feel safe enough to let mom and dad be in charge. They allow themselves to grieve their lost past. They learn to give and accept affection in appropriate ways.

As parents with attachment disordered children know, the healing process is neither easy nor direct. Many children fight, as if for their life, in order not to change. Thankfully, though, most children do begin to heal. The first signs of change are usually not fully internalized, but are merely attempts at living in a new way. Slowly, however, as they learn that this new way of life can be safe and comfortable, they begin to change their beliefs and world view, along with their actions.

But, once a child is on the path to healing, how can parents help? What works? What do healing children need to continue on their new path?

All children are different, but the following suggestions and ideas may provide assistance for families whose children are healing from varying degrees of attachment disorder.

-During therapy, you will have created an "iron box with a velvet lining." (This represents lots of structure and accountability, softened with affectionate, playful activities.) Loosen the structured edges of the box slowly. Doing it too quickly and a child goes back to feeling unsafe.

-Keep adding to your child's emotional I.Q. Now that they've learned proper and appropriate responses to emotional situations, they need continued practice in identifying, analyzing, and responding to them. Talk about your emotions. Rent videos with sad, lonely, mad parts. Read books that discuss high-level emotions.

-Maintain their daily "strong sitting" routine. (Sitting quietly, hands in lap, facing a wall, helps children to feel an internal peacefulness. Usually one minute per age of the child is recommended. From When Love Is Not Enough, by Nancy Thomas.) It helps children with RAD to find their internal calm place.

-Realize that you as a parent will goof up. It will feel so good to have a "regular" child, and you will be so tired of doing therapeutic parenting, that you'll sometimes give them more responsibility or more choices or more normalcy than they're ready for. Just back up a few steps and tighten up the "box" for a few days.

-Keep talking to them about their healing. Remind them how far they've come. Compliment them on what they do differently now than in the past.

-Realize that even if your child is now attached, they will very likely still have issues of grief, post traumatic stress, etc. that will continue to need work. That work may be done at home through discussion, role-playing, therapeutic storytelling, and reading. Or, it may require additional therapy, perhaps from a therapist.

-Help your child learn how to be a good friend. During your child's therapy, you may have home-schooled them or restricted their access to friends in order to focus on their attachment to their parents. Playing with friends may be new. Or, playing with friends in their new healed state, may need support. Read stories about friends. Give them guidance as they develop new friendships.

-Try and anticipate what triggers your child to revert to her old, bad habits: stress, over-stimulation, field trips? Provide discussion and action steps to help them avoid falling into their old behaviors.

-Realize that you will not be healed from your own parenting stress and traumas, just because your child is healing. It will take time and perhaps therapy to help you heal and work through your own post traumatic stress issues relating to parenting an abusive, controlling child.

Any child who heals from reactive attachment disorder has dramatically changed and grown. So have the parents. But, the healing process, for both child and parent, goes on long after a child stops seeing an attachment therapist.

Note from Teresa:

Take note of the advice to watch out about giving them more "normalcy" than they are ready for, and to talk to them about their healing, which implies the parents are to be upfront with the child about their issues.

Also note that there is a big difference between attachment issues in general (which almost all children with FASD have) and Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) which affects only some of those with FASD.

Please read these articles as well:
Attachment Issues with FASD
FAS and Attachment
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