When Attachment is Disrupted

When Attachment Is Disrupted Header
Karen Dumas,  LPC-S, RPT-S, Licensed Clinician
By Karen Dumas, LPC-S, RPT-S, Licensed Clinician Aug 08, 2016

A child’s attachment to his parents and/or caregivers shapes how he’ll relate to the world, how he’ll learn, and what kind of relationships he’ll form. However, there are plenty of circumstances that disrupt a secure attachment. It could be the loss of a parent, a child with multiple caregivers, illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, and the list goes on. If the attachment is disrupted, the child may not develop the secure base needed to form and support relationships throughout life.

We know that a secure attachment is best for children, but what happens when they don’t have that? What does that look like for children, and how can we, as adults who work with children, care for and connect with these kids?

Let’s start by talking about these children with attachment disturbance. It is common for children in this situation to project an image that isn’t accurate. They might come across as self-sufficient while hiding feelings of insecurity, or they might be exceedingly charming but are buried in self-doubt. Kids with attachment disturbances often exhibit more extreme behaviors that might include, but are certainly not limited to, poor eye contact, poor impulse control, stealing, lying, and acting out. If we don’t take time to dig a little deeper, these kids might be what is often labeled as the “troubled” or “bad” kids.

But of course we want to help these kids and dig deeper, so here are some tips on how to connect with kids who have an attachment disruption. The most important thing is this: Relationships are the key. Providing a safe, predictable environment helps all children, and especially helps children who don’t have that environment at home. Children who have insecure attachments often don’t know what to expect and they live in an unpredictable world. They need to know what’s coming. This means letting children know the schedule, and when things will deviate from the schedule. It means showing up every day with a calm demeanor, and not fluctuating back and forth in how children are treated and talked to. It means showing up even after a child has acted out, and not walking away when it gets harder.

Children with insecure attachments might try to “push buttons” to get a reaction out of an adult. Sometimes to adults, this looks like disruptive behavior, or comes across as manipulation. But when a child is used to an adult responding with anger, abuse, neglect, or simply leaving when a child acts out, the child is likely using his behavior to test how an adult will respond. If a teacher or other adult responds consistently with a calm response, the behavior will eventually fade as the child learns to trust the adult. Adults need to model healthy ways of relating to kids. When adults send the message, “You can act out, but I am not going anywhere,” children learn to see the world in a different way. If this is new to a child, it may take time. Remember that a new connection is being formed in the child’s brain. It won’t happen overnight, but with time, the brain can re-wire to make sense of this new attachment.

Now I want to share a few ideas that can help engage with kids who have an attachment disturbance.

Praise

Praising a child out of the blue is a great way to build a secure relationship with a child. It shows the child that the adult is paying attention and valuing his contributions. It can be as simple as, “I noticed you were making great choices today. Thank you for being here!”

Provide Choices

A lot of behavior is about the child seeking control in a life that doesn’t provide him much control. With that in mind, allowing the child to feel that he has choices can help. Adults can be deliberate about using the word “choice” as often as possible. For example:

“You are making the choice to continue to play after I have asked everyone to clean up.”

“You made a great choice by lining up quietly like I asked you to.”

“You didn’t make the best choice when you threw that block, but we can try again tomorrow to make a better choice.”

Adults can also provide children with two equally viable choices. For example, the child may not be able to choose whether to do a math lesson or go to recess, but he can be provided the choice between stations during free time, or the choice of which book he wants to read. As long as both choices are acceptable, allowing him to choose helps provide him with a small sense of control over his day.

Statements not Questions

Have you ever asked a child who is acting out, “Why did you do that?” Did you get a perfectly logical response, or did you get a shoulder shrug? Most often, kids don’t know why they misbehave. When they’re reacting from their amygdala, the emotional part of the brain, their prefrontal cortex, which is the reasoning part of the brain, essentially goes off-line temporarily. So rather than trying to ask a dysregulated child why he’s doing something, or whether he remembers the rules, adults can try using phrases. For example, “Nick, did you cut in line at the water fountain?” can be rephrased to, “I saw that you cut in line at the water fountain. I’m going to need you to line up last when it’s time to go.” The child may be upset at the consequence, but this way at least he can’t protest the reasoning as it is based on evidence and logic instead of emotion.

Pay Attention

Of course when working with a large group of kids this can be difficult, but it is important for adults to be observant about a child’s nonverbal behaviors, facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. This will tell more about what’s going on with a child than his words will. Providing small opportunities to check in with children, such as greeting each child at the door in the morning, can help dial into these unspoken behaviors.

Ultimately there are two ways to look at misbehavior. There’s the idea that kids are out to get us, that they’re intentionally being disruptive, that they are acting out because they dislike us, or any other reaction that has more to do with adults than the children themselves. And there’s a second way of looking at misbehavior, which is that it serves a purpose. Children are sending us messages through their behaviors. Children with attachment disturbance are trying to connect with adults in a way that makes sense for their survival. If they’re not used to predictable, secure relationships with adults, they’ll need extra support to enter into one and maintain it. The great news is that it’s never too late for a child to form a secure attachment, and it doesn’t have to be with a parent or primary caregiver. That’s reassuring for those of us who work with these kiddos. We just have to remember to be patient, pay attention, be consistent, and stick with them even when it’s hard. 

©2017 Momentous Institute

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