When we initially decided to foster, The Artist and I were clear about one thing: no babies. No way, man. No little people either. We said 5 and up only for multiple reasons- we both work full-time jobs, we hadn't parented babies before, we did not have babysitters lined up to help out, we had zero baby stuff, and staying up all night was nightmare-inducing to me. I could go on. And we all know how that decision ended up! One of the other reasons we initially ruled out such little kiddos was that we had a sense for the kind of kiddos who could do well in our home, and those kids were just older. Truthfully, we went into foster care to create a home for the kids who need it- like really need it. We both come from backgrounds working in residential placements, therapeutic after school programs, and I'm a therapist who works solely with kiddos and families who've experienced complex trauma. We endeavored to parent and be a home for tough-to-place kids who were bombing out elsewhere. Caring for the kids who appear grateful in tangible ways, can express feelings and seek assistance from adults, kids who send messages of appreciation and cause their caregivers to feel loved are easier to care for. And largely, this easier component is related to how adults can feel like they are having the kind of parenting experience that caused them to go into this whole thing in the first place; to feel like a family. The kids we were looking to parent were the kiddos who rage, and destroy possessions of their own and everyone else's and seem to reject love and connection because they don't know how to quiet that lonely place inside. For what it's worth, we also said older kids initially, as we wanted to know more about who was coming into our home to prepare better and so we could get the help they (and we) needed sooner than later. And there just tends to be more information available for kids who can use words to communicate and have records of what has and has not worked. The short version of what I'm trying to detail here is that we (like so many other foster Mamas and Papas) think a lot about attachment and attachment patterns, we thought about this stuff before we ever had little people in our home, and we certainly do now that we are charged with helping Tiny and Mr. Toddler with rebuilding a healthier attachment.
Lets Break This Down
At work, I'm often asked to evaluate a kiddo's capacity "to attach" or I'll have referrals for kiddos to "assess their ability to attach" when they are being matched with a pre-adoptive home and these questions make my hair stand on end. I'll start at the beginning just to frame this all: Attachment is not a zero sum gain. The questions I'm being asked are broken. It's not that you either are attached or you're not. There are patterns of attachment (healthy, anxious, ambivalent, disorganized), and what folks are really trying to ask me is what is this kiddo's attachment style, and is it Healthy Attachment.
Healthy Attachment (labeled by Bowlby and Ainsworth who put concepts of infant attachment patterns on the map) is a pattern of connecting that is flexible and reciprocal. I will add that all attachment styles are solidified by the time you are around 2-3 years old and the best research indicates that our patterns are lifelong- meaning that the pattern you develop in your earliest years lasts throughout your life unless you dedicate quite a bit of time and energy to changing it. Healthy attachment really means you can disappoint me and I don't wish you dead. I can be mad, I can feel upset by what you did but I also hold if you are important to me I want to work this out and will try to talk to you about what I need (because I trust you care about what I need) and I also want to make this thing between us work. For kids, this looks like asking for help with a task, discriminating between your parents and adults you don't know that well. Kids with healthy attachment don't crawl on strangers' laps or snuggle up to people who are not their parents or close family. Little kids with healthy attachment also use their parents as a secure base, meaning they go off and try things out, tear off to the playground and if they notice they are too far away they stop and look back, or if they get hurt of nervous they run back to their parents to check-in and get bolstered up again. In adulthood this looks like someone who works to maintain their relationships, can hear feedback and try to shift their behavior if it is distancing to people they care about, and (this is a big AND here) can walk away if it's not a relationship worth salvaging. They also know when to call it quits, they don't ditch out or overstay. It's a pattern of attaching to other people that is based on doing what feels good, and the things that feel "good" are connection, trust, intimacy and reciprocity. It goes without saying that kiddos who've experienced trauma aren't able to develop healthy attachment pattern, and that most of their therapeutic work is to rebuild an attachment that is healthier and closer to a secure healthy attachment. And this is long term work. This does not happen in weeks or months. Rebuilding attachment is the work of living an alternative experience, you have to have life happen around you to learn a new way of opening your heart. But man, when this work does happen it is breathtaking, this is the work of coming out from the shadows and realizing just how beautiful you are standing out there in the sunshine.
Growing up in a chaotic or multi-stressed home can hijack this normative pattern of developing a secure attachment with caregivers, so kiddos have to devise other ways of connecting which are titled "Insecure Attachment." So we have Healthy or Secure Attachment as the goal, and then insecure attachments, which are a result of things not going as well as they could have during development. In our home, we have a kiddo with an Anxious Attachment style, which means the feeling that emerges most when navigating connection is anxiety. He perseverates over the potential loss of attachment figures and is always a little preoccupied about where his important people are and when they are coming back, and what risks he is putting himself in by connecting to us as parents. In kiddos, Anxious Attachment looks like kids with separation anxiety, kids who will ask over and over where someone has gone when they just left the room. It looks like our Mr. Toddler, who on the 15 minute drive home from pre-school today asked me 57 times (I know, who counts this stuff...) where his other Mom was. And I answered the first 15 times or so by telling him she was at home waiting for us. The answer isn't soothing to him as he is so focused on trying to manage how bad things will feel if he loses us or his routine, or his new home, or loses the feeling that comes with us seeing him as a good kiddo. When I'm trying to decode the way kiddos connect, the big outlier for me is really this: does the way they manage connections get in the way of their doing developmentally appropriate stuff? If so we have a problem. So asking me 57 times where Mom is comes at the expense of us singing songs, or talking about his day, or pointing out buses or trucks we pass. He's not able to do what he should feel free to do because he's under so much stress around building connections. Beyond that it is such an uncomfortable place for him to be sitting. Feeling a constant looming sense of dread that something bad is going to happen to people you care a lot about is a terrible way to feel. Anxious attachment comes from caregiving that is sometimes good and sometimes gone or unavailable to you. Meaning, that sometimes you had a parent who was nice, or played with you or did fun things with you and sometimes they neglected you, or used drugs and passed out and you felt alone and scared, or maybe they had mental health issues so they would be wrapped up in their own struggles and leave you completely alone as they could not manage to parent when struggling themselves. Your little kiddo brain can't figure out what you did to make them fun and play with you and what you did to make them leave you alone and go away. So you get so nervous in your tummy about connecting because it feels like it could change on a dime and you can't see it coming. So hard. In adulthood, Anxious Attachment tends to look like partners who snoop in their spouses email or texts or Facebook, feeling a constant threat that they might be doing something that is hurtful to me or secretive or having an affair. It tends to look like folks who have intense anxiety when their partner or family members leave town or travel without them, they worry they might die while away or something terrible will happen. The anxiety is almost always centered around the loss of the connections, you cheat on me or leave me, you die and leave me, I will feel so lonely and small when you are gone I won't know what to do. The focus of connection is around worrying it might go away or drift off.
Another insecure pattern is Avoidant Attachment, which tends to be a more typical or stereotyped male style of connecting, largely due to the way we socialize boys in our country (USA). Avoidant Attachment is a style that minimizes the importance of connecting - like, "I'm all set without you, thanks," There is a video of the Strange Situation Test done initially to identify attachment patterns, and the Avoidant Attached kiddos appear to not notice their parent returning or will not make attempts at reconnecting with them. The other part I'm going to highlight here is that if you hooked these Avoidant Attached kiddos up to biofeedback, or heart rate monitors, you would see they are physiologically going through the roof. All markers of distress are there; increased heart rate, skin conductivity showing they're sweating and more blood is flowing; but they are giving no outward sign they're upset. They're masking it. They are avoiding the connection, hence the title. Kiddos with this profile tend to have had lots of experience early on where their caregiver was either gone- again mental illness, drugs, neglect - and then caregivers who were scary or abusive when they were around or sober. So your little heart learns that it's better to be ignored than hurt so thats what you orient toward when faced with intimacy. We have had kiddos in our home who are so fiercely independent and have such a strong commitment to doing things themselves and not needing adults, it always causes me to feel such a sadness as I know they came by this honestly and that likely they were either left alone when they needed connection or were hurt when they shouldn't have been. In kiddos, this looks like refusing to allow help on homework or with chores or simple tasks like putting on shoes or doing things they clearly cannot. These kiddos will go down in flames rather than allow help, and honestly who could blame them after thinking through where this came from. Do lots of toddlers insist on doing EVERYTHING themselves? Totally. And so, so normal. Do lots of pre-schoolers spill hot liquids on themselves, refuse to cry by biting hard on their lip and then refuse to let adults help attend to their blistering burns? No. Here's our outside the developmental arc rule again. Does the way you are navigating connection get in the way of healthy normative development? Then we have a problem.
The pattern that tends to be hardest to parent is called Ambivalent Attachment, meaning you're ambivalent about the whole concept of connecting in general. You both desperately want to feel connected to your parents and are terrified of how hurt you can be by them. Ambivalent by definition is equally desiring opposing things, so here we have kiddos who want to be connected and want you to leave them the hell alone. There is nowhere to stand here that feels good, you're either desperate to connect and want people close, or they are too close and you want them to back up and get some distance so they can't hurt you so much. This attachment pattern comes from kiddos who had caregivers who were sometimes good- meaning they would connect or be safe caregivers and then these same caregivers would sometimes be abusive or scary. So we have the good and scary here and growing up in this home you learn that connections are sometimes good and make you feel warm and loved and sometimes they terrify you and make you feel pain and lost. Internally, you pattern that connecting to other people is like rolling the dice, sometimes they love you, sometimes they beat you. That's just the way it is. Kiddos who lived in homes with domestic violence are quite often left with this pattern of attachment as they had a model for love and connection that was about violence and remorse. Which, in essence, is really sometimes good, sometimes painful and that's what love is. So hard. In adulthood we call this Borderline Personality Disorder, which is really just ambivalent attachment after 18 years old. The trick for parenting here, is you need to be able to stand in a neutral place, like I neither need you to love me, nor is it okay to ignore me and our family. Too much intimacy is overwhelming and triggering, and too little is not enough to survive off of and reenacting neglect. Such a hard balance. Ambivalent kiddos tend to call new parents Mommy or Daddy right away (for kids over 6 or 7 this is such a red flag- that title is earned after living out trust and connection, offering it right away is a set up for everyone) or insist they are a perfect fit in their new family right away and then as the months progress it falls apart. The desperate-to-connect gives way to the fear of being hurt or waiting for the other shoe to drop. Often these kiddos are called "push-pull" kids as they tend to go back and forth in a challenging pattern. Something like almost 40% of child welfare adoptions fail- parents kick the kids out after saying they are going to be a forever family. These kiddos are typically the ones that have the least success in pre-adoptive homes.
Last but not least is the Disorganized Attachment category. This tends to be categorized by a total collapse of strategy, meaning that there is not an organized pattern and kiddos behavior tends to look bizarre in the face of connection. This attachment pattern is also called RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), but for many reasons I stay away from that construct and really view it as disorganized attachment or complex trauma. This pattern of attachment comes from early caregiving that is frightened and frightening, meaning someone frightened you by neglecting or abusing you, and then you in turn saw them frightened by someone else. 'If you hurt me I can see you as the most powerful person in the world.' In my little kid brain, you can do everything, determine when I eat, when I am alone, when I get hit, but if I see you in turn hurt by someone else it feels like all bets are off. That there is always a bigger, badder person out there. And my little kiddo brain feels like the world is full of people who can do terrible things if pushed enough or tested long enough. I often hear terms like kids "push senseless boundaries"or are "oppositional with adults," and I think the piece that is getting lost here is that kids aren't trying to make you nuts, they very much believe everyone has the capacity to be nuts they just need to find the limit of your patience and the line where your nuts starts. They're trying to figure out how to stay on the safe side of your nuts. I will also add, this is a haphazard process and it is usually with the firm belief that adults are not safe or secure, I'm not looking to find out how to feel safe and connected, I'm all about figuring out how to survive here, and survival does not require reciprocal or flexible connection thank you very much. It's a safety seeking behavior to push adult limits over and over, and I totally get it. And am totally exhausted by it at times. A concrete example: another kiddo would quietly go down into the kitchen in the middle of the night and take glasses from the cabinet on the wall and smash them into long, sharp shards and then pile them back up and put them in the cabinet and leave them there. Then he would go back to bed as if nothing happened and the next morning deny any knowledge whatsoever. "Who me?!" "Absolutely not I slept all night." It felt like a warning to find them in the morning, like a message of some sort. This went on for months. I could say so many things about this behavior, but the most relevant piece is that he was really trying to see what happens in this home when chaos is brought in, it's not that he is trying to make life hard or be vindictive, his pattern of connection is that he will get abused, he just doesn't know when or how yet. This is his way of putting a toe in the water to see what the rules of survival are in this home. Bizarre? Yes. Senseless? No.
When bad things happen to good hearts
We spend a lot of time talking about where our kids are and what we are doing to try to rectify all this. When we moved Mr. Toddler into his own bed in his own room it was a huge decision that we spent weeks deciding on.. Is it too soon? Will he feel replaced by Tiny sleeping is his cosleeper? Does he like the privacy and space with his toys? Did it make his tantrums and rages worse? Is there a concept for him of holding pride in being a Big Boy yet? Do we even want to encourage that as he missed out on so much little baby time? I could do this for days. Fortunately, that is why I chose a level headed lady who can be so much more practical and clearheaded in these dark waters. I know I'm like a broken record with this, but the work of rebuilding the way your heart feels loved or cared for is life's work. We all work this out differently over time, and do our best in the meantime. Being thoughtful about what our kids need, and not getting lost in what I need or what makes me feel loved, is about the hardest thing I've done and without hesitation, the most important.
-Foster Mom (the therapist)