Last week we did a little ruminating on attachment patterns and thinking about our own boys in the face of that. I thought I would add a piece here about the modern thinking around attachment and what I find helpful guiding me along in this foster care journey.
Freud Schmoid. Just kidding.
So Ainsworth and Bowlby are the primary researchers who realllly started shifting the construct of external environmental factors driving our development. Prior to their work it was largely Freud's theories about the child's internal world and subconsciousness that directed the field of psychology. Dan Siegel, MD is a gifted and prolific author and scientist. He has published several books on the mind and interpersonal neurobiology. If you're parenting a teenager I think his book Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain is required reading. Here is an excerpt from one of his recent publications in making a case for attachment theory:
"What MLSRA (The Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation) has shown over the past 35 years in study after study is that attachment security with a primary caregiver measured in infancy predicted important aspects of adjustment and functioning throughout childhood and into adulthood. Those with secure histories had a greater sense of self-agency, were better emotionally regulated, and had higher self-esteem than those with histories of anxious (insecure) attachment. In general, attachment predicted engagement in the preschool peer group, the capacity for close friendships in middle childhood, the ability to coordinate friendships and group functioning in adolescence, and the capacity to form trusting, non-hostile romantic relationships in adulthood. Those with secure histories were more socially competent and likelier to be peer leaders. Each of these findings, as well as the findings on resilience and psychopathology to be discussed, holds true controlling for temperament and IQ."
Our goal as moms, as we see it, is to dig deep into understanding our own shit around our upbringings and the way we currently connect and relate to others so that we better understand how to help these two kiddos in our home. The more modern view of attachment understands attachment patterns to be more of an attachment state vs attachment traits. What does that mean? That there are things you can do to shift your patterns of connecting to a more secure version (therapy, supportive, trusting and kind partners, etc). It makes sense to think of attachment as a more malleable system than it was initially believed to be. All this to say, we are consistently trying to better understand the ways we connect so we can then try to figure out how to better parent the kiddos we love. The relationship you develop with your child is the most important of their life (especially when they are young) and sets the stage for the ways in which they will relate or struggle for the long-haul. And the bigger piece for me: it's not as easy as "we held them a lot" and viola secure attachment, or "we let them cry it out alone so they learned to self sooth" and they're insecure. There is some really compelling research about how well (or not well) maternal attachment styles mesh with those of their kids. Given our focus is kiddos we did not raise from birth, I look a lot at adoption research. You might find some useful tidbits below. I also talk about what I'm doing about my own stuff and offer 4 solid books on building attachment.
Some Interesting Findings
1. A great study on Attachment in Foster Care that finds new foster mothers developed a healthier attachment with their kiddos than experienced foster Mamas. There were several points of discussion here, although largely it came down to inexperienced foster mothers not knowing what they're doing, so they were more sensitive to their kids' needs- as in taking their cues from the child as they had no point of reference for parenting traumatized kiddos. Secondly, experienced foster mothers expressed significant frustration with the child welfare system, and, also (a big ALSO), experienced loss when their previous foster kiddos left. Shorthand here? If you've been doing this awhile you are likely burn out on how ineffective and oftentimes harmful the child welfare system and legal system can be. You are sad and hurt and the pain of the departure of kiddos you connected with adds up. Your frustration with the system combined with the slightly more distant ways you parent to protect yourself from hurt when your kiddo leaves, results in kids who don't feel as connected, which reinforces an insecure attachment. I see this data as more indicative of how different the support and training needs to be for both these groups- as they are equally desperately needed.
2. Parenting stress gets in the way of parental sensitivity to their children. Shocking, right?! If you're more stressed, you're way less available to your kids. Here is the foster care overlay- there is almost universal agreement in the field that maternal sensitivity (i.e. how attuned Mamas are to their kids) is the healing factor for insecure attachment. As in, there are around 30 different methods of therapy, which are backed by research, for traumatized kiddos and they all focus on helping caregivers get better at tuning into their kids- the fancy therapy word here is "attunement" or "co-regulation of affect." There are hundreds of books written for pre-adoptive or adoptive parents and they all take different angles on teaching the skills of attuned parenting. So the ultimate goal is parenting in a way that is sensitive to what this specific kiddo needs as well as making sure you are not mis-cueing them due to your own stuff. For example, if I grew up in a home that minimized sadness and vulnerability- and my parents either dismissed my tears or walked away from me whenever I cried, as an adult I'm likely to feel disgust when my own kiddo cries or appears sad and vulnerable- my response here is hard wired. I might recognize that I feel disgusted, or more likely I will snap at my kiddo because I project my feelings onto them and then think they're a crybaby or whining or trying to manipulate me. I get snappy rather than really look inward here and to see if this is my own stuff being triggered. Having an unsupportive parenting network also puts you at risk. For those of us fostering, it can feel alienating when we get neck deep into this world, which is entirely confusing to those around us and then in turn feel that the social supports we used to have either put us on a pedestal or don't get the intensity of it all. Parents with their own attachment insecurities in particular struggle here, which is unsurprising and painful. The more complicated your attachment patterns are the more complicated it is for you to separate your stuff from the independent thoughts or feelings your kiddo might behaving. Or how about the stress of feeling confused and challenged in parenting your kiddo? Which is another significant piece for foster Mamas and Papas- who hasn't felt challenged by their kids? I mean, shit, I go through that about ten times a day. The more stress parents are under the less available they are to kids, and research shows the more susceptible they are to their own attachment insecurities emerging which in turn leads to a challenged relationship with your kids. It's like a snowball effect in some ways.
3. When you give birth to a teensy baby the two of you already have some familiarity, the sounds and smells and there is just this general sense of some primal comfort. The adoption book, "Primal Wound," was one of the first books to name that infants adopted right after birth still suffer loss and are impacted by it. When you are parenting your birth child you both are creating this language of communicating. You don't need to have a 100% secure attachment framework as the adult to raise kiddos who do okay- and the big reason for that is that you and your baby have developed this style of relating that works for both of you. For example: if you hate feeling out of control/hate not being in control of your bio kiddo's behavior, or really don't like feeling embarrassed by your kids in public, as it feels too shameful for you to have people see that your family isn't perfect, your bio kids have picked up on the information since day one, and by now they know that's just how you roll. And your kids adapt to that, they find other ways of feeling like you're okay with them as they are, so the times you are clearly not okay with them aren't as toxic as they might be otherwise. You've made your own language so-to-speak. You have your own system of back and forth- I get mad here but not here, so wait for the not mad time and we'll connect and feel good.
So, the foster care overlay- kids that we are parenting come with a different language around all of this- as they should, they weren't raised by us, and in addition to that they're been hurt or neglected. So my quirks are amplified times a million because this kiddo has no idea why I'm freaking out because he's going down the stairs alone, and hasn't been with me long enough to get that as long as we go together, it's all good. He doesn't get that we will reconnect right after this incident is over, we just have to get through it. Case-in-point, right now Mr. Toddler screams and wails and kicks whenever we have to redirect (or clean up, or change diapers or not eat blueberries for every meal). And the extent to which he gets distressed is the challenge- he sounds like he is being seriously hurt or tortured. The other day we were leaving a fun family event and we had to get him into the car. He was annoyed that we had to go, which I totally get; it's hard leaving fun things. We do all the transitional preparing stuff: countdown, prompt with favorite snacks once he's in the car, offer choices (you want to climb in or Mama carry you in?), have favorite songs we play as soon as the car starts. But it just doesn't matter. The challenge arises when we lift him into the car. He is so quickly distressed about the shift and his screaming and flailing look so awful, on this particular day the parking attendant at the event said something to us, referencing us being abusive toward him, and then wrote our license plate down, ostensibly to report us to the police. He does sound like he's being hurt, I get it. And we aren't at the point yet where his little impulsive brain understands our cues and his heart isn't quite trusting yet. So it's hard. And when I'm working really hard I can be totally centered during all this and be calm and sensitive to him, and right there with him giving him space to be mad at me and also trying to coach him along to not feel so mad. And when I'm super stressed, tired or just wrung out- shit is hard. Being stressed makes doing the right thing hard. And doing the right thing matters a whole lot if we are going to do some repair here.
So this study essentially discusses far more eloquently what I just rambled on about. And it focuses on 3 months post adoption placement- the ways we keep our cool and tune in matter so much. In short, kids with parents responding in an attuned and sensitive way were healing, which is good news.
What am I Doing Besides Panicking About All This?
1. Recommit to being my best version of me. This is likely the most cliche parenting advice ever, but it's true. I was an athlete for most of my life and now running or any form of exercise often feels totally out of my reach. When I do find time for a run or get outside and hit the trails, I'm so much more available, relaxed and grounded. Meditating is another necessity for me, it reminds me how to be in myself so that I can, in turn, make space for our little people to connect to me- I'm not so full of stress there's no room for you. I'd totally say eating if I wasn't on a kick to make the ultimate hot fudge, so maybe future me will be talking all about my kale smoothie regime, but now I'm about to kill a hot fudge sundae.
2. Be the best "new version" of us. This will hopefully be lifelong work for us. Some of it feels amazing and exciting to do. Some of it is just so damn hard. I was listening to a TED talk on infidelity by Esther Perel, this gifted psychotherapist (don't worry-no one here doing the infidelity- I'm just addicted to TED talks). ANYWAY. She has a line she offers to couples when they are navigating the next phase of their relationship after the affair. It hit me like a thunderbolt when I heard it. She said, "Your old relationship is over, the question you now have to answer is how you want to navigate this new relationship if you desire it." It's a strong metaphor to say our old relationship is over, and yet the dynamics of our relationship are so different now that we are parenting two kids, it feels almost new. I have loved watching The Artist become a Mama. Really, she is so patient, creative and naturally available to our kids. She reminds me everyday that I made the best choice of my adult life in partnering with her. And my attachment is such that I don't like feeling out of connection- not knowing how that big meeting of hers went, not being able to brainstorm with her some interpersonal challenge I had at work. And we are often on such tight schedules and then collapsing into bed (for those luxurious one hour stints of sleep we get) that some days I realize we haven't had a chance to have a real talk with just the two of us in days. So our new work is how to balance this disconnection and my work is how to better wait it out until we connect again. I'll also add that parenting siblings adds a different dynamic here too- parenting a baby who sleeps a lot (well, initially...) and is too tiny to understand much of the verbal world around him allows for a shallower learning curve about merging parenting styles. Disagreeing in front of kids, like Mr. Toddler, who are aware and watching is an art, man. We are working on it. And. It takes work. I'm a big fan of therapy by nature. Occupational hazard. I also find couples counseling with someone versed in trauma and attachment-focused parenting invaluable.
3. Learn a lot from people who know way more than me. I read quite a bit about current thinking around attachment and reference books I find useful when feeling stuck. Many books offer a "How To" approach to parenting traumatized kiddos. I prefer books that talk more about the root of what's happening so I better understand how to parent in the midst of it all. Here are some of my favorites:
- Dan Hughes: Rebuilding the bonds of attachment. This work is a composite case study of the developmental course of one child following years of abuse and neglect. Building the Bonds of Attachment focuses on both the specialized psychotherapy and parenting that is often necessary in facilitating a child's psychological development and attachment security. It develops a model for intervention by blending attachment theory and research, trauma theory, and the general principles of parenting, and child and family therapy. This book is a practical guide for the adult―whether professional or parent―who endeavors to help such children
- Dan Hughes: Attachment Focused Parenting. A guide for all parents and a resource for all mental health clinicians and parent-educators who are searching for ways to effectively love, discipline, and communicate with children. This book presents the techniques and practices that are fundamental to optimal child development and family functioning―how to set limits, provide guidance, and manage the responsibilities and difficulties of daily life, while at the same time communicating safety, fun, joy, and love. Filled with valuable clinical vignettes and sample dialogues, Hughes shows how attachment-focused research can guide all those who care for children in their efforts to better raise them.
- Dan Siegal and Mary Hartzell: Becoming the parent you want to be. Child psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and early childhood expert Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., explore the extent to which our childhood experiences shape the way we parent. Drawing on stunning new findings in neurobiology and attachment research, they explain how interpersonal relationships directly impact the development of the brain, and offer parents a step-by-step approach to forming a deeper understanding of their own life stories, which will help them raise compassionate and resilient children.
- Laura Davis: Becoming the parent you want to be. Informative, inspiring, and enlightening, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be provides parents with the building blocks they need to discover their own parenting philosophy and develop effective parenting strategies. Through in-depth information, practical suggestions, and many lively first-person stories, the authors address the many dilemmas and joys that the parents of young children encounter and demonstrate a range of solutions to the major issues that arise in the raising of babies, toddlers and preschoolers. Full of warmth, clarity, humor and respect.
4. Special playtime. There is a model of therapy called Parent Child Interaction Therapy developed by Sheila Eyeberg. It is a treatment that has shown a lot of success helping parents manage really tough and unsafe behaviors. The principle I think about a lot and have woven into our home is this idea of instituting special playtime with our kiddos. It can seem silly- I'm home all day with them, truuuuussssttt me we have lots of playtime. But the point here is spending focused time with your kiddo, practicing child-directed skills for a focused 5-10 minutes. Research would show this is one of the most significant shifts in the challenged parent-child relationship. When kiddos really feel you are present and focused and really right there with them (and this is all done through the language of the child, which is play) good things happen. What are child directed skills? Here. It's a rather long read but so, so worth it. In our house, this is how we try to negotiate the shift from bathtime to bedtime. We really try to put our Mr. Toddler to sleep feeling soothed and connected to us especially now that he's in his own room. It's helping, he is more relaxed during books and can go right into snuggling with us as he falls asleep.
5. Expanding our community of parents and foster parents. Part of why we started this account was to connect with other families who look like ours. The support, the community, the conversations with other families who are fostering has been such a surprising gift. We find ourselves feeling less alone and that's a beautiful thing.
-Foster Mom (the therapist)