Attaching to stable, loving parents is the most frightening thing for a hurt child to do. When you think about it, why would they want to build a bond to the very thing that represents the reason they are hurt in the first place? On an intellectual level, I get that. But emotionally its a daily struggle to not take their distancing behaviors personally. David and I have gotten pretty good at watching for signs that they are taking a risk and trying to bond. Our natural response is to give praise and encouragement in response to their efforts. Imagine our wonder when instead of inspiring more growth and effort, it was fodder for failure.
For kids who are more comfortable with distance, those who feel the only way they will survive this life is to be the ones in control, the motivation behind most of their behavior is to keep you distant and out of control. Its a very sad existence when you think about it. The innate desire of any human is to be nurtured, cared for and in relationship with others. We are born with the understanding that our parents are the ones responsible for providing that care and relationship until we are old enough to handle this complex world and when that bond is broken, for whatever reason, something deep inside is broken. The whole system is rewired and now instead of resting in the arms of a secure parent, learning to love, grow and thrive while being protected and cared for, the child must thrash, fight and scrape for every shred of life in order to survive. It becomes me against the world in an effort to keep from being swallowed up. Its not about relationship anymore, its about staying alive. Emotions take a back seat to needs, it all about ‘me’ and what I must have to make it.
Given this perspective we can begin to understand the motivation behind many of the behaviors that hurt children display. Lying, cheating, stealing, defecating, sabotaging good times, etc. – all these make sense when you remember their purpose. The child has to display these behaviors in order to do two things; maintain control by keeping you out of control and keep you at a safe distance. Therefore, parenting a hurt child becomes more about training yourself to respond correctly than teaching the child to behave correctly.
So back to my original question…why is it that whenever we saw the child really making an effort to attach or submit to our rules, etc. and we offered praise and encouragement, they reverted instead of sought to do even better? Simple. When you think about how every moment of their existence an internal battle between their innate desire to be cared for, nurtured and in relationship and their overwhelming fear of parents, love and intimacy is raging within them. It makes perfect sense. Part of them wants desperately to give control of themselves over to us as their parents, that the natural way. But the other, mixed up and hurt side, is battle to maintain control because thats safer. They are trying to give their hearts over to us. Making big and little strides toward relationship. When we recognize those efforts and give praise it freaks them out. They suddenly think that they have gone too far and retreat to their comfort zone of distancing behaviors.
So should we not encourage or recognize them for their efforts, even though we know the extreme risk they took to make those strides toward relationship and what it cost them? I dont think thats the answer at all. David and I have developed an attitude that has worked pretty well for us. There are two ways that we have chosen to approach these situations. First, we know that if we bring a child into our room ( the place where all serious conversations take place-lol) that we have established an environment where they have given over control just by entering our domain. Its a very uncomfortable situation for them to be in right from the start. If we then proceed to encourage them for the good they have done, we are silently saying, ” Submit to our control and come into our relationship space and let us hold out our hearts to you while we honor you, oh most unworthy one, for failing to protect yourself and maintain control of your world and keep yourself safe by not giving in to the rules that might end up hurting you…” They hear those things when all we are trying to say is, “We see your efforts to grow and love-way to go!” We want so desperately to encourage our children that its worth the risk to go through that whole scene anyway, in hopes that a bit of our loving message will make it home to their heart and spur them on to a happy life. But we also know that it will likely mean a launch into bad behaviors for a while afterwards while they buck against the feelings it evoked. Like I said, sometimes its worth it because we see they really had made progress and will return to a better place in the end. We save those times for really significant things though and generally take a much less vulnerable method of praise, which I will explain.
Touch and eye contact are relationship builders, not generally popular with children who have been hurt. All the more reason to look for ways that you, as the parent, can employ them-right? So, when a child has done something that you recognize was a move toward giving up control or building relationship, its a perfect time to give a quick encouragement using tough and eye contact. Sometimes I will just move toward them, touch them gently (which startles them because they dont like touch, and makes them look at you suddenly) and then follow with a short, quiet-“good job, that was nice” or whatever is appropriate. Always careful to keep it short and then move away before they have time to squirm. That way you took them off guard and moved on while you were still in control of the situation. If they baulk and say crazy things as you move away, dont respond and give control back to them. Another way is to make a shocking noise to catch their attention, then sing a quick jingle of praise, do a jig while praising them, or war whoop- something that takes them off guard. You can slip your praise in before they know what hits them and then move out of the situation, bringing the control with you-hehe!
Its possible that they will still revert and give their unwitting brother or dog a quick pop in response to your praise, but believe me they heard it and it went to a deep place, stirring those God given desires for relationship and making them hunger for more.
Happy relationship building 🙂
Here are some books that I found to be helpful-
Building the Bonds of Attachment, by Daniel Hughs
Parenting the Hurt Child by Gregory Keck
Click on the title and it will bring you to Amazon 🙂