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The Connected ChildBring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family
By Karyn B. Purvis David R. Cross Wendy Lyons Sunshine
McGraw-HillCopyright © 2007 Karyn Brand Purvis, David R. Cross, and Wendy Lyons Sunshine
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHope and Healing
Parents who come to us for help often admit they're nearing the end of their ropes. The young child they brought home with high hopes remains somehow disconnected from the family—responding in odd or troubling ways to ordinary social situations, refusing affection, even lashing out and controlling the family through rage and tantrums. These parents have tried time-outs and punishments, and they've tried medications. But nothing seems to really help. Frustrated, they take the little one to specialists, pursue all kinds of solutions, and while their son or daughter may show some degree of improvement, family life remains more of a trial than a joy.
The good news is that there's real hope for a better way. As research psychologists who specialize in child development, we have been delighted to watch adopted children and their families make tremendous gains once they begin using the philosophy and techniques outlined in this book. When parents really begin to understand this approach and put these methods into practice, they soon glow with delight at their blossoming child and newly connected family. It gives us great joy to see a new light sparkling in the eyes of mothers and fathers who were once disheartened.
What stood in the way before? Part of the problem was the conventional wisdom about troubled children. Here's an example. Imagine you've been invited to a friend's house for a snack of brownies. When you get there you find flour, milk, eggs, sugar, and cocoa each sitting in a separate dish. Your host says that you need to dip a finger into each dish and then put all of those ingredients on your tongue and together that gives you a brownie. Sounds silly, right? Yet that's the same type of piecemeal and disconnected approach traditionally used for diagnosing and treating at-risk children.
Too often, parents and experts look at behavioral disorders as if they existed separate from sensory impairments; separate from attention difficulties; separate from early childhood deprivation, neurological damage, attachment disorders, posttraumatic stress; and so on. We take a more holistic approach, because we know from a wealth of scientific research that a baby's neurological, physical, behavioral, and relational skills all develop and emerge together. An infant needs more than just food and water and a roof over his or her head to grow; he or she needs close physical human contact and social interactions to develop optimally. Unfortunately, adopted children can miss out on having all their earliest needs met before they go home with their new families.
Deprivation and harm suffered early in life impact all the ways that a child develops—coordination, ability to learn, social skills, size, and even the neurochemical pathways in the brain. These consequences can linger years after a child has left a life of hardship. That's why formerly neglected and abused children are predisposed to such problems as attachment difficulties, conduct disorder, depression, anxiety, attention deficits, learning disabilities, and more.
A baby is born to a birth mother who abused alcohol during the baby's formative weeks. Even though the infant is adopted at birth and looks normal, he suffers subtle thinking and neurological impairments that reduce his ability to process language and to learn. As he grows up, his weak language skills and slowed comprehension cause him to misinterpret parental instructions or give peculiar responses. This behavior gets misinterpreted as uncooperative and defiant by adults, who punish him. Fearfulness now interferes with his higher brain functioning, making it even harder for him to learn or to connect with his parents.
A two-year-old is adopted from an orphanage where she was underfed, under-touched, and neglected. From lack of stimulation, her senses have not developed normally. In her new adoptive home, she is bombarded by unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations, and she is bewildered by the social expectations in the unfamiliar environment. Her impoverished early life makes it impossible for her to keep up, and she becomes overwhelmed with stress and frustration. She expresses herself the only way she knows how—through tantrums and aggressiveness. Confused and troubled by her wild behavior, adults scold and send her to her room, where isolation makes it even harder for her to develop sensory skills or form close emotional bonds with the family.
As much as we might wish for a quick answer, no single treatment works perfectly with all at-risk children. However, through our own research with families during the past ten years, we know that a multidisciplinary approach can help many youngsters transform into happier, well-adjusted family members who are a delight to their parents. The key is to treat the whole child, with all his or her interrelated needs, not just one small aspect of behavior or illness. For the best results, you need to:
Disarm your child's fear response.
Establish clear and sensitive parental authority.
Provide a sensory-rich environment.
Teach appropriate social skills.
Support healthy brain chemistry.
Help your child connect with his or her own feelings.
Forge a strong emotional bond between you and your child.
These healing elements combine to reduce the multiple effects of harm—whether the cause was an unhealthy prenatal or postnatal environment, malnutrition, impoverished caretaking, or abuse. These healing elements can even activate attachment skills, trigger learning breakthroughs, and promote physical growth. Children with the greatest developmental challenges make the most progress in a sensory-rich, nurturing-rich environment. By providing this—along with love, guidance, and acceptance—you can help overcome a legacy of maltreatment and become an effective healer for your own child. However, the burden is on you to actively reach out to where your child is now and coach and guide him or her toward healing.
Effective coaching and parenting of an at-risk child, as explained in this book, is multidisciplinary and ongoing. It involves building EQ (emotional intelligence) as well as IQ (intellectual mastery). It supports your child's senses and physiology along with his or her psychology. It means helping your child get in touch with his own feelings as well as his needs, emotions, hunger, pain, and fear—so that he can then connect comfortably with the world around him and you. It means teaching your child communication skills and coping mechanisms, so she can succeed in life. It means demonstrating that you are in charge, yet sensitive to your child's needs. This book contains practical techniques designed to help you and your child achieve these goals.
Our multilayered approach has benefited an enormous range of youngsters—from a three-year-old who was adopted at birth with cocaine and alcohol in her system to a violent sixteen-year-old who spent her first twelve years in a brutal orphanage environment. This approach helps children regardless of age, development level, or whether they're lightly or severely impaired. It works in the home environment, the summer camp environment, the school environment, and residential treatment facilities.
If, out of fear or embarrassment in admitting there is a problem, you wait too long to take corrective action with your child, you risk becoming too depleted and worn-out to be effective when you finally do take action. Parents can "pay now" by making changes in how they deal with their struggling child, or they can pay later—but when they wait, interest on the payment is steep, because dysfunctional habits have become deeply entrenched. Since you are reading this book, we know you want your child to enjoy as soon as possible the benefits of functioning effectively, happily, and lovingly within your family.
In later chapters, we will explain how a healthy child develops, where your little one may have missed out, and how you can help fill in those gaps. But first we'd like to highlight a few more fundamentals of our philosophy.
Compassion as Your Touchstone
We'd like you to visualize a scene: Imagine that you raised your own healthy biological child in a loving home until he was four. Then somebody kidnapped him and you didn't know if he was dead or alive for three long years.
During those years, your baby boy was starved and abused. When he is finally, mercifully, returned to you at the age of seven, he is more like a wild and frightened animal than the curious and playful little boy you knew. Grateful to have him back and sensitive to his suffering, you focus on doing whatever he needs to heal from his trauma. You don't take him to the amusement park on his first day home, or bundle him off to day care within a week. You know that he needs weeks and months of daily nurturing and retraining to comfort, guide, and heal him from that harmful experience.
Although the scenario we've described may sound extreme, adopted and foster children deserve similar compassion. The lives that many of them have endured were more difficult than we can fathom. With compassion, you can look inside your child's heart and recognize the impairments and deep fear that drive maladaptive behavior—fears of abandonment, hunger, being in an unfamiliar environment, losing control, and being hurt. Compassion helps us to have more realistic expectations and understand that a child isn't necessarily being willful or belligerent—he is just trying to survive the best he can within his mental limitations and social understanding.
Compassion will help you be tolerant of a child's deep neediness, and to be forgiving when he or she doesn't understand something that seems so basic, like how to sit at a dining room table with a family, how to use toilet paper, or how to read people's facial expressions. Compassion will help you forgive a child for being manipulative, because you understand that before she came to your family she had to survive by her wits, and manipulation is a learned survival technique. Keeping compassion as our reference point encourages us to have the patience and stamina to keep trying on the toughest days.
Deep down, these children want desperately to connect and succeed but don't understand how. As parents, it's our job to show them.
A Bridge to the World
When an infant is born with a condition such as cerebral palsy, the mother can be ferocious in getting care for her child. It is that child and her mother against the world; they are a team. The parents know that the child's issues are not a personal assault on them—the child certainly didn't intend to be palsied.
But with children who suffered prenatal or early trauma before adoption, those lines get blurred. This child won't look obviously disabled or impaired, so his disruptive behaviors can feel like an assault. Then it becomes a vicious cycle. The harmed or impaired child either "acts out" (by screaming, spitting, biting, hitting, or lying) or "acts in" (by withdrawing, hiding, running away, getting depressed and sullen, or becoming unresponsive). Some children actually do both, at different times. You might retaliate with punishments or isolation, and then your child re-experiences her original abandonment, rejection, and loneliness all over again. She feels trapped and continues to make poor choices.
At-risk children can easily feel alienated and cornered, alone against the world. Feeling that way, it is almost guaranteed that they will come out fighting, manipulating, or fleeing. Then, the only adult attention they receive is endless scolding and punishment. Soon this dysfunctional dynamic becomes a habit, and the children learn to seek familiar and available attention by acting out. What a scary and miserable way to live!
You have a unique opportunity to change that scenario by building a bridge to the world for your at-risk adoptive children. You and the rest of your family can become a safe haven and an ally, eager to share their concerns.
We encourage you to have the mind-set that it's you and your child facing the world, ready to resolve whatever problems arise. Convey your deep alliance not only in words, but through body language, posture, and voice. We suggest you look in the mirror, and ask yourself: Am I shaking my finger at her? Is my jaw set and are my hands on my hips in an aggressive posture? What message is my child taking at the primitive level? Is it the child against me—or is it her and me together?
We have watched children and their families make tremendous progress in surprisingly short periods of time, but sustaining those gains takes commitment and a fundamental shift in parents' perspective. Instead of seeing yourself as the victim of a pint-sized terrorist, begin seeing your role as a compassionate, nurturing guide and ally for your little one. Respect and honor the child's needs, even when you don't entirely understand what drives them.
We never accept hurtful or wild behavior from a child—but we also do not punish, reject, or bribe because those strategies don't build long-term success. Instead, we calmly and firmly interrupt bad behavior, identify the need that drives this behavior, show the child how to achieve his or her goals appropriately, and then praise the child for doing so.
Once you see yourself in this role of mentor, encourager, and protector, days become filled with opportunities—opportunities to show your child how to correct his mistakes, to practice doing the right thing, to communicate needs with words instead of behavior, and to get positive feedback for his efforts. As you help your child build social skills and feel safe in this world, you earn his deep trust. When your child feels truly safe, doors swing open to positive change.
You can pick up a great many insights about what a child needs and what's behind outbursts simply by observing. Small details of body language and behavior will convey a message that the child is unable to speak directly.
Here are two examples:
Your son clenches his hands in tight fists and his eyes glaze over when you leave him at school. You deduce that he is tense and on high alert because he desperately fears the separation and new environment. Armed with this information, you can take steps to help him feel safer and more comfortable in the new environment.
Your little girl is doing fine until the preschool teacher distributes clay, at which point your child refuses to participate or becomes aggressive. Recalling that she also had unexpected reactions to soft soap and other tactile experiences, you suspect your daughter has a sensory processing disorder called tactile defensiveness. The soft squishy feeling between her fingers is foreign and distressing to her. Armed with this information, you seek out ways to help her cope with these foreign and scary sensations.
Make a study of watching your child's body language diagnostically, particularly for signs of fear, indications of sensory processing dysfunction, and even subtle signs of undiagnosed seizure activity. Ask yourself: What calms my child? What sets him or her off? Does he seek touch, or avoid it? Is she responding positively to a certain sound, or does she dread it? What is my child's body language communicating?
Start the healing process by keeping a journal of your child's daily activities and behavior, marking down routine events along with the behavior that accompanies these events. After about a week or two of journaling, parents find that patterns emerge.
Commonly, difficulties arise at transition times and during group or unstructured activities. Some examples are at school drop-offs, when a friend leaves, when a parent's plans change unexpectedly, at birthday parties, at amusement parks full of people, and even when asking a child to stop playing a game and come to dinner. Your behavior log can help you identify circumstances that are most stressful or challenging for your child. Armed with that information, you will be able to choose strategies to help your child more effectively deal with these situations.
Support Healthy Brain Chemistry
As a direct result of their early deprivation, adopted and foster children often have suboptimal brain chemistry. This can remain true even after a child has lived in an adoptive home for many years.
As part of your approach to healing, you always want to bolster and support healthy brain functioning. Prescription psychiatric medication is just one option. There are also lifestyle options, such as practicing healthy eating habits that keep blood sugar levels stable, since a run-down and hungry child's brain can't work optimally. We've found that just by helping a child to feel safer, less stressed, and more equipped to successfully navigate the world we can improve the child's brain health. Emotional and physical well-being are linked with effective brain functioning, and vice versa. We'll provide more information on these issues in the following chapters.
Excerpted from The Connected Child by Karyn B. Purvis David R. Cross Wendy Lyons Sunshine Copyright © 2007 by Karyn Brand Purvis, David R. Cross, and Wendy Lyons Sunshine. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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