Modeling Attachment

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The temporary nature of foster care has understandably taught most children to keep a distance. They may seem isolated, avoid contact with others, resist comforting, act cruelly to animals and other children. Parents may find it hard to relate to a child day in and day out without any emotional response. The child’s failure to respond is hard to take. Despite these difficulties foster parents can help to prepare the child for permanency and for life by modeling healthy relationships and interactions within the family.

The best time to teach or demonstrate attachment is when the detached or hurtful behavior occurs. The window of opportunity has opened. The unattached child may behave cruelly, or in a way that shows he has no compassion or feeling for others. His antenna fails to pick up the emotions of those around him. This is a teachable moment.

Love the pet: Lori’s four-year-old son liked to hurt animals. She caught him hurting the cat. So she took the cat and held it. She showed him how to stroke and love the cat appropriately. She took his hand and said: “This is how we love the cat and not hurt the cat.”

If the parent is consistent, the child will get it. When he goes to touch the animal, be sure to say, “Remember, we love the cat, not hurt the cat.”

Show me the blood: Jan’s daughter fell off her bike and cut her leg open. She was bleeding. Her eight-year-old son was laughing. He got his emotions mixed up sometimes and was not sensitive to others. At this moment Jan said, “Do you see your sister? Do you see her blood? This is not a laughing moment. This is a sad moment. Sissy is crying. Sissy is bleeding. Sissy is hurt. We are sad.” Jan’s face was sad.

Give him the LOOK: Over-dramatizing facial expressions when explaining emotion to the younger child is compelling. Show him a sad face. Emphasize facial expressions when making a point. Let him get the emotional message from the tone of voice and the look.

The quiet table: Time-outs and isolation for an “unattached” child are counter-productive. In fact, isolation may worsen the detachment. Linda made a quiet table. When she needed a break, or was trying to make dinner, or when trying to stop a behavior, she asked her foster daughter to go to the quiet table. The quiet table was not an isolated place to which the foster daughter disappeared, but a place in the room where everyone else was available. At the quiet table, she had a basket on the floor next to her with quiet things to do. Placed in the basket were coloring books, puzzles, head phones, etc. She kept her foster daughter away from the TV. Her daughter was not allowed to leave the quiet table without permission.

Linda’s plan is a good alternative to punishment and does not require the child to go off alone. Having a quiet box in the car to take to church or to the store is a similar idea. It allows for an immediate response when undesirable behavior is exhibited, without disconnecting the child from social interaction.

Show me the move: Defiant behavior is very hard to handle. For long-term help in this area, Sue found that Karate or Tae Kwon Do worked very well, both for teaching self-discipline and stopping problem behavior. Children get their energy out; they learn “yes sir” and “yes m’am;” and they can earn belts and other rewards for progress. When they are hyper or need to refocus attention, Sue simply asked to see their karate moves. This way, she defused the situation and refocused them on another physical and interpersonal activity.

Socks and songs: Brenda’s favorite way to interrupt problem behavior was sock-sorting. When her first-grade son who suffered from Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) got in trouble, she had him sit at the dining room table and sort socks while she cooked dinner. While he sorted socks, they made up silly songs about the socks and sang. This may not seem like a punishment, but it got him out of the problem situation and allowed mother to spend personal time with him.

Cuddle the baby: Lori got a foster baby through the welfare department. The baby was not even home for a few hours when her older adopted son decided to pick the baby up by its neck. In response, she took the baby and said: “No! We need to love the baby.” She started from scratch. This was a live baby, not the cat! Rather than let him handle the baby directly, she bought her son a “Baby Alive” doll that ate, drank, and wet. She added a diaper bag. As Lori would feed or change the real baby, her son copied what she did with his doll. She modeled baby love while reiterating how to love the baby. “This is how we hold the baby; and this is how we feed the baby.” After a while, when she was holding the baby, she would let him hold the bottle, or bring baby wipes when she was changing the baby. This was a good way to bond with her son and for him to learn that the new addition to the family was not a threat.

Text me: Kathy’s ten-year-old adopted daughter had attachment issues. She was not unattached but was too attached. She could not be apart from her new mother for very long. They worked up to her being away from home for a couple of days. How? The daughter called her mother or texted her when she was feeling alone. She also had a special talking doll that she took places with her. She got this doll at the “Build a Bear” Workshop. Kathy put her own recording inside the bear. To hear the message, her daughter would squeeze the bear’s stomach. The recorded message said: “I miss my baby girl. I will see you again soon,” followed by Kathy singing: “You are my Sunshine.” Also, before her daughter left to stay somewhere, Kathy gave her a verbal itinerary of exactly where she would be. This may sound like a lot of work, but Kathy felt it was the first step toward independence. She put notes in her daughter’s school lunch to let her know that mom was okay and could not wait until she got home. Kathy told her daughter regularly that she loved her. This helped her daughter make it through the day in school.

Show me feelings: Mary had a poster in their home that had funny exaggerated faces expressing all varieties of feelings. She asked her son to identify his feeling (or someone else’s) by pointing at the proper face on the chart. This was an important way to help him visualize emotion. Mary also asked him to identify his emotion when he woke up in the morning, after school, and before he went to bed. If his emotion changed, it opened a line of communication to discuss what happened.

Children with attachment problems often require extra assistance. If time passes and the child remains unattached, professional help may be needed. Find a good psychologist. Join a support group. Remember, however, that attachment is not a skill learned in a doctor’s office but can occur naturally in the home. Most important, parents need to be creative with children who have emotionally distanced themselves. There are no simple solutions to these disorders and no magic pills. Do not be afraid to be unconventional. Just find what works and stick with it. These children are challenging.