One of the greatest, and in my opinion, saddest, misconceptions of supporting a child who has experienced relational trauma and is living in out of home care as a result, is that love will be enough to set a new course. Sadly, loving behavior can often feel threatening for children who haven't had the opportunity to develop a secure attachment style, which is fundamentally connected to a child's sense of safety and wellbeing. A secure attachment style means that a child has been able to develop trust that a caregiver will meet their needs, and can therefore use that person as a safe place to explore the world and then return knowing they will be met in a warm, consistent and responsive way. A secure attachment results in a positive view of self, and of others - that the world is a pretty good place to be!
When a child doesn't have a secure attachment, and instead has a style that is insecure or disorganised, it is because thy have experienced their primary caregivers as frightening, inconsistent and unresponsive to their needs. The child develops patterns of behaviour that respond to this, either avoiding or becoming ambivalent or unable to form any consistent patterns so that the world feels very chaotic. Carers and other people in the child's life end up feeling at a loss as to what to do because the things that worked for their own children seem to have the opposite effect for these kids, and there is often a deep sense of grief that the child cannot recognise their true desire to nurture, love and protect them.
This comes down to the basic idea of protection trumping connection. By protection, I mean the coping strategies and defence mechanisms that the child has developed in order to survive (psychologically, emotionally and sometimes physically) their situation, as well as the impact the instability has had on their overall view of themselves and others. For some kids this is externalised and is seen outwardly as 'bad' behaviour and is usually incredibly misunderstood. Understanding these things as the trauma related survival mechanisms that they really are, can help all of the people who care for that child to depersonalise them - that is, to realise that the reactions aren't a response to them personally but rather a way for the child to survive the difficult emotions that relationships inevitably bring to the fore, often quickly, unconsciously and in ways that flood the body triggering the fight and flight response. Emotions and feelings such as shame and anger, of being unlovable and unworthy are often at the center of these big reactions.
Let's imagine now that you are a child with disorganised attachment style. You're sitting down at the carers dinner table, unsure of, and feeling unable to meet, expectations of sitting still and holding a conversation AND eating, and then being asked whether you like what's been served? Unbeknownst to you, your body is in constant hyper-vigilance mode, always scanning the environment for signs of potential danger, which sends your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest parts of the body) into the background, and your sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight) right to the front. You want to eat, but you can't. Or you do, shoving the food in, without really tasting it. Now, because of the slow response of the rest and digest system, your tummy feels funny. Maybe you'll throw up, and surely that can't be a good thing...what will happen if you do?
...Aaargh, all these questions, all of these rules! I don't know what I like! I know what I don't like, and that's all these eyes looking at me, making me feel less than...not good enough. Right then. I'll show them - suddenly dinner is on the floor, everyone is yelling and I feel ever so slightly better knowing that even if everything is crap right now, I know what to expect...
In this moment, protection has trumped connection. In this moment, the question of what you like felt too much - too shameful even - because you've never had space to really consider that. Never had anyone who had put your needs first, at least not consistently enough to matter. And in your young mind, that can only mean that there's something really, really wrong with you. That makes you enraged and yet you can't actually explain any of this.
In an upcoming blog, I'll discuss what, in addition to love, is needed for kids to reconfigure their attachment style to set them up for a life full of love and hope and exploration. It's so possible and certainly within reach for the loving, generous people who open their doors and hearts to the kids who need them.