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Attachment Disorders in a Christian Home

By Tom and Sherry Bushnell

(Editor’s note: We do not claim to be attachment problem experts any more than we purpose to be up-to-date on the latest counseling techniques. Our family is simply another home who has gone through some difficult times adjusting, growing a family through adoption. Our stories about Sheela and Lynny, our precious daughters from India, were written, but life is not finished. Each new year brings a new chapter in our lives and our eyes are further opened to what exactly was going on those first 11 years. Sheela will be 13 soon and Lynny 10. Our girls are hard working, generally have great attitudes and love to please. They are a blessing, a gift from our Heavenly Father we are thankful for. The purpose of this article is to help others understand, through our experiences, what they are going through, with what is termed "attachment disorders". Emotional problems are common in disabled children. The brain, hormones and emotions are intertwined in a wonderful God-made way. When children are broken, through no fault of their own, the effects of our fallen world are tearfully felt.)

    Parenting Failures. That is how we would sum up our feelings the first few years after each of our daughters came home to us from India. We were very unprepared for the challenge we would unknowingly be embarking on. Our parental intentions were noble and our dreams full of the sweet stories we had heard, or fabricated in our minds, as to how it was going to be. Our ignorance and expectations of adoption were the very roots of our troubles. Years ago emotional and attachment problems were not the household words they are today in adoptive homes. 25 years ago many adoptive homes had trouble, but it was blamed on "bad blood", bad parenting, the agency or the birth parents. All along perhaps families were experiencing what we are experiencing today. Now we call it "attachment disorder". Back then, how did they deal with the adjustment of an adopted child who was compulsively naughty? What did parents do with a child who had emotional problems?

Parents who are working with a damaged child (one who is not bonding with them from the parent’s perspective) are generally dealing with behaviors that stem from not being able to trust an authority figure. Trust will not solve all behavior troubles though and not all children who have experienced emotional deprivation have attachment problems. Also an interesting note: children may vary behaviors depending on the atmosphere of the home and the personality of the parent. Each home has it’s strengths and it’s weaknesses. A child may react to what he deems a threat to his control by:

•being aloof from parents but engaging to strangers who are not an authority figure. Even grandma and grandpa may be convinced the child is charming.

•displaying cruelty to animals and small children, laughing at the pain of others

•being destructive to self and material things

•lying, even when obviously caught, even in little things

•pooping and peeing in inappropriate places such as their pants or in the bedroom at an age when they should know better.

•having feeding or eating issues such as won’t eat in a crowd but will eat in privacy, hoarding food or will eat anything offered him.

•being impulsive with actions. A child may have persistent non-stop chatter, nonsense questions or questions they know the answer to. The purpose is to engage the attention of the person they are talking to for as long as possible.

• having preoccupation with gore, murder, blood

•being inappropriately clingy and demanding. This can manifest by crying when a parent leaves long after the child is old enough to know better, insisting on sitting on laps they don’t fit on anymore, and monopolizing the physical attention of the opposite sex of an older person.

Just because a child displays one or these behaviors does not make him maladjusted. If a child is having trouble in several of these areas consistently, perhaps we might be able to point toward attachment disability.

How do children become damaged like this? Obviously we cannot look into the brain and emotions and tell when or where. Even children who have a good home can become emotionally detached young adults. The chance of this happening in a consistent, loving, supportive home is slim. A child usually has to become "lost through the cracks" emotionally while very young, usually with no real authority figure to trust. They become an island unto themselves. Some reasons a child might become lost could be separation from primary care giver for a good length of time without needs being met by someone else. Changing parents or care-givers frequently, not allowing children to bond with an authority figure, or self-centered parenting. We define self-centered parenting as parents choosing their own comfort and needs to be met over the basic needs of a child for food, warmth and love.

Attachment and emotional problems in children often are in combination with other disabilities such as learning delays or mental slowness, ADHD to autism and lots in between, cerebral palsy, fetal alcohol and effect stemming from drug and alcohol use of mother or father, and many others. Children with attachment difficulties are broken emotionally. Drugs may mask the symptoms. Unless a child is an extreme hazard to themselves or others, medication would not be the best way to teach a child to trust. However, we do acknowledge that some parents see no other way to manage at the time. We have found no psychologist, no medicine, no therapy program that can fix broken hearts.

Children who grow up with attachment problems

What is it like for an adult who has attachment difficulties? They feel an incredible desire for control of the people close around them. They are lonely, even in a crowd, unable to create and keep meaningful relationships. They may have acquired the self control needed not to have eating problems, but they still may lie compulsively, manipulate others to get their way, laugh at the pain of others, and destroy things that belong to others or themselves without thought of consequences. Do you know of someone like this?

Correcting attachment problems in children may seem like a loosing battle. It takes incredible emotional fortitude in parenting and a support network in the church and community. Sometimes it seem as soon as you eradicate one, another just as irritating behavior pops up. The older a child coming into a home, the longer (if ever) it takes for a child to gain the self control and conscience of a normal child in a loving home from birth would have. It is all about building trust in God and parents. It is learning to put others first, even if they do not totally understand why. It is stopping to consider actions before they hurt themselves or others. A lot of parents give up. Here is an interesting article about avoiding or circumventing attachment problems in very young children and babies. It is called Taming The Tiger While It Is a Kitten. We do not necessarily agree with everything here but is was very interesting. #9; Click here.

What Happens to the Heart of a Parent Dealing with Attachment Problems in their Children?

Parents must guard against letting their hearts become so emotionally involved with the brokenness of their children that they themselves face broken emotions. Frustration, rejection from their adopted child, hopeless cycles of disobedience and parents who feel trapped in their own homes, face more than attention disorders in their children. They face battling hate in their own hearts. We cannot take our child’s emotional disability personal.

Each child is different and after talking with lots of parents dealing with persisting bad behavior, we can say that different punishments motivate different children. For instance, our girls at first would rather be put into their rooms in seclusion. They preferred being alone with no toys or anything to amuse them, to being with the family. Restriction might work for one family, but will be lost as an effective way to change behavior in another child. Biblical child training works. Proverbs is full of cause and effect parenting. Here are some examples. Anger in the home is another factor. To read an interesting article on anger from this last fall’s feature articles called Do You Have the Heart of Your Special Needs Child click here. Anger can ruin relationships and prevent effective discipline.

The longer a parent hangs in there with a child with attachment problems, assuming the child comes to them before the age of 6 or 7, the better the chance that a normal relationship will form. Patience is hard when perfection is expected. A parent who chooses to adopt a child as they are (and does not expect instant love from them or understanding of new authority in their lives) will have an easier time with problems as they arise. We know first hand the damage that can occur in the heart of a parent during this time of retraining the emotions. Some children are so broken that they do not recover enough to form a good relationship. This retraining can take years if a child is over 1 year old. Just as a bride should not go into a marriage with thoughts on how to train her husband to love her, have good manners, be nice to others and not get angry ("Marry the man and change his ways tomorrow!"), so a parent should not expect more than a child can give emotionally. Training good behavior in our child is 9; our parental responsibility, but healing of our child’s heart is the Lord’s.

We’d like to share with you how we dealt with some of the behaviors we had in our girls.

Feeding issues were a biggie with both the girls. One at 21 months when she came to us, had been fed with a funnel. It took 2 nurses to do this. One to hold her down and the other to pour. Consequently, she retched with each swallow. Our family doctor thought she had a swallowing problem or blockage. Nope. Not after we watched her chow on cherrios from under the table when she was exploring one day by herself. We never were able to feed her with a spoon. She was reasonably healthy but was blind and fighting for control. Our cause and effect response was to wait until she was hungry enough to feed herself. At meal time we set her plate of food in front of her on her high chair tray. At the end of meal time we took it away. She got another fresh plate of delicious food at the next meal. She learned quickly how to find her plate and get the yummy food into her mouth. Not a sign of retching and vomiting. Now for some table manners. (Those came much later.)

Lynny at 14 months was hard to deal with. She refused to eat in a group setting. This meant that she wanted a private dining room. Since this was not conducive to family life, we required her to eat with the family. She simply did not eat. She lost weight and screamed at every meal. We took her to a dietician. They suggested tube feeding. We knew that getting her off the tube would be really hard so we decided to back up to babyish treatment and start over. We rocked her and gave her a bottle with Pediasure, a liquid diet. She would not take it from us. She refused to be held and eat. Her troubles were magnified because she has autism and cerebral palsy and it took her some real hardship to understand how to hold the bottle herself. After 2 days of fighting with her we were ready to take her to the hospital to insert a feeding button for a tube in her tummy. We left the bottle next to her for the night. In the morning it was 1/2 gone. Gradually she took a bottle in the presence of others. It took her a long time to drink it down at first and an enlarged nipple hole would cause her to choke. We insisted on having her with the family, however much she hated it. Dinner hour was always stressful, as we knew it was a battle with Lynny. Within 1 year of not giving into the private dinner hour syndrome, she only screamed when someone got up from the table.

Toilet Troubles Pooping and peeing and playing in it, such as in the bedroom or in the pants was a big no-no. We had one daughter who had the habit of pushing a little poop at any hour of the day when ever she felt the urge and honestly didn’t care about learning to use the toilet. She was about 6 years old and had just started communicating with us with words instead of screaming. We used the cause and effect method of you poop... you clean. We used cold water in the bath tub with a rag and stood over them to be sure they scrubbed. Since Lynny has only the use of one hand we helped her get it wet and get at the places she couldn’t reach. She had to rinse her panties and other affected clothing, clean the floor with soap and a rag. This may have taken her an hour or more. We did not make it pleasant. We still use this method today, the cleaning up part anyway. Thankfully we rarely have the need to ask them to do this and they are most apologetic and eager to clean their messes.

Lying to Get Out of Trouble

We get a lot of questions from parents about how to help their child not to lie or hurt others. The cause and effect method was without question (along with wisdom from the Lord) what has helped our girls understand what lying is and not to hurt or laugh at others in pain. We were our child’s conscience for them. It seemed they had none. We helped them feel the pain when they hurt others. We pointed out the behavior of the one they hurt, we spanked them for hurting others and we may have given them a taste of what it felt like ie. biting, pinching, destroying toys or art crafts etc. I think that for our daughter who is blind, the personal feeling of what it was like for the other person, helped her understand more than talking about the pain of the one she hurt or laughed at.

Lying was a hard one. Obvious lying to get out of trouble or punishment needed creative discipline. We wanted them to be honest about wrong behavior, feel remorse and then forgiveness, not just be sorry they were caught. We learned not to question them about behavior that we caught them doing that was obviously a no-no. We just disciplined. For instance, if they bit another child, we would tell them no! and bite them back. This sounds ridiculous and perhaps is from a professional or "scriptural" way of child training, but special needs takes special parenting and cause and effect worked for us. We rewarded truth telling with immediate, tangible things of meaning (like food) and would lessen discipline or withhold further punishment as soon as we saw an honest attempt at telling the truth. Watching our girls go from not caring about being dishonest or mean to having honest tears and asking sweet forgiveness has been one of the parenting joys of our lives. After endless battles, after seemingly meaningless or trivial naughtiness, being our child’s temporary conscience was worth it all.

Monopolizing the Attention of Others

The issue of engaging strangers for personal benefit (self-gratifying) was also a hard behavior to overcome. When she first came home, we tried to meet our daughter’s deep need for attention. She soaked it up like a sponge. She NEVER tired of attention, physical or verbal. When one of us was exhausted with trying to satisfy her the other one would kick in. She could then go to a brother or visitor and monopolize their attention. How does a 2 year old blind child with no speech yet, monopolize your attention? Let us count the ways: sweetly insisting on your reading her a story (any story), screaming in pseudo pain until held, playfully pinching, poking, rubbing, jumping on your feet, drooling on, biting, moaning and rocking, and insisting on your participation in toy play ( no real interest in toy, just your attention.) She was an artist at evoking pity and attention. We called it orphanage syndrome. When we decided these behaviors were not conducive to good social habits and started to train her not to be rude. We got a strange reaction. She became aloof, cold and angry at all times to us as parents. To strangers she was a jewel. She cooed and patted, played and pretended. We knew it was manipulation and that her attention needs were not truly being met by her manipulating it out of people she did not know. To the waitress she reached her arms out to be held. She pushed away from us when we hugged her or gave her affection, but she stopped manipulating so much.

Cause and effect parenting was tougher in this realm because we chose to have her bond with mommy, the one she hated the most. This meant we played good guy and bad guy. Mommy gave affection only. Only Mommy granted her pleasure and fed her. We decided to home church because we found that some families, not understanding our plight, could ruin a weeks worth of progress by giving physical affection to our stranger-manipulating daughter. We also chose not to have a sitter she could fool or sit with anyone she might be coy with. As a family (grandparents too) we agreed to let mom to meet all her needs as if she was an infant. Our daughter would get into all kinds of trouble from others in the family as she tried to get her needs met away from mom. Eventually she learned that mommy was to be trusted to feed her, get her to bed when she was tired, not be manipulated, to be treated respectfully and to be obeyed. Even to this day, our daughter still has an incredible capacity for attention and she craves it. Because of her love of personal attention, we feel she is at risk for physical abuse from strangers. However, she has learned to put others first and to be polite. She has learned good conversation skills and not to engage in conversation longer than the other person wants to be. In this respect she never healed completely and may never.

How Can We Help Our Broken Children?

If you are looking for a book on helping the attachment troubled child from a Christian perspective, we have found none. Worldly advice abounds and there are many theories on what to do depending on the age of the child and the severity of behaviors. We found some on the advice helpful, but much of it we did not feel was appropriate for our home. At least we could relate to others.

We have come to view many of the deep needs of a broken child’s emotions as troubles that will be with them for life. However, they can learn self-control. Appropriate behavior and putting others first can be learned and will help them channel their feelings into good or at least acceptable ways of expressing them. Cause and effect discipline and immediate punishment, was very helpful in teaching our girls to love mommy and to trust mommy’s judgment. Some helpful books in the area of child training to us were Michael and Debi Pearl’s book, To Train Up A Child, Reb Bradley’s book Child Training Tips, and Richard Fugate’s books on child training. Michael Pearl’s approach was helpful in its practical cause and effect suggestions.

Reasons for bad behavior in children who face attachment disorders do not differ from a Biblical standpoint. We all have a sin nature. Our child’s problem with lying is no worse than the problem we might have of being disrespectful to our spouse. Creating a servant’s heart in our children by being an example, learning to put others first and to obey with a good attitude as they watch us, covers the worst of the behaviors of an emotionally broken child’s heart. But it will not heal their needs. Once again only God can do this. It is very important that we become somewhat detached from the situation.

We started with simple obedience. Eventually Sheela understood that giggling hysterically at night was not allowed, being sneaky and stolen food was yucky to eat, and playing in a pool of her spit made others feel sick. After our feet were under us and we had gotten used to the idea that normal parenting would not work with Sheela, we started to teach her to come, sit, stay, eat your food, do not hit, no screaming, give mommy the toy, etc. These were the hardest to get her to understand. According to the Bible, we saw no other reasonable way to train her. Manipulating her didn’t work. She was the master, we were the slaves. We used the rod and cause and effect parenting as we saw fit. This took years. If we could only see the end results in the middle we would have been very encouraged to press on. As it was, we tortured ourselves with the thought that she would always act like she hated us.

When our daughter started to open up and respond to correction with real understanding and emotion, it was a great day. We shared with her the story in scripture in Genesis where God talked to Cain and said, "Why are you angry, Why are you cast down? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door; it desires to have you, but you must master it." It meant a lot to her and has encouraged her to do what is right and she will feel happy.

Our children mirror our attitudes. This is why if we respond to them in grouchiness, or impatience when we are dealing with a bad behavior that is not going away, we need to take a look at our response to the behavior and what we can do differently. Be creative within the bounds of scripture. We need to stop writing a black list on our children and respond with enough love to stop them from hurting themselves. For instance, a pattern of lying may be reinforced in an older child by our delayed response to truth in our own lives. Pooping in the pants may be a means of getting that coveted attention and we sure give it, negative or not. Stop reacting in disgust to poop. We need to have them clean up and then be diligent to teach them to stop demanding attention and put others first in conversation, toys, food and other favored things.

Treating attachment disorders in children calls for dedicated parenting. It also really helps to talk with other parents who are coping with the same behaviors. If you are a parent dealing with attachment troubled children, we welcome you to write into the NATHHAN discussion board or Letters to Families section on this web page to find someone to relate to. We are not parenting failures. There are so many ways to teach our children to love and not be control freaks. Trust come on the heals of respect. Think back to our first day of 6th grade in school. The teacher didn’t seem to smile. She seemed mean and insisted on good behavior. We complied because we respected her. Somehow, after Thanksgiving holidays, she seemed nicer and we really grew to like her. In fact by the end of the year we adored her. Her secret? She demanded obedience and we respected her for it. Children long for the security of someone who will love them enough to make them be good. God created them that way. A parent choosing to love an unloved child cannot always expect smooth sailing. Patience in training and with the Lord’s blessing a parent can help an emotionally broken child find enough love to form a special tie that will never be broken.