My dad teaches me about treating attachment and trauma.
A few years ago my father and mother lived with us while my dad was going through the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Here are two of the lessons I vividly remember, I hope it helps parents as they work with traumatized children.
I took my 91 year old father who suffers from dementia to a restaurant. I gently guided him with his walker to a table and left him there as I went to order the food in a long cafeteria style line. I made sure that he could see me in line and every few minutes I turned and waved at him through the crowd of people. When I was out of sight he drummed the table with his fingers, looked questioningly at his walker, and seemed nervous and lost.
As soon as he saw me wave he was relieved but this only lasted a couple of minutes. Since the line was long I occasionally went over to the table to tell him what I was ordering and that I would be back shortly. This eased his anxiety and enabled him to wait instead of searching for me. I was patient with him because I knew he had a disability that limited him. I’m sure observers in the restaurant thought that I was the one acting odd. When I finally joined him he was fine.
Parenting when Object Permanence is lacking
This reminded me so much of our foster or adoptive children with behavior problems due to a lack of object permanence or constancy. They misbehave as soon as parents are out of sight because, like my father, they cannot hold the emotional presence of the parent. They missed learning this due to a lack of consistent loving care early in development. Their resulting behaviors are often exasperating and we are tempted to say things to them like “can’t I leave you alone for a minute”. The answer to that question is “no”.
They are like emotional toddlers that need a parent’s presence continually. If you have a child that misbehaves as soon as you are out of sight try treating them like I did my father. If that works you know that you have some further permanence work to do. The good news is that with guidance children that suffered early abuse and neglect can develop permanence and their behaviors will improve.
Traumatized children have a different reality
Another thing I have learned from my dad during this time of his life is to enter his reality. Because he is in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, if he needs to have a key in his wallet for his car and check on it every few minutes that is okay. This makes him feel that his car is okay even though he can’t drive and his keys don’t fit the car. When he is fussing about going home, instead of confronting him about not being able to fly to Indiana I say “you really need to get home, let me help you get an airline ticket to fly.” Of course he has to wait to fly and his ticket is fake but this helps him to wait a little longer.
Can parents join their reality?
How about adopted and foster kids that are recovering from trauma? What would it be like if we entered their reality instead of trying to get them to accept ours? Their reality may be that it is really scary to do just what someone else wants. We can enter their reality by saying “this is really difficult for you, how can I help?” Maybe they just need someone to join them in the task so that they feel less anxious. Once they calm they can do it on their own. Maybe their reality is that you can’t trust adults. (After four foster homes and three “forever homes” would you believe anything?) We might need to accept their inability to trust even though our reality is that we are different from all of the others who have left them.
Bottom line; start at the child’s reality and slowly help them enter yours. If you would like to read more about how Family Christian Counseling Center works with traumatized children please click on the link.