Children's Voice September/October 2007

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Healing Parents

By Terry M. Levy and Michael Orlans

Through Corrective Attachment Parenting, caregivers can better help children with emotional wounds.

Attachment is the deep and enduring biological, emotional, and social connection that caregivers and children establish early in life. Developing attachment is not only a result of the parent-child relationship, but is also influenced by the larger emotional network of family and community, including extended kin, school, and child welfare agencies.

Children who start out securely attached are healthier and better adjusted over time. They have positive self-esteem; loving and respectful relationships with parents and others; the ability to trust, be emotionally close, and feel empathy and compassion; effective coping skills, such as anger-management, impulse control, and tolerance of frustration; a positive and hopeful view of self, others, and life; independence and resilience; and behavioral and academic success in school; and they develop into mature, loyal, and caring partners and parents.

Generally speaking, all parents need to be stable and mature to successfully raise children. Parenting children with histories of abuse, neglect, and compromised attachment, however, is particularly challenging. Parenting practices that work well with most children are often unsuccessful with children who have compromised attachment.

Through our more than 60 years of combined experience doing therapy, teaching, consulting, and research related to children, families, and society, we have developed a parenting approach we call Corrective Attachment Parenting. This method is designed for children who have had painful experiences and, consequently, do not trust caregivers, do not like or believe in themselves, view the world as unsafe and threatening, and are emotionally and biochemically unbalanced due to the absence of security and support early in life.

To successfully approach Corrective Attachment Parenting, caregivers must understand what it means to be a "healing parent." Our book, Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust and Love, outlines the information, skills, self-awareness, support, and hope necessary to become a healing parent and help a wounded child improve behaviorally, socially, and morally.

Skills and Solutions for Corrective Attachment Parenting

Constructive parenting skills increase caregivers' confidence and healing attitudes, and bring about positive changes in their children and families. That caregivers use these skills and solutions in a genuine way is essential. For these methods to feel natural will take time and practice; therefore, caregivers must approach these goals steadily.

Limits, choices, and consequences. Children with compromised attachment need considerable structure. The rules, limits, and consequences must be furnished clearly, consistently, and realistically. Let children know exactly what the expectations are, and hold them accountable.

Consequences and punishment are different. The goal of giving consequences is to teach a lesson and learn to accept responsibility for one's actions. With punishment, the goal is to inflict hurt, pain, and get even. Punishment causes resentment, damages a child's self-esteem, and does not facilitate secure attachment. Natural consequences are preferable, because caregivers sit back and let their children learn from the real world. Imposed consequences are necessary when there is no real-world consequence. Consequences should always fit the crime, be enforceable, and address the problem.

Delivering a consequence. The way a caregiver delivers the consequence-- her style of communication-- can determine how constructive she is.
  • Connect with eye contact. This is key to gaining a child's attention and creating an emotional connection.

  • Be aware of nonverbal messages. Body language, facial expressions, and voice tone send powerful messages. Gently touch a child's arm or shoulder; get down to his eye level.

  • Set the stage. Eliminate distractions, find a quiet space. The caregiver and child should both be in the right mood.

  • Focus on the behavior, not the child. Convey the message, "I dislike your choice and behavior, not you."

  • Work as a team. Caregiving partners should be on the same page.

  • Be consistent. Don't ignore a child's behavior one time and give a consequence another time.

  • Don't lecture. Be brief. Never tell a child something she already knows. Let the child explain why she has a consequence.

  • Control your anger. Children learn more when adults are firm, yet calm.

  • Don't threaten or give warnings. Repeated warnings undermine a caregiver's authority.

  • Give positives. Give positive consequences for good behavior. The best rewards are emotional--smiles, hugs, words of appreciation, and praise.

  • Make it relevant. The consequence should mean something to the child.

  • It doesn't have to be immediate. Giving a consequence right after a behavior occurs is only necessary with young children, who have short attention spans.

  • Don't overdo it. Consequences that are too severe, or given too often, lose effectiveness.

  • Don't give up. Change takes time. Caregivers should not be discouraged if consequences don't work right away. The key is consistency over time.
Practice competency-based parenting. How does a caregiver know how much structure or freedom to give his child? This should be based on the child's competencies in four areas: knowledge, skills, self-control, and judgment. When the child shows he is competent in these areas, the caregiver can loosen the reins. Teenagers like this idea because they have the power to get more freedom by their own actions. Parents like this because it isn't arbitrary--children either earn the freedom or not--and there's nothing to argue about.

Keep the bar high. Clear, consistent expectations are essential. Since children tend to either live up or down to our expectations, we recommend keeping the bar relatively high. Expect children to be responsible, respectful, resourceful, and reciprocal.

Giving chores. Chores are a way for children to increase self-confidence, build responsibility, and become cooperative family members. Caregivers should start when children are young--making the chores age-appropriate, providing guidance, and not paying for chores.

Provide a secure base. A child may push a caregiver away and act as if she doesn't need a parent, but she does. She is just afraid to trust, love, and be vulnerable. The caregiver is a secure base when she is
  • emotionally available--she is accessible, dependable, self-aware, and a good role model;

  • sensitive--she is attuned to the child's feelings, needs, anxieties, and defenses, and is empathic, nurturing, patient, and loving;

  • responsive--she responds appropriately to behavior and underlying needs, is proactive rather than reactive, promotes safety not fear, and provides consistent, predictable, and developmentally appropriate structure and support; and

  • helpful--she has the mindset of opportunity rather than crisis, and she helps children learn coping skills, such as anger management, communication, and problem solving.
Don't take it personally. Parents often tell us, "It happens so quickly; before I know it I'm yelling, frightened, or wanting to leave. I know I should do better, but I just can't seem to control myself when my child acts up." Although common, these emotional reactions get in the way of being a healing parent. A caregiver knowing himself is the first step toward creating a healing environment. He should be aware of his
  • mindset--his belief system or internal working model;
  • self-talk--what he says to himself in his mind;
  • emotional reactions--feelings that are triggered;
  • attachment history--relationship patterns learned in the past;
  • body signals--physical reactions in response to threat and stress; and
  • coping strategies--ways he responds to rejection, conflict, anger, disappointment, and frustration.
Look beyond behavior. Wounded children often view caregivers as rejecting, punitive, and unreliable, and themselves as bad, helpless, and unlovable. Negative mindsets cause children to misinterpret a parent's behavior, viewing the caregiver as controlling and threatening rather than helpful and supportive.

New relationship experiences can change a child's belief system and subsequent behavior. By looking beyond behavior and understanding his point of view, the caregiver can help the child develop a healthy mindset. A caregiver's goal is to help the child anticipate something new, to expect positive responses, such as empathy, support, honesty, and firm limits. Slowly, as the child is unable to provoke hostility or rejection, his core beliefs will change, trust will grow, and his behavior will improve.

Know the child's defenses. Children without a secure base develop defensive coping strategies to survive in a world they see as unsafe. So much energy goes into self-protection, little is left for healthy activities, such as exploration and learning, and this hampers the child's development.

Common defenses include denial, blaming, projection, and dissociation. The child will project her fears, pain, and negative expectations onto her caregiver. If she can pull the caregiver into her "dance"--mold the current relationship into a familiar pattern from the past--then the caregiver is not providing a healing environment. When the caregiver responds differently than the child is used to, the caregiver creates the opportunity for change. New relationship experiences lead to new expectations and behavior.

Respond therapeutically. Two ways of reacting to the child can increase anger and conflict. A mutual reaction occurs when the caregiver behaves the same way as the child. For example, the child yells and threatens, and the caregiver yells and threatens back. Hostility increases hostility. A complementary reaction occurs when the caregiver gives in to the child's demands or threats. This includes backing down out of fear (emotional blackmail), giving warnings, and pleading for good behavior.

Healing parents give therapeutic responses. They remain calm, yet in a firm and serious way convey the message, "I will not accept your behavior, I will do all in my power to help you change, and I will not become aggressive or abusive." The goal is connection, not control.

Down-regulate the child. The caregiver can learn to help the child calm down, switching his brain out of survival mode (limbic system) into reasonable thinking (cerebral cortex), and slowing the flow of stress hormones through the brain and body. The caregiver down-regulates a baby by gently touching, rocking, and speaking softly, which conveys safety and protection. She down-regulates an older child by her calm demeanor, firm and reasonable boundaries, and model of patience, empathy, and confidence, staying emotionally neutral when responding to the child's provocations. The caregiver can express lots of positive emotion, however, when responding to healthy choices and attitudes--getting excited about the things the child does right!

Use one-liners. One-liners are an excellent way to avoid negative interactions. One-liners are brief phrases that focus the problem back to the child, leaving her unable to continue arguing. One-liners should always be expressed with empathy or humor, not anger, sarcasm, or criticism: "I'm sorry you feel that way"; "Thank you for sharing"; "That's an interesting thought"; "Nice try, Honey"; "What do you think I think?" or "Bad choice, Honey."

Give behavior-specific praise. Children will only accept positive comments about themselves if they are consistent with their self-image. Unconditional praise and approval ("You're such a great kid," for example) is only constructive when a child has a positive self-image, and will backfire with wounded children. Tips for praising a child with a negative self-image:
  • Praise the behavior, not the child. Give the child praise for specific actions, attitudes, and tasks completed. For example, a caregiver should say, "I like the way you cleaned the kitchen table. Thanks for pitching in," rather than "You're a great helper."

  • Praise should be genuine. If a caregiver praises a child without meaning it, the child will know he is faking it. Praising for the sake of praising just dilutes the significance of praise the child truly deserves.

  • Find some behavior to praise. It's easy to be pessimistic and critical with challenging children, but it's best to focus on the positive. Noticing and validating little successes eventually leads to bigger successes. Catch a child doing something right.
Use humor. Humor often is an effective tool to reduce tension and negative behavior. Humor can catch children off guard, divert their attention, break through resistance, and make them more receptive to a change of attitude. Wounded children generally lack a well-developed sense of humor. They may laugh inappropriately, laugh at people not with them, and feel ridiculed by other's humor. Don't laugh at a child or use sarcasm. Sarcasm is hostility in disguise.

Play with your children. Through play, children can learn communication, creativity, problem-solving, morality, and social skills. Play is a primary way for children and caregivers to connect. Through play, one can learn about a child's special needs and talents, convey love and support, and build a positive and enjoyable relationship.

Be proactive, not reactive. A caregiver can create the emotional climate in her family when she is proactive, and the child creates the emotional climate when he is reactive. Being proactive means the caregiver is prepared to deal constructively with his child's predictable behavior--she has a game plan:
  • Reactive parents. Every time 10-year-old Kyle plays Monopoly with the family, he tries to control the game and throws a temper tantrum if he doesn't win. Mom or Dad gets upset, yells at Kyle and sends him to his room, and the game is ruined for everyone.

  • Proactive parents. Before the game begins, Mom and Dad tell Kyle, "We notice you get very upset when we play this game, so at the first sign of losing your temper, you'll get a time-out to think about your choices and calm down." Kyle knows what to expect and the consequences of his actions. If he loses his temper and receives a consequence, it can be a learning experience.
Increase a sense of belonging. Securely attached children have a deep sense of belonging; they feel connected to parents, extended family, friends, community, and culture. Being a part of a clan, with customs and traditions, gives children a feeling of security and a sense of identity and teaches loyalty and altruism. When children's attempts to belong are rejected, betrayed, and shamed, they do not develop a positive sense of belonging or identification with family, community, and culture.

Family routines and rituals, such as eating dinner together, increase a child's sense of belonging. Rituals, such as vacations, birthdays, holidays, reunions, and cultural traditions, also foster a sense of belonging and identity.

Making a Difference

Relationships are the foundation of humanity. As healing parents, caregivers not only have a positive effect on their children, they also help the next generation and society in general.

Maltreatment and disrupted attachment are pathways to antisocial thinking and behavior. Many of these children grow up without an internal guidance system that enables them to accept responsibility, follow rules, and care for others. They continue this negative cycle with their own children, contribute to the breakdown of the family, and often end up in treatment facilities or prison. By providing children a sense of connectedness, belonging, and trust, caregivers can make a difference.

Terry M. Levy, PhD, and Michael Orlans, MA, are codirectors of the Evergreen Psychotherapy Center and the Attachment Treatment and Training Institute, Evergreen, Colorado. Contact them at attiepc@aol.com or 303/674-4029, or visit www.attachmentexperts.com.

Read More From CWLA's Book Bin

Terry Levy and Michael Orlans are the coauthors of Attachment, Trauma, and Healing, and Healing Parents: Helping Wounded Children Learn to Trust and Love, both published by CWLA.

Healing Parents Healing Parents (ISBN 13: 978-1-58760-096-8, $34.95) is a toolbox of practical strategies and research that helps parents and caregivers understand their children, learn to respond constructively, and create healthy environments to help children heal emotional wounds and improve behaviorally, socially, and morally.
Attachment, Trauma, and Healing Attachment, Trauma, and Healing (ISBN 13: 978-0-87868-709-1, $34.95) examines the causes of attachment disorder and provides in-depth discussion of effective solutions.
Therapists for more than 30 years, Levy and Orlans have trained mental health professionals and therapeutic parents in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia.


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