Friday, July 03, 2009

The Talk

I am beginning to work on an adaptation of the Restorative Approach for foster parents. As part of that project, I have been re-reading Dan Hughes latest book:
Attachment Focused Parenting (Daniel Hughes W.W. Norton & Co.; 1 edition March 16, 2009) particularly the last section on reducing attachment resistance. I came across the following section:

"Many children who resist turning to their parents for both safety and exploration of the self and the world tend to develop similar strategies for self-reliance and coping. These strategies reflect the psychological reality that they are responsible for both their own safety and for learning about the world. They... cannot rely on their parents.. They tend to tell other- including their parents- what they are convinced is best and what others should do. They tend to want to decide the best course of action for themselves and to oppose the decisions of their parents and others.

These children also try to avoid any event that might be associated with prior events involving fearful and shaming experiences. They develop a strong avoidance of memories of those prior events as well as any current situations that might elicit those memories. These children, in a fundamental way, may never feel safe since they fear parts of their own mind. Not only are they hyper vigilant about external events, they are equally hyper vigilant about allowing parts of their inner life to enter awareness. They often react with intense rage or terror when seemingly routine events- associated with past traumas- elicit an intense emotional response. Parents may facilitate perceived safety by controlling what their child is exposed to in the external world. It is much harder for parents to increase their child’s sense of safety when his fears originate within himself.

Given that these children have not relied on their attachment figures in any consistent manner, they are also likely not to show the developmental skills that children with attachment security tend to manifest. Their emotional experience and expressions tend toward the extreme, lacking a "thermostat" that will create flexible regulation. Their ability to reflect on the events of their lives tends to be weak, as they react to situations, often in a repetitive and rigid manner driven by fears regarding safety." (p. 177)

I think the idea of the traumatized child being afraid of what is inside himself has profound implications.

To further quote Daniel Hughes:

"Without attachment security, a child is less likely to turn to his parents for guidance as to how to be successful. He is also less likely to acknowledge his mistakes and try to correct them. He is less likely to communicate his difficulties and ask for help. As a result, he is less likely to learn from his mistakes and so correct them. Rather, he is more likely to make the same mistake again and again. This most likely will create a pervasive sense of failure. Rather than ask for help, he is likely to rely on himself more, become even more hypervigilant and controlling. With structure, supervision and limited choices, his environment makes success more likely and failure more difficult. Until he can learn from his mistakes, they have to be kept to a minimum by his environment.

There are many different reasons why children who resist attachment have trouble learning from their mistakes. First, their pervasive sense of shame causes them to deny mistakes, have excuses for them, or blame others. Second, they often have developmental disabilities that place them in situations that they are not prepared for. They tend to be raised or taught according to their chronological age rather than their developmental age. Basic skills of self-direction, impulse control, frustration tolerance, and delay of gratification tend to be weak, leaving them at a high risk for failure in many situations." (p. 185)

This seems to me further illuminate the problems that occur when staff in treatment programs try to talk to kids about their mis-behavior. Staff then say: "He will never take responsibility for his behavior" and are disappointed when the children don’t change. So we have scenarios like this:

Staff is approaching Mark to discuss what happened in school today:

Mark is new here but I really like him. I know he’s has had a rough life
Still, he can’t go around hitting people like he did in school today.
I have to get him to understand what he did wrong and take responsibility for his behavior.
I know Leroy can instigate other kids.
I will explain to Mark that if he just asks staff for help when Leroy bothers him things will go much better.
I will explain that if he doesn’t hit anyone for the rest of the week he can go to the movies with us on Saturday.
At first I didn’t think he was listening but then he began to agree with what I was telling him.
I’m sure the rest of the week will be better.

Mark is being approached by staff with a serious look on their face:

Someone is coming towards me. She looks angry. Danger! Danger! Mobilize all defenses!
I don’t trust her. I just met her a few weeks ago and she seems mean.
I know I screwed up in school again today, what a total loser I am, but the class was so confusing and I didn’t get the math. The teacher was busy with the other kids as usual and besides I know she doesn’t like me. Leroy was giving me that smirk like Joe used to and what could I do but push him away and I was afraid I was going to do much worst things.
She’s coming over here to kick me out or punish me or something bad I know it I know it.
La la la la la la I cannot hear a word she is saying who cares it doesn’t matter
I tell her what happened was Leroy and the teacher’s fault and this place sucks and I hate everyone here.
I try to shut out her words, she is smiling but I know that is fake. I agree with whatever she says trying not to hear it. I have my own ways of protecting myself against Leroy.
FINALLY she is going away and I can get back to my Nintendo DS

Sound familiar?
Will the rest of the week go better?

What could the staff have done differently:
Take longer to connect before going into the problem.
Identify the feelings Mark must have had in school and emphatically validate them.
Understand the math difficulty, get the teacher’s help.
Connect with Mark around how scary this place is.
Apologize that the staff didn’t see he was having trouble.
Hope that he will be able to trust them enough to tell them when he gets upset.
Meanwhile say they will look out for him and try to be more alert for when things go wrong, he is over whelmed or other kids are getting on his nerves.

Maybe it sounds too hard or too much time or a luxury- but dealing with the fights and restraints that could emerge from this scenario takes a lot of time.

And doesn’t Mark have to learn that hitting is wrong and he should take responsibility for his actions?

No, he has to learn that not understanding the math doesn’t mean you are no good and that someone can assist you, that he can trust people, that adults will help him, and how to notice when he begins to feel frustrated and upset and what to do to calm himself down.

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