This weeks’ blog is a bit of a follow on from last week. I don’t usually do this, but I feel this topic is so important in helping us all change the way we view children who’ve experienced early trauma to such an extent that they develop an Insecure Attachment. This is not something they can control. It is not something they can change themselves without our help. But then of course we do see people who seem to have done just that. They managed to pull themselves together, control their behaviours and to put themselves on a different path.
There doesn’t seem to be a straight formula or pattern. It’s confusing to me too. My children at times do seem to be able to control their reactions and behaviours. I remember, when younger, one of my sons would throw things around but he would be careful to slide his DS across the floor. He did have some control over his actions. However, he could not control reacting without thinking. He couldn’t just think it through logically when the shame and dysregulation set in. To be able to process what was happening and to say ‘ok I’m ok there’s no danger I can relax and just let it go over my head’. The survival part of his brain kicked in which shuts down the thinking part of the brain.
And what about the fact that sometimes with certain people these children appear to behave like angels? Usually new people or people they want to like them. When we see this it suggests that they can control it, and therefore, when they do have a meltdown with those closest to them we think it’s because they are not firm enough with the children’s behaviour.
It’s a very deceptive condition – Insecure Attachment. Unlike other conditions such as Autism or FASD, that we know now are life long conditions – they will not change. The way the child copes may change over time, and with good support, but the condition will not. They may be more aggressive when agitated and behave differently but generally you wouldn’t see them behaving so differently around different people or in different circumstances.
Not so with Insecure Attachment. It is unpredictable. It is confusing. It does not seem to follow consistent rules. This all makes for a very mixed response from the adults in their lives. We are often told we pander to their needs which won’t teach them how to live in the real world. “They have to know how to behave and control themselves otherwise they’ll just be unruly, undisciplined adults who are marginalised and isolated”.
Of course that is what happens often and that’s how the cycle continues. They don’t learn how to be ‘normal’ or ‘appropriate’ in our world and so they live in the world they do know – one of chaos, with no rules or boundaries.
But how do we approach this then? How can we change their futures? Just laying down a set of rules and making them keep them doesn’t seem to work – hence why we have so many permanently excluded teenagers who won’t follow the rules.
Treating them as individuals is one answer and I know how difficult that can be in many settings. Knowing though that actually one child with an Insecure Attachment may just need to be told the rules firmly and in an empathetic way and they will follow them, whilst another child will not, is very powerful. Many young people might be able to act like they are following the rules but is it changing them inside? Are they now more respectful of other peoples’ attitudes or have they just learnt what they need to do to keep others happy and so more chance of surviving?
One analogy that we have been talking about in the BraveHeart office this week is around the life long journey of recovery that comes from early trauma and Insecure Attachment. As adults we all have issues or weaknesses, whatever you want to call them, from our past or our personalities or character traits. No-one is perfect. There does come a point where we take responsibility for our actions but we only seem to be able to do that when we have the ability to step out of shame and feel guilt for what we’ve done.
Without knowing anything about alcoholism we’ve likened this life long journey as being like a recovering alcoholic. I apologise for anyone who may find this analogy inaccurate or offensive, it’s certainly not meant to be. It’s helpful for me though to know that like an alcoholic a person with an Insecure Attachment can heal over time but it may always still be there. The tendency to revert back to what we know and to what we crave is strong. For some children the need to control when they feel anxiety, or to be attention seeking when it’s dependant on survival is something that may always be there. Like a recovering alcoholic though there are steps to go through, ways to keep yourself safe and awareness is one of those first steps.
Acknowledging that yes a child had a difficult start is hard, and our teenagers are struggling with this at the moment. I’ve mentioned before that our daughter desperately wants her life to have been different – a do over, but acceptance will be a big step in her recovery. Being able to be around adults who get her and know that when she’s pretending to show empathy it’s often more about meeting her own needs of safety than meeting the other persons need.
What are the key elements to really changing our approach with children and young people with Insecure Attachment? I believe there are a few fundamentals and I am on a journey myself to REALLY understand and believe these:-
Insecure Attachment is a real condition. It is not made up by people who want to justify their behaviour. There is so much research out there now around the impact of early trauma and not having your needs met adequately. The brain is impaired when this happens, so much so that it can impact the rest of our lives.
Their behaviour is both predictable and unpredictable. Huh? Well if a child has a tendency towards certain styles of Insecure Attachment then you can predict how they might respond in a given circumstance. Of course they are all different within these styles, we have personality, temperament all manner of other factors. However, I know my daughter (who’s Avoidant) will generally try to hide her worries and anxiety, so much so that she will lie and pretend everything is ok. To others it looks like everything is. She will be lovely to other people, which again makes people confused.
They cannot control some of their responses. One minute they seem articulate, emotionally intelligent and balanced and then something triggers the fear response in the brain and they are incoherent. This is not a voluntary response. It’s the fight, flight, freeze mechanism in the brain that is hypersensitive in children like this. When they are in this state they can’t do cause and effect thinking or understand consequences.
‘Good’ behaviours are often survival techniques. This one is so difficult for people to understand and it’s really hard to explain. What looks like empathy, helpfulness, consideration sometimes is more about meeting their own needs of survival and being liked than meeting yours or others needs. When they see us as adults being vulnerable and seeming to not cope it brings out a fear response that then elicits ‘good’ behaviour so all is well. I’ve seen this sometimes between our three. If one is in trouble another one way say “love you mummy” or even “I’m being good”. This one also makes it difficult for people to understand how they can be angels with others and then not so much with parents or carers. If everything is about survival they have learnt techniques that keep them safe and get their needs met. Cleaning up after dinner may mean they don’t get shouted out, asking if you’re alright constantly is their way of checking you can look after them.
They are not puppies that can be trained. We have a puppy at the moment and he will do most things we ask if he gets either food or a chance to run after a ball. Easy. Of course it may take perseverance and time to get him to do what we want without those things but that’s the idea I guess that over time he learns what is acceptable. Children and particularly those with an Insecure Attachment do not respond well to puppy training. As we’ve said above even those that look like they do i.e. can pretend and behave in certain circumstances, when they are then stressed they will revert to type. We need to be thinking about internally helping them cope with anxiety and the fear they feel that makes them react in the ways they do. Some of these things may never change and so we then teach them strategies to manage their anxiety – like we do as adults. Take a walk, deep breaths, wine in some cases or a pamper day. The only way those things help us is if we are self-aware enough to know we need them. That’s what we need to teach children – not how to perform appropriately for a treat but how to identify what’s happening inside them and manage their anxieties in such a way that they can behave appropriately.
Relationships are the game changer. How they feel about you and how you make them feel i.e. safe and trustworthy makes all the difference in the world. I know my children will respond well when disciplined by someone they know cares for them and who gets them. Random teachers and education staff who bark orders at them will not get the desired response or you’ll get the pretend one. Real change comes from real relationship.
This is all a life long journey – one of recovery. We are all on a journey and hopefully we are moving in the right direction. For children and young people who have an Insecure Attachment it will be a long, slow process. One where they need our understanding more than anything else and a new way of thinking. I hope this piece helps you open some areas of thinking in a different way. You may have more questions than answers at the moment and I have to say I have lots of questions too. But I know my children can help me to answer those as we work through this journey of recovery together.