I can’t say enough about the healing power of touch for a child who has been traumatized or suffered from neglect. Children need touch to survive and will die without it. The unfortunate reality of overcrowded orphanages provides indirect support for the negative impact of touch deprivation. Recently, researchers observed the development of infants raised in orphanage where the ratio of care providers to infants was low (9 infants to one provider). While the infants were appropriately fed, most often they were left alone in their cribs with minimal or no physical contact with the care providers. The children suffered from severe delays in physical growth and neurobehavioral development, and elevated rates of serious infections (Albers, Dana, and Hostetter, 1997).
When children come into our homes that have been traumatized, they might act like they don’t want to be touched, moving away from a hug or a pat on the arm, ducking from a kiss on the head or the cheek, or stiffening when picked up and held. So too, children who have been neglected, move away, stiffen and push away, act like they don’t like the feeling of being touched. These children present some challenges for parents who want to help them connect, bond, and eventually socialize.
Unfortunately, some adults try to “honor and appreciate” their child’s wishes. Other adults feel hurt that the child they have taken in does not want them or is rejecting the parents in some way. I want to dispel some myths and encourage you to find ways to connect through touch despite the messages these children are trying to convey. It is BECAUSE your child has not been touched, stroked, cuddled, tickled, or just held a grownups hand that she pulls away. It is because your child REQUIRES touch to grow and thrive that you must find a way to introduce healthy touch into her life. I want to be clear here. Your child is not rejecting you. He has not had the experience of healthy physical contact and so does not know how to connect to it but make no mistake, without it, he will not thrive.
Try a gentle touch on the arm whenever the child is otherwise involved. Require that he or she holds your hand when out in public, crossing the street, in a store in order to continue on that venture. This is as much for the child’s safety as it is for connection of course. Sit in a rocking chair and read a book. Try baking roll out cookies measuring the ingredients, , holding the rolling pin together, and later, decorating the cookies. This activity creates opportunities for eye contact and physical contact to take place in the spirit of fun.
Not all children enter our homes as young children. Many children enter foster or adoptive homes as older youth or teenagers. These young people have had years of physical neglect and worse, abusive touch. It is imperative for these kids to experience healthy touch as well. You may need to ask BEFORE touching your tween or teen as their startle response could cause them to feel the need to protect themselves. But safe touch is a back or shoulder rub, knuckle bumps, a secret signal handshake (great for 6-12 year old boys) just between you and him, and doing manicures and pedicures with the girls. For young people of color, lotion is necessary for their skin and oil for their hair to keep them looking good and healthy. This is a great opportunity for healthy touch. Help your youth with putting on lotion, learning to care for their hair.
Night time presents a great opportunity for one on one time and cuddling while watching a television show or a movie, reading your child a book, singing them to sleep. Message with lotion is a great way to safely touch your child. If your little one is young enough to need help bathing, this presents a great time to connect through touch. After her bath you can put lotion on arms, legs, back and neck. Allow the older child to put lotion on their own tummies. She might want to put lotion on you as well. Encourage this because this allows for reciprocity which is healthy for your attachment strained child.
All humans require touch in order to survive and thrive, from the newly born to the person who has lived their life to the fullest. Helping our kids to bond and connect to other human beings means that they NEED the power of positive touch to continue on their journey through life as healthy human beings. If you are providing foster care, find ways to make physical connections daily, even hourly with your young charges. Don’t use the excuse that they need to “bond to their adoptive family” as a way of avoiding touching them. He will bond faster if he knows what a hand on his shoulder feels like, a kiss on his cheek, a knuckle bump, lotion on his skin by your hands. Be the parent that makes that connection. She will never forget how you made the difference in her world.
Albers, Lisa H. Johnson, Dana E., and Hostetter, Margaret K. “Health of Children Adopted from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: Comparison with Preadoptive Medical Records.” Journal of the Medical Association 278.11 (1997): 922-924.
The conversation goes something like this:
Mom: Could you please take out the trash?
Youth: Why do I have to do that? I did it last week.
Mom: You didn’t either. I did it. Now take the trash out. (Why did you take out the trash last week if it was his job?)
Youth: I have homework to do. (right…your child would rather do his homework than take out the trash? NOT)
Mom. You are now engaged in the same old argument. Disengage from the argument. You have told your child what to do and expect him to do it. If you negotiate at this point, you have handed him the remote control.
My question to you: is this the hill you want to die on? What are you willing to do now? If taking out the trash every week is your child’s job, he needs to take out the trash unless he is in bed with a 101 degree fever or throwing up or at overnight camp. Your child loves to argue about absolutely everything. He does not let even THE smallest issue go by without arguing the point to exhaustion. He has become an In Your Face kind of kid, and it is wearing you out. What to do? What to do?
It really does not matter what the subject matter or what is asked of the child, some kids can’t pass up an opportunity to argue. The parents I work with are left scratching their heads. They wonder why their kid is so confrontational. Here are some theories that seem to make sense.
Attachment challenged kids have one thing in common, a lack of trust that their parents or the adults in their lives can adequately care for them. That means that the child must now take control and take care of themselves and everyone around them, including the parents who they perceive to be inept and deficient. All adults now fall into this category.
On the positive side, this is a great coping mechanism for the child who must remain in the horrible, neglectful, or abusive environment. These kids can often survive the most dire circumstances.
But . . . if Social Services rescues them from these homes and places them in foster care where they are well cared for, what do these controlling kids do now? I have never known a child to shrug off the mantle of control and say “Ok Mom, Dad, take the wheel here, I’m tired of driving the bus.” Just doesn’t happen, folks.
There is some medically based evidence that children who come from violent or abusive environments have higher than normal levels of cortisol¹. This is the chemical that triggers an increase in adrenaline. It is released when a person needs to engage the Fight, Flight, Freeze response that triggers survival behavior. If a child is in a dangerous or life threatening situation, cortisol is vital. It keeps the threatened child alert. It can help her find a safer place by staying quiet or by running to safety or fighting the person harming her.
Furthermore, significant research in human as well as animal research has found that while cortisol production is high, certain brain chemicals associated with human closeness and affection, parental touching, and holding are found to be greatly reduced in children who have experienced histories of chronic abuse or neglect ². Maltreated children have difficulty differentiating normal emotions like happy, sad, and fearful while showing increased arousal and attentiveness to perceived threats. ³.
What does this all mean? It means that all your good intentions and experience as a parent are only going to frustrate you more unless you can recognize and deal with the argumentative child differently than you do your other children. This child is wired differently. He has some different neurochemicals that are creating stress, both for your child and for you.
Let’s face it. Your foster or adopted child may be walking around feeling angry, frustrated, uncared about, lonely, or just wanting things his own way. When you get to the point where you believe he just needs a knock in the head or an attitude adjustment, consider that he may need a psychiatric evaluation that measures his levels of cortisol, and other brain chemicals (such as his serotonin, vasopressin and oxytocin.)
When there is too much cortisol running through the limbic or emotional center of his brain, he may not have the ability to put his brain in gear before engaging his mouth. That’s because the thinking portions of his brain, his prefrontal and frontal lobes cannot function at their maximum capacity.
Okay, you say. So now that I know all that, how do I make him stop arguing about everything?
- · Put up your hand and say, “I have told you what I need you to do. Arguing with me will not be necessary. I expect you to do it now. Just say, yes ma’am.” Not engaging will help a lot
- · I have used humor to remind myself not to engage. Try: “this seems to be where you start to argue with me. You have 1 minutes to give me all the reasons you can’t or won’t do XXX. When the timer goes off, stop talking and go do it. Now say, Yes ma’am”. If you tell them to argue, it takes the fun out of it.
- · Have the argument for them. Turn it around and you argue their side of it. It can work in your favor if not overdone.
- · Put yourself in time out for 10 minutes. When you don’t engage with them, they can’t rev up the cortisol.
- · Say a simple thank you when they don’t engage in an argument where you think they previously would have.
And remember, above all If you don’t ENGAGE YOUR BRAIN BEFORE PUTTING MOUTH IN GEAR, your child certainly won’t.
¹. Sanchez, 2001
². Wismer et al, 2005
³. Wismer and Pollack, 2004
I work with lots of children from the age of 4 to 17 who struggle with some form of disturbance in their lives. Some of these children are solid and healthy in mind and spirit with amazing resiliency given their family history of drug use, physical and emotional abuse, or neglect. Some of the children I work with are not so lucky. They suffer from depression, anxiety, relational disorders, conduct disturbances, and even more severe issues of schizophrenia, physical aggressiveness, daily tantrums, threats to kill each family member.
Some of the work I do with children is done in schools, grade schools primarily. As a home based therapist, I go into family homes most of the time, assessing the safety of the homes for the children and, at times, assessing the safety of the home for the parents as well. From time to time, I suggest that the parents consider an inpatient stay in a hospital for a period of time. All the time, I tell parents to keep sharp objects like knives out of the reach of children who have threatened anyone with a sharp object. I have recommended alarms on doors and always getting guns out the home of children who has very poor impulse control.
I am still amazed that some parents resist taking guns out the home when a child evidences some inclination toward violence and restricting access to violent video games which lowers the threshold for the child of the perception of violence and death. Many children who have some inclination toward violence have a hard time separating fact from fantasy, living in a world where magical thinking occurs on a regular basis, where people die on the screen but not really. When this is true, it is time to take stock and think about what is in the child’s best interest. What is in the best interest of all the people involved with that child.
To be clear, it is my heartfelt opinion that children should not be playing violent video games that showcase killing and death. They become immune to the shocking tragedy of death and violence. It is no longer a terrible thing that many people on the video screen are laying around dead at the player’s own hand. It is also not necessary to own an assault rifle or keep guns in the home where a child who or adult who has severe impulse control issues lives. We have strict rules for foster homes on guns and gun safety. There is a reason for those severe rules. And it is so very important to feed children a healthy diet with all the food groups and making sure if they are on medication, that they get it every day (even weekends) because they need to feel in control each day. Giving children days off from their medication is asking for a hard day for everyone. It also sends a dangerous message to disturbed children who learn that they don’t “always” need their meds and can stop taking them if they feel like it.
Therapists don’t want to be thought of as bossy or controlling but we do see a level of mental illness that the lay community does not often see. It breaks my heart that 20 5 and 6 year olds died at the hands of a young man who killed them with the semi-automatic assault rifle his mother bought for target practice and also died at the hands of. We can prevent this tragedy by using some common sense. We can prevent future tragedies by using our well-developed brains and recognizing how our self- serving attitudes puts everyone in danger from the youngest among us to the oldest members of our society.
Parenting children who have been abused, neglected or institutionalized is a hard, slow trek through the unknown. There is absolutely no way we as parents can know what has hurt our children, what has left an indelible skid mark on their tiny, developing brains. We know only what we are told, what our children offer up to us of their most painful memories. Oh yes, and what they act out for us in the form of tantrums, random age regression, outright disregard for our gifts of love and care. Nancy Thomas said it so well in her book title, “When Love Is Not Enough” because alas, sometimes our love and care is just not enough to heal the wounds our children have suffered.
There are sometimes windows of opportunity. For example, when a child feels sick, he may become more accepting of our nurturing. Chicken noodle soup, crackers, medicine that tastes good, fluffing pillows and taking temperatures with our nice cool hands can make a big difference in the bonding cycles of our children. Even the coolest, most “mature” teenager is vulnerable when suffering through those miserable colds or flu viruses, sprained or broken body parts. That’s because they feel so bad, they have little choice but to submit to our care and concern.
Don’t pay attention to those family members who make comments about how you are spoiling your child by tucking them into bed with Sprite, soup and crackers on a tray, complete with a flower or small toy.
Most of the time, our most distant and unconnected children don’t even cry out when they fall and have blood running down their knee or elbow. Take those opportunities to kiss their booboos (after cleaning and bandaging the hurt body part), and make over their hurt a bit before they blow you off by running off with their friends or siblings. What we are teaching our children is that we will be there to meet their needs, even when earlier needs went unmet or met inconsistently.
I wrote this week’s blog because I am taking care of my rough, tough, thirteen year old son and his rather bad head cold. This is the third one of the season and while it is frustrating that he has yet another cold that I could catch, I take the opportunity to nurture him, ooh and ah over his low grade fever and feed him chicken soup with crackers, root beer and not one but two videos he wants to watch on his tray. He feels pampered and cared for in a special way when I take care of him. This is particularly important since he is older and moving away from his parents and trying to be a grownup.
So try to be aware of those chances to shore your love. They get fewer and farther apart. Before you know it, children grow up. An added bonus comes when our formerly unattached children grow up to be loving, nurturing and caring parents in their own right. I call it the Cycle of Love.
I got a call last night from a mother who was simply distraught over her son’s bad behavior. She reported that he was lying and stealing, even getting his younger brother to steal for him. She was at the end of her rope and hanging on tight.
I suggested that she pull him in closer and Time him In.
Now Time In for a 11 year old looks somewhat different than for a 2 or 3 year old but it is still an effective way of helping kids get their behaviors under better control.
Children do not learn to regulate their emotions or behaviors on their own. It is not a natural instinct. Children learn to regulate their emotions when their mothers or fathers hold them close and rock them. Their heart beat “hears” the parent’s heart beat and they synchronize. It is a biological function that helps children to calm down and regulate themselves, as found in the work of Carter (2005) and Feldman, (2007). Children who are born to drug or alcohol addicted mothers or who live in chaotic, violent, or changing homes do not have the opportunity to calm down in a stable environment so don’t develop these vital self-calming skills. When children who have been in foster care, experienced breaks in care, or been in an orphanage do not experience this synchronicity, their ability to calm down doesn’t develop. They are generally fussy babies, pushing away from their caretakers, and refusing to make eye contact.
As older children, they lie, cheat, steal, jump around the room, rip things out of people’s hands, do whatever they can think of to get someone’s attention so that the grownup gets the message – HELP ME…I’M GOING TO DIE IF I DON’T CALM DOWN MY INSIDES!!! And that is what the child feels. They are not being dramatic or manipulative. The child feels like they really will die if they don’t get help with this horrible feeling they have inside their head or their body.
So what can be done?
Time In is a great way to help a child get himself back under control.
Of course, there are children who don’t come to the home as infants. The child does not know that caretaking adults are available to help them calm down when they are upset. The new caretakers must then teach them to calm down. Couch time is a good way to start. Having some small games or toys that can be played with on the couch or big chair sitting with you quietly is a good way to help the child calm down and synchronize to your heartbeat without feeling like they are giving up control. Older children benefit from a parent who can sit still on the couch with them and watch television or listen to music.
Time in for older children can also include sitting on the floor and sorting and matching socks or other clothes, cleaning tile grout with a toothbrush and baking soda with a parent in the room, setting the table or cleaning the garage with a parent. The key here is that the parent or caretaker must be present in the area. This is NOT meant to be a punishment as it is a calming, regulating event to help the youngster get stronger and be able to get back to the business of being a kid.
Carter, C.S. (2005) Biological perspectives on social attachment and bonding. N S.S Carter, L. Ahenert, K.E. Grossmann, S.B. Hrdy, M.E. Lamb, S.W. Porges, & N. Sachser (Eds.), Attachment and Bonding: A new synthesis (pp. 85-100). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. A comprehensive accessible overview of the role of hormonal systems in the development of the parent-infant bonding.
Feldman, Ruth (2007) Biological Foundations and Developmental Outcomes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 16, Number 6 pp. 340-345.