Latest update: June 4th, 2012
From 1986 through 2004 Regesh Family and Child Services ran a renowned residential treatment program for difficult and at-risk youth and children. Over the many years of providing residential, as well as outpatient care, we realized that children and youth with symptoms of an attachment disorder acted out the most and were difficult children to make immediate progress with. These children always required more long-term care and much caring and patience. These children display defiance, opposition or, maybe worst of all, indifference. A child with insecure attachment or an attachment disorder doesn’t have the skills necessary to bond with caregivers or build meaningful relationships. The behaviors of these children leave adults exhausted, angry and often feeling helpless and hopeless.
Attachment problems fall on a spectrum, from mild problems that are easily addressed to the most serious form, known as reactive attachment disorder. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the various types or their treatments. However, in brief, attachment disorders are the result of negative experiences in a child’s earliest developmental stage and early relationships. If a young child feels repeatedly abandoned, isolated, powerless, or uncared for—for whatever reason—he or she will learn that other people can’t be depended on and that the world is a dangerous and frightening place. Consequently, their behavior reflects these feelings. Some causes of this phenomenon include, but are not limited to: infants with teenage mothers, infants with extended hospital stays, parents who do not give the required attention to the child or parents whose attention and caring are inconsistent (that is, sometimes they are there for the child while other times they cannot be relied on). Other conditions leading to possible attachment problems include the young child who gets attention only by acting out or displaying other extreme behaviors; a young child or baby who is mistreated or abused, or a baby or young child who is moved from one caregiver to another (this can be the result of adoption, foster care or the loss of a parent).
Healthy attachment, like trust, begins in infancy. The infant quickly learns that when he/she feels discomfort, i.e. from being wet, hungry or in pain, there will be someone, a caregiver, usually a mother, there to relieve the discomfort. This first stage of developing trust leads to the development of an attachment between the infant and the caregiver. The infant develops a clear preference for being with, and interacting with, those specific caregivers over lesser known individuals. Thus, without proper attachment to this primary individual, the child’s emotional and nurturing needs are not met. When the normal attachment process does not occur, children develop abnormal relationships with caregivers, leading to potential serious mental health and behavioral issues. Due to the pervasive nature of this disorder, subsequent interpersonal relationships, such as the development of normal peer and ultimately romantic relationships in later childhood are often distorted. In addition to unconditional loving and consistent parenting, therapy is often required to work with such children and adolescents.
Why am I giving you all this background? Lately I hear a common theme in the attitudes of at-risk youth. Perhaps you have heard it as well. It goes like this: “Who do you think you are?” “You have no right to tell me what to do.” “You can’t make me” or the challenge “Try to make me.” The theme is the same; the parent, caregiver, teacher does not have any rights or better, any connection or relationship with the youth, in his or her mind. There seems to be a disconnect between the child and the adult.
Why do kids do what we ask of them? Really, think about this question. At what age does a child make up his own mind to do as he wants, not as you want? (This is a whole article within itself). When do we no longer have the “power” to “make” a child do what we want?
In training foster parents I often ask them these questions. However, these questions are major considerations for all parents. Research has shown that when we personalize our children’s negative behaviors, we become more easily frustrated, overwhelmed, stressed and angry. All these feelings lead to negative behaviors on our part and subsequently on the children’s part. I have addressed the anger circle in past articles. This is the phenomenon whereby anger is actually contagious. That is, when someone becomes angry with the other person, the second person reactively becomes angry at the first person, merely because of his or her anger. (Look around and you’ll see this happening all around you). Anger management is, in essence, learning how to break the anger circle.
I believe that the lack of relationship building is a key to much of the turmoil and many of the problems we have with our youth. So, back to the question, why do kids do what we ask of them? Why do foster parents think that once they take a needy youth into their home, the anti-social behavior will cease? Why they wonder aren’t their biological children acting this way? Yes, the foster child comes with all kinds of baggage, though the biological child might have their own issues also. The answer is the relationship. The biological child has hopefully grown up in an environment whereby the parents and child know each other on a deep level – a level where a true, meaningful relationship has developed over time. They know what the other person is doing and thinking and can predict the other’s behavior (for better or worse).
However, just knowing someone, living with someone and being related to someone is not enough. In fact, for a child or youth to develop into an individual with good mental health, capable of caring and loving, he needs to learn more than just obedience. A child doing what is told does not ensure his capacity of developing into a person with meaningful relationships. In a meaningful relationship one feels as if they are a part of the other individual. It’s more than just sharing. I do what you ask of me because I am a part of you and you are a part of me. Of course, that does not mean that parent and child will always agree on things. This does not preclude the child or teen testing the parent, wanting their own way and even thinking they know what’s best. Nevertheless, there has been instilled in the child that true sense of who they are in relationship to the parent.
Now, how many parent-child relationships do you know that can be defined this way? In fact, do you, dear reader, believe it’s even possible? The problem with accepting this type of relationship is that very few people understand it, and thus very few parents can transmit this over and teach their children in this manner. It is truly a unique way of seeing meaningful relationships and relating to our children. It is a challenge to each of us with our children and grandchildren.
Why are we seeing so many children turn away from the roots and go off the “derech?” I would like to suggest that you could reread the above theory again and in a different light. Perhaps instead of reading “parent” read “G-d.” I find it’s very unusual for children to be taught that they are truly created b’tzelem Elokim. That is, they truly have a part of G-d inside of them in the form of their neshama. We should ask our children what they really understand their neshamos to be. If G-d is truly inside us, if we (children and adults) really have that kind of relationship with G-d where He is part of us and we have a part of Him inside us, wouldn’t that present a different picture and relationship with different behaviors and different outcomes?
If we teach our children from their earliest years to trust us, because we have that kind of relationship of trust where we bond with our children, then we can teach them to bond to Hakadosh Baruch Hu in a meaningful, trusting attached manner. As the famous child psychiatrist Dr. Bruno Bettleheim said in the 1980’s, Love is not enough.
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