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Wounded Children and Attachment Disorder: This is Why Attachment Parenting Matters by guest blogger Alecia

Hi. My name is Alecia and I practice what is commonly referred to as “attachment parenting”. (This can mean many things in practice but the general idea of “AP” is for the parent to focus on connecting with and respecting the unique needs of each child.) I have also been diagnosed with attachment disorder. Now many of you may be saying to yourselves, “What in the world is she talking about?! You can’t have attachment disorder and be an attachment parent! That’s impossible!” But I am here to tell you that it is not only possible, it happens every day in the homes of people like me who choose to be parent consciously and compassionately.

What does attachment disorder look like in adults? It can look like many things but here’s a situation that illustrates why it can be difficult to deal with: Let’s say I’m the mom in this scenario. Picture me together with my toddler in our living room, him playing with his toys and me trying to relax after a long day. I decide to turn on the TV and watch some fun shows while he’s occupied with his toys. It goes well at first, me observing him casually but mostly paying attention to my shows. Then he comes over and wants my attention. At first, he just looks at me, holds up a toy car and says, “Car!” I look at him and say, “Car!” and go back to watching television. He pushes the car into my lap and says, “Car!” and I agree with him, passing the car back to him. At this point, he realizes he needs to be a little more assertive in order to get my attention so he gets louder and more forceful with his words and body language. I continue to say, “car” but halfheartedly because I’m distracted and, let’s face it, I’ve had a rough day.  He continues to be loud and pushy about wanting me to play with him and I continue to mostly ignore him, even during the meltdown in which he throws himself, crying and screaming, on the floor and start to flail around. But I’m busy watching tv and I’ve had a long day and don’t want to deal with this mess. So I just ignore him and continue watching my show. After a few minutes, I don’t even hear him anymore. He eventually gives up on trying to gain my attention and goes to play in the corner with his toys.

Have you ever been there before? Needed a break so, so badly but your child needs you – NEEDSYOURIGHTTHISMINUTE – and you just want some peace and quiet. I’m pretty confident in saying we have all been there at some point. And that’s okay! Wanting and needing a break is totally normal. It is how you take the break that matters. The child in the above example was asking his parent for attention by first putting the car into his parents lap. That is the first step in communication. He was telling me that he wanted to play cars with me. This is the point where I have two choices: play cars with my son, or watch television. I want to watch TV; my son wants to play. My natural inclination is to do what I want to do, of course! It’s been a long day and I deserve a break, after all. I tell myself there’s nothing wrong with taking some time to myself, and that there’s nothing wrong with letting a kid entertain himself.

And this, my friends, is where attachment disorder rears its ugly head. If I consistently choose watching TV (or doing anything, really) over spending time with my son, I am telling him – repeatedly – that those things matter more to me than him. Yet for the person with this disorder, something – anything – over connecting with their child is the normal and natural inclination. In many cases, it would not even occur to me to choose the child over watching television. I am just simply living my life, doing what I want to do, and the needs and wants of other people, including my own child, don’t really matter. I’m not really sure how to meet the needs and wants of others anyway so I’ll just live my life and let others lead theirs (including my son). I want to watch TV right now, so I do just that….while he plays by himself in the corner.

Do I have your attention now?

Many people in modern, industrialized countries (such as the USA, where I am from), struggle with attachment disorder. Some are aware of it but many are not. I discovered I have it after being in therapy for years, struggling with issues of anxiety, depression and various forms of childhood trauma. And while the story of my less than ideal childhood is hopefully not common, attachment disorder is. And it is not just kids who have gone through major traumas who eventually grow up to struggle with it in adulthood. It is also the kids in homes with intact and seemingly loving caregivers who deal with it.

This last point may surprise you. It does seem impossible that someone with seemingly loving and involved parents could have a child with attachment disorder. The key thing to remember is this: it is the relationship between the caregiver and the child that matters, not a checklist for AP practices. If a child does not receive care and love in the way that they understand and need it, attachment disorder can arise even in the most loving of homes. It may sound counter-intuitive but think of it this way: If a child likes to be shown love with physical touch, such as hugs and snuggles, but does not receive those things at all (or receives them sometimes, but not consistently), then she comes to believe that her caregivers cannot be trusted, and attachment disorder is often the result. But if this child needs hugs and snuggles to feel that she is loved, and her parent gives that to her in a safe way, then attachment disorder is less likely to present itself. Obviously this is a simplified explanation, and it leaves out many things, including the importance of environmental influence on the development of attachment disorder. However, this explanation does illustrate the relationship between a child’s needs and a caregiver’s ability to meet those needs in the way that the child needs and deserves. In psychological terms this is called “rightness of fit”: the caregiver gives the child love and affection in the way that they can understand it on a regular basis and in healthy, safe ways. It is the secure, healthy bond between child and caregiver that paves the way for all future relationships. An insecure, unhealthy bond (or lack of one altogether) is the cause of so much pain and suffering, and attachment disorder is a large part of the result.

Attachment parenting is about building and maintaining a healthy bond between the child and caregiver. It is about consistency and compassion. It takes creativity and focus. And most of all, it takes self-awareness and emotional maturity. This is the key, in my opinion, to being an AP parent who has been diagnosed with attachment disorder. It requires the parent be constantly aware of their mental and emotional state, as well as calling for healthy coping skills for keeping you calm and collected when dealing with situations that are draining and stressful. It requires knowledge of normal, healthy child development. And I firmly believe that attachment parenting also calls for learning how to tune in to your natural instincts to observe and carefully listen to and interact with your child(ren).

Having attachment disorder can make these things more difficult but with self-awareness and commitment, it is possible to adhere to compassionate parenting practices. Here are some things that I have utilized in order to stay calm, grounded and connected to my child: meditation; positive self talk; deep breathing while counting to 10 (or 100, depending on what kind of day you’re having); and more. I also do frequent mental and emotional “body scans”, which means that I take notice of my emotions and my thoughts frequently throughout the day and take appropriate steps for self-care. For example, at times when my son is fussier and more demanding than usual, I need to take note of my wavering patience and spend some time doing things that calm or soothe me. If I can’t do those things alone, such as during my son’s naptime, I include him in these activities and try to do them in ways that Caelum will enjoy, too. In practice, this might look like: the two of us dancing around the living room, or going for a long walk in our neighborhood and playing in the falling leaves. Also, I’ve found that compassionate, positive self-talk helps me a lot, too: “this too shall pass” and “just breathe” are two of my favorite mantras. I repeat them to myself as often as necessary in order to get through a rough moment or a difficult day.

Now let’s revisit the little boy who is playing with his toys while his mommy watches television. The little boy is playing with his toys and Mommy is hoping to watch some TV to relax and unwind after a long day. TV turns on and the child approaches his mommy, excitedly showing her his prized toy: a car! I reply, “Car” and go back to watching TV. He puts the car in my lap and says, “Car!”. I look at him, beaming up at me with his eyes so full of love……and I turn off the TV. It’s been a long and crappy day, and I really could use time to sit on my butt, watch TV and not do anything for a while. But I know my son wants to play, and thanks year of introspection and a couple of amazing therapists, I now realize how bad it feels for your parent to choose something over you when you are young. So I smile back at my little boy and we sit down together on the floor and play with his cars.

It’s not always easy being a parent. And it’s sure as hell not easy being a parent who has attachment disorder. I struggle with it every day. Some days are easier than others. But the important thing to me is that I do struggle with it. I fight it constantly. I consciously choose activities with my son over things I’d rather do by myself. We color and draw. I say yes to him as often as possible. We dance together. I get down on the floor with him to play. I read to him. We watch children’s movies together and talk about the characters and the storyline. And, yes, there are many times that I’d rather be doing something else (and, no, I’m not talking about the normal and natural and NECESSARY time to yourself that all human beings need for their health and wellness). It would be really easy to throw my hands in the air and allow my son to be yet another victim of attachment disorder. But I don’t want my son to be another victim of a society that has its values in the wrong place and teaches us that things matter more than people, and that physical interactions with other human beings is second to alone time or screen time. I want more for my son. He deserves better than that. And I deserve better than that. Hell, the whole world deserves better than that! But I can’t heal the whole world. All I can do is attempt to heal myself and hope that healing transfers to future generations.

I hope you’ve found this piece helpful, or at least informative. If you want more information on attachment disorder or attachment parenting, here are some resources that you might find helpful.