I remember a 15-year-old girl and her mother. I always held family therapy with everyone in the same room. Some of my colleagues thought I was crazy to try to manage such a dynamic group of people in various types of pain, but I love a challenge. In our next individual session, the girl looked at me and said, “My mom pretends to be very nice when she meets with you. Don’t believe her.” I remember another teen whose mother had multiple personality disorder. He thrived in the routines of residential care but drove the staff to distraction with constant questions about what was to happen in the next 15 minutes. He needed reassurance moment to moment that life was predictable. Both young people had learned the hard way that parents weren’t predictable sources of love and comfort; sometimes an invitation for a hug could deliver a slap or hard pinch. Since this was their only experience, they brought these lessons to every human interaction that followed.
Dr. Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, the author of over 95 scholarly publications and 10 books (including Born for Love and The Boy who was Raised as a Dog), uses the term The Intimacy Barrier to describe the baggage these children bring to the world beyond their families. I might call it ambivalence but that doesn’t do it service. As much as humans need to connect to other humans, these kids have learned that humans cannot be trusted. I take pride in how reliable I am. I must remind myself that I must give people time to know this about me. When it comes to these kids from hard places, the time needed may stretch into years.
For the foster, kinship, and adoptive parents of these hurting children this Intimacy Barrier means a very confusing experience. Sometimes, your very proximity is enough to set off a melt down but at others, the child seems to long for your closeness. The key here is to be found in the very language of that previous sentence: in the first part, you decide to approach; in the second, the child approaches you. The hard part here is that as much as you know this child needs a hug, the important thing is to allow them the control over when to get it.
I encourage you to find activities to do together that keep you in parallel position to one another: driving in the car, cooking a meal, sitting together to watch TV or listen to music, horseshoes/corn hole, etc. It may also be necessary, as it was for the boy mentioned above, to offer information about your every move as you might with a 1-year-old, “I’m going upstairs for a minute. I’ll be right back.” Key words are PRESENT, PARALLEL AND PATIENT.
Being present means putting your cell phone down and turning off the TV when attention is needed. When you give your attention, give it completely, no distractions. Being patient means that you have done whatever it takes to maximize the chance that you can calmly handle whatever comes along, no loss of temper, no irritability. Easier said than done but if you want to help someone return to regulation, you will have to be regulated first. Power struggles, ultimatums, and threats are not regulating. New key words: RELATE, REGULATE, REASON. Connection is Correction. Once a semblance of relatedness is established, calm can be restored (rhythmic activities support this) and only then can a productive discussion about the incident occur. Nothing gained by trying to reason or negotiate consequences with a dysregulated kid, right?
My hope is that sharing these ideas leaves you yearning for a deeper exploration of this essentially optimistic perspective on your role in helping children heal from chronic childhood trauma. If so, please consider signing up for my series of online trainings this Spring or next Fall.
- Check out the AZAFAP Event Calendar at https://azafap.gnosishosting.net/Events/Calendar.
- Friday night Happy Hour continues (check your email for the link)
- Nancy Williams will host a yearlong training series focusing on Special Education Issues starting in January. Also, in January and February, we will offer a series on Tax Issues relevant to foster and adoptive parents. Starting in March, I will offer a weekly series to focus on the Neurosequential Model of Caregiving by Dr. Perry. These are offered to satisfy your licensure requirements, curiosity, or life-long learning goals. Reach out to email@example.com if interested in membership or any training event.
- Certificates of attendance are issued for the training hours. Watch your email for the registration opportunity.
- This shut down continues for those of us who understand what is at stake. Others seem to struggle to grasp that. Still others, like the teens in your home, have begun to climb the walls. You are in my thoughts. Reach out if you need an ear: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- I encourage you to check out what Dr. Bruce Perry has to offer. Find his thoughts at https://www.pcaaz.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/B21-Insightful-Caregiving-Intimacy.pdf and at https://www.neurosequential.com/covid-19-resources
Thanks for listening. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others.