Adopting for Love

Ralph James Savarese's op-ed in yesterday's Los Angeles Times is so inspiring for its depiction of a parent's unyielding love for a child.

Savarese is the author of "Reasonable People: A Memoir of Autism and Adoption," coming out today from Other Press. The book tells the story of their son's rebirth after eight years in their care. The six-year-old they adopted had been diagnosed as autistic, abandoned by his mother and abused in foster care.

They had bonded with him when Savarese's wife, an autism expert, had attempted to help the mother. Their love for him was already too strong to let him slip away into a life of trauma.

He writes,

"Despite the stigma attached to "special-needs children," people do adopt these kids. And yet, many more Americans spend gobs of money on fertility treatments or travel to foreign countries to find their perfect little bundles. I'm haunted by something my son wrote after we taught him how to read and type on a computer: "I want you to be proud of me. I dream of that because in foster care I had no one." How many kids lie in bed at night and think something similar?"

His editorial is full of righteous anger at the callous way society looked at his son, and it's full of steady love. This should be a terrific feel-good book for all parents and a must-read for anyone who wants to have a child, biological or adopted, disabled or not.


Book Review: The Connected Child

Karyn Purvis, David Cross and Wendy Lyons Sunshine have written a handbook for parents of at-risk kids that's vitally needed. With the rise in international adoptions and adoptions of kids in foster care has come a mostly unacknowledged crisis. Unprepared and unsupported families are finding themselves unprepared for the task of parenting children with severe emotional problems.

The Connected Child
helps parents put some of their therapeutic techniques into practice; more important, it helps them understand their kids in a new way.

Dr. Purvis is the director of Texas Christian University's Institute of Child Development; Dr. Cross is associate director of the institute and a TCU psychology professor. They treat kids with attachment and other behavioral disorders, and they run a summer camp for kids.

The book explains to parents how their assumptions of normal and acceptable behavior may be completely foreign to their children. Not being touched, not having enough to eat, not having toys or stimulation can create a worldview that's totally out of synch with the parents.

That's why setting rules for behavior or other cognitive approaches may not work with these kids. When parents understand that so-called bad behavior comes from fear or self-protection, they can find strategies that address the underlying fear and thereby change behavior.

For example, stealing or hoarding food is common among children from orphanages. They had no choices about when or what they could eat, and often didn't get enough to eat. Instead of demanding that the behavior stop, or that kids hew to mealtimes, the authors offer techniques to maintain a healthy, regular diet while increasing feelings of security about food.

For example, if a child asks for an energy bar a few minutes before mealtime, instead of saying, "No, we'll be eating in ten minutes," they advise giving her the bar and letting her choose whether to keep it in her pocket or by her plate to eat after dinner. Another option is letting the child keep a basket with healthy snacks in her room that she can eat whenever she wants.

Even sending a kid to her room for a time-out can hurt more than it helps, they write. If a child already feels cut off from the family, this isolation seems to reinforce that belief. Instead of dealing out consequences for misbehavior that may seem arbitrary and unrelated to the misdeed, Purvis, Cross and Sunshine illustrate how to help a child understand the real consequences of his behavior. For example, if a kid mistreats a dog, parents are advised to sit down with him and brainstorm the negative consequences of the behavior, such as, "If I hit the dog, it will run away from me." Next, they should make a list of positive consequences that might occur if the dog is treated kindly, such as, "It will like me."

They write,

"Adopted and foster children deserve deep compassion and respect for what they may have endured before they were welcomed into your home. Some of these little ones have survived ordeals that defy the imagination. … the difficult history of these children means that you, as a caretaker, have to work harder to understand and address their unique deficits and make a conscious effort to help them learn the skills they need at home with a caring family."

Parents need to respond to acting out, tantrums and other dysfunctional behavior with love and understanding. Over and over, the book helps parents understand the roots of misbehavior, so that they can respond with love instead of anger.

At-risk kids need to be told directly and simply what's expected of them, according to Purvis and Cross. Parents should identify specific behaviors or values they want to enable, and name them, for example, "asking with respect." If a child asks for something demandingly, the parent says, "Is that asking with respect? Can you ask me with respect?" Throughout, the book provides clear strategies and scripts for handling a wide variety of problems and behaviors.

Finally, The Connected Child includes a chapter called "Healing Yourself to Heal Your Child." Without judgment and with much compassion, the authors point out how much any child, and especially a traumatized child, needs to feel secure and loved by her parents. If a parent hasn't dealt with his or her own grief, anger or emotional dissociation, it will be difficult for that child to heal. If the child does begin to open up, it may actually make her parents uncomfortable.

They offer some advice for such parents, which tends to be on the cognitive side, such as reflecting on their own attachment styles and practicing identifying and articulating their own feelings. Of course, this isn't always so easy, and parents with attachment issues may benefit more from the same kinds of experiential therapy that kids get.

In fact, guiding a child with an attachment disorder toward healing could be exactly the kind of experience that could help a parent heal -- as long as it's done consciously and carefully. The Connected Child is a wonderful guide.

For background on the work of Dr. Purvis and Dr. Cross, see this article from the Texas Christian University magazine.


The Time is Right for "Holding Time"

It's time for another look at an 18-year-old book on repairing the attachment between mother and child.

When Martha G. Welch wrote Holding Time in 1989, the idea of attachment -- the bond between mother and baby -- was something intuitively understood, but not scientifically proven. Since then, studies of rodents, mammals and humans using functional MRI have begun to show how early nurturing shapes the brain, and how the lack of it harms brain development.

Welch treats attachment disorder using holding therapy at her treatment centers in New York City, Chautauqua and Greenwich, Conn. She's a psychiatrist at Columbia University's Department of Neuroscience, and she's studying both the role of oxytocin and secretin in autism and possible therapeutics using these two peptides. (Secretin is a gastric hormone that prompts the pancreas, stomach and liver to release digestive enzymes.)

Welch's method aims to repair the bond between mother and child. A baby's nervous system and brain aren't fully formed at birth, and development takes place in response to interactions with her mother.

Holding, nursing and nurturing develop the oxytocin response and they seem to determine the amount and sensitivity of oxytocin receptors in the brain, especially the parts of the brain that deal with social interaction. Oxytocin also is critical in moderating the fight-or-flight response.

If a baby experiences fear or abuse, she develops a strong and oversensitive stress response. If she is neglected, or doesn't get enough holding and attention, her brain won't learn to release oxytocin when she does have physical contact -- and contact, even soft nurturing, may seem intense and scary to her deprived body.

The diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder is a catchall similar to autism spectrum disorder. But, no matter the symptoms, its roots are trauma, neglect and the lack of a secure bond with a mother. (I'm using mother here to describe a role; anyone who is the primary caregiver and nurturer of a baby is acting as her mother.)

In Welch's method, the mother takes the child into her lap and attempts to make and keep eye contact. Welch's holding therapy typically goes through three stages: confrontation, rejection and reconciliation. In the first stage, holding often means restraining the child on her lap. In the second stage, the child may reject not only being held but also his mother, telling her he hates her, she smells, she's bad. The mother may express her own feelings, saying, "It makes me feel bad that you won't look at me," for example.

Finally, all the negative feelings having been expressed, the child and mother feel peaceful and can connect lovingly. According to Welch, this process is a more expressive version of the gentle cycling between arousal and calm that ideally happens when a mother interacts with her newborn. Being restrained on Mommy's lap gets the child's adrenaline going; that leads to the expression of rage, fear and sorrow, leading to release of those feelings and a new kind of arousal, that of pleasure in being close to Mommy.

Welch writes, "As the struggle continues, the child usually experiences a whole range of emotions but in the safety of his mother's arms. This time the state of arousal is associated with being held lovingly, resolutely, and closely."

It's important for the mother to also be able to release some of her frustration and anger, Welch believes. She writes, "Holding time allows both of you to discharge your pent-up aggression in a safe way."

Welch's method has much in common with Theraplay: The child being controlled and kept in therapist's or mother's lap; the therapist or mother taking charge of the interaction (designed to let the child know there is an adult in control); the goal of mutual gazing and intimacy; and the theory of consciously recreating the experiences that lead to healthy brain development in the infant.

While Theraplay uses activities to distract the child from her distress and engage her less directly with therapist or parent, the holding time method asks mother and child to stay with their feelings and work through them.

The book and Welch's treatment have come in for criticism because of the enforced holding, especially in light of the horrible cases where RAD kids have died during different types of holding therapy, when they were covered in blankets of grownups laid on top of them.

But her work makes sense in light of attachment theory. Children who aren't well attached to their mothers may be either anxious -- desperately craving attention -- or avoidant. Avoidant kids have learned that being close to Mommy means being hurt -- either being rejected or being yelled at. So, they've decided the safest course is to cut themselves off from anyone else.

I grew up avoidant. I still remember the moment when I consciously decided, "I'm not going to let them hurt me anymore." I still craved love and connection, but when it was offered to me, I froze. I desperately needed someone to break through the ice, take hold of me and love me. I kept waiting for someone to do that, but of course, since I couldn't reach out or ask for it, no one ever did.

From my own experience, I think holding therapy may be just what an avoidant kid needs.
Holding Time explains how to use this method; however, I'm not so sure parents should try it without training. The key to holding therapy is that the mother accept the child's rage, letting him know she loves him no matter what. This is easier said than done.

In the examples in the book, the mothers always respond by expressing their needs or feelings in non-judgmental ways. "I know you are angry at me, but I still love you." "I feel upset when you scream and fight. I am going to hold you until we both feel better."

This kind of response is tough for any of us to do; and, to be brutally honest, if this kind of interaction comes naturally to a mom, her kid is not likely to be in need of holding time. (In the book, Welch doesn't discuss the special needs of adopted children, who may have been traumatized or deprived before being adopted; this was before adoption became as widespread as it is today.)

A parent who hasn't been trained in how to respond could end up damaging the child more. As one Amazon.com reviewer, a self-described survivor of forced hugging, put it, "I found it punitive and abhorred it. Who wants to be yelled at and told to look at somebody while being subdued by force?! Who wants to be the recipient of false accusations with no recourse or defense?!"

If the mother hasn't learned how to give love, if she uses holding time to express herself in ways that frighten or hurt her kid, it will damage the bond even worse, by denying the child the one defense he has: withdrawal.

But if mother and child learn to do this with the support and guidance of a therapist, it could be that revelation that Welch promises: "a closer, more satisfying and truly wonderful relationship with your child."

Theraplay to Shape a Child's Brain

Interview: Dafna Lender, Theraplay Institute