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."
"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.