Before I became a foster and adoptive parent eight years ago, I didn’t really understand how neglect and abuse hurt kids.
Before I paint myself as too dim, let me explain. Certainly Bill and I decided to become foster parents because we understood that children are hurt by neglect and abuse. It saddened and angered us that so many children in our city were in need of safe and healthy families, so we looked around our house and within our hearts and found room in both places to welcome a couple of children. But I can admit now, that even as we welcomed each daughter, we didn’t have an understanding of the science that explains exactly how abuse and neglect harm children. We knew abused and neglected children are hurt children, but we did not understand the effect of trauma on the human brain in terms of its ability to form healthy and lasting relationships.
We do now.
When a baby is born, every need met by that baby’s parent or caregiver teaches the baby that it is safe to attach to the parent or caregiver. The baby cries, Mom offers a breast; the baby learns she will be taken care of. The baby cries, Dad picks him up; the baby learns he will be protected. This pattern is repeated thousands of times in a child’s first year in a healthy family.
A child of neglect or abuse is a child who has learned just the opposite. She cries and Mom does not come to feed her; he feels scared and he remains alone. Like the child from the healthy family, a child from a neglectful home has this pattern repeated thousands of times. Needs repeatedly unmet.
What the child from the neglectful home learns is that he or she must rely only on himself or herself to survive. Adult caregivers cannot be trusted.
The longer the neglect or abuse continues, the more entrenched this belief becomes so that even when a child is removed from an orphanage or a dysfunctional home to a home with healthy, caring parents, the child’s brain cannot readily make the leap that now he or she is safe.
Children from neglected homes may hoard food because they don’t believe they will be adequately fed; they may become defiant to parents or teachers because they can’t trust anyone beside themselves with decisions; they may avoid eye contact; they may throw tantrums; they may become indiscriminately friendly with those they barely know. The child of abuse or neglect wants nothing more than to maintain control – because he or she has learned that protection comes only from within himself or herself, not from the caregiver.
The experts put a vocabulary around what happens to children of abuse and neglect; it centers on the word “attachment.” Children are said to have a disrupted attachment, or an attachment disorder, or, in the most severe cases, a reactive attachment disorder (RAD).
Once a child is removed from an abusive or neglectful home, the new parents need to rebuild the attachment the child missed. The parents need to assess where the child is on the attachment spectrum and parent (and re-parent) accordingly, using specific intentional and therapeutic methods of parenting that have been shown to be successful: Lullabies and rocking; games that build eye contact; time-ins next to the parent, rather than time-outs; methods of discipline and ways of phrasing questions and commands that lead to compliance and the turning over of control.
Because one of our daughters was twice removed from and returned to the home of her biological parent before the court determined ours should be her permanent home, we have been immersed in the world of disrupted attachment for about three years. While much of what has happened in these three years has been painful and exhausting, the lessons I have learned while working through my daughter’s healing process have all come back to Jesus’ command to love. Love is an action and a decision, not an emotion. When Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you,” he invited us to look at how he loved people – and it was through teaching and healing. Jesus was all about building attachment.
Our experience of foster care has been a daily challenge to live the command to love – to believe that the action of loving will lead to transformation of the one who is loved.
Foster care has brought us to levels of love as a family of which I would not have known we were capable. On our better days, you could say we are skilled lovers. The parenting techniques we’ve had to develop to be effective with our foster daughter have benefited our biological sons and adopted daughter as well. In an effort to heal her disrupted attachment, we’ve all become closer.
Eight years ago, Bill and I didn’t really understand how abuse and neglect hurt kids. Looking back, sometimes I feel ashamed of our naïveté. More often, though, I am thankful for it. Because if we would have known what we’d be up against, maybe we would not have chosen foster care at all. And had we not chosen foster care, we would never have learned how deeply and how intentionally we could love.
And we would have missed out on two of the four best gifts in our lives.
(Scobey-Polacheck, her husband Bill and their children belong to St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Milwaukee and St. Monica Parish, Whitefish Bay. Her book, “Discovering Motherhood,” a compilation of her columns, is available at local bookstores or at www.discoveringmotherhood.com.)