Attachment Over Achievement
March 21, 2022 by Sarah Earles, Clinical Supervisor/Child & Family Therapist
Many kids in foster care or adoptive placement struggle with higher level thinking. They cannot remember what caregivers tell them to do from moment to moment. They consistently repeat behaviors that no longer serve them (e.g. gorging, hoarding, lying, stealing, etc.). Their relationships suffer. Their academics suffer. Try as caregivers might, there seems to be no pathway to success. But wait, there is one. To get to this path, however, there must first be an understanding of some basics.
The Brain. The brain is a very complex organ, but to simplify, let’s just discuss two parts: the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala is the fight, flight, or freeze part of the brain. The hippocampus is the memory keeping part of the brain. And the pre-frontal cortex is the thinking part. Kids who have experienced trauma have an overactive amygdala. The brain perceives almost everything as a threat, and therefore kids can’t remember what they’re doing. They live in a land of scarcity, and their natural inclination is to hoard resources and to fight for control of everything. Their focus, whether explicit or implicit, is to stay safe. This doesn’t really allow for the hippocampus to work. The hippocampus must connect to the amygdala in order to process. Complex trauma results in a hippocampus is hanging free, disconnected from the rest of the brain. The world is too scary to think behind fight, flight, and freeze reactions. How do parents and caregivers help kids grow past this? Well, that leads to a second understanding.
The Grieving Process. Parenting children from hard places requires a surrender of expectations. Despite all that parents know about the effects of trauma on children, there is still a hope that they can do something to heal children and help them become “normal.” That is really what caregivers want for their children, and that is a noble hope! Caregivers can certainly create healing environments for their children, but “normal” really needs to be redefined. Kids healing from trauma may still have big behaviors. Kids healing from trauma may still struggle to sleep. Kids healing from trauma are still hypervigilant. Kids healing from trauma may still struggle with school. Sometimes all the expectations must be let go so that kids can just work on learning to calm down and recognize what it means to feel secure. Parents and caregivers play a big part in this.
The Path. What, then, is the path for children who have experienced trauma to live their life? The path is attachment over achievement, or as Karyn Purvis puts it in Trust-Based Relational Intervention, connection over correction. The path is letting go of those behavioral achievements that you want your children to have (at least for now) and focusing on creating a strong secure “base” relationship for them. Extracurricular pursuits? Important, but not as important as a relationship with you. Sports teams may go unjoined. Trophies may not be won.
School? Yes, it is of value, but less so right now. Right now, kids need to know that you are safe, and that they are safe. They need to know that you will love them regardless of achievement, that you will be there no matter what. Academics may falter for a time, but guess what? The losses now can generally be accounted for later when the children’s brains begin to regulate and calm down, when the hippocampus starts connecting with the amygdala. A calm, regulated brain is a brain that can sit in class, participate, and even complete appropriate amounts of homework. Kids who feel safe and are regulated are in a place where they actually can learn. Maybe your children will never reach the same level of achievement as your biological children, or as expected for their age, though. That is okay, too. May you as a parent grieve that your children are not succeeding and achieving as you hoped or dreamed? Yes! But your job is to do your best to stay calm and regulated. Your job is to enjoy your children and keep
creating opportunities for attachment. Attachment is the path to success. At the end of the day, attachment is an achievement, and a hard-won one at that!