Babies are needy. Everyone knows this. A newborn infant has no ability to meet their needs for food, comfort or shelter, aside from using their little lungs to make big noise. If you gave birth to a child or brought one home from the hospital in an adoptive or foster care capacity, you got used to meeting your baby’s needs. At all hours of the day….and night. And every time you met a need—through feeding, changing, rocking, talking—you helped that baby learn that you can be trusted. You will help them. They are worth helping. They are precious. They have a voice they can use to get their needs met. That repetitive meeting of needs forms what we call the “attachment cycle” in which a child has a need, expresses it by crying, the parent meets the need and the child returns to comfort. This simple, but profound cycle paves the way for a sense of trust, self-worth and eventually self-regulation.
But many people aren’t prepared for so many needs when they take an older child. If you foster, or have adopted a child from the foster care system, you may be unprepared for the level of need they can still have at age 8, 12 or 15. What do you think when your 10 year old comes in your room in the middle of the night because he was awakened by a bad dream? Or your 12-year-old has a tantrum when he loses a game? How about when your 15-year-old can’t seem to keep track of her homework? Or your 17-year-old doesn’t wash his hair properly in the shower? Whereas you were prepared to be constantly interrupted for a baby, you may not have been prepared for this with an older child. Perhaps you find yourself becoming resentful of how many activities you have to oversee or have your child repeat because they can’t do it right, or at all, on their own. Maybe you dislike having to help them calm down after a relatively minor incident. Perhaps you are weary when they need to you to help them with things that your biological children already had well in hand at that age. Or maybe you thought a somewhat older child would be easier because they would know how to dress themselves, shower, take care of their things and manage school work. Maybe your child has been in your home for 5 years and you thought that for sure they’d know how to do more for themselves by this point. Frustration, unmet expectations, irritation and occasional guilt vie for dominance among your emotions.
What is a parent to do?
Change your perspective.
Everyone has seen the clever drawings that ask what you see in the picture. An old woman or a young woman? Two faces in profile or an elaborate vase? Here’s another:
The point in these pictures is that both are true, but it depends on how you look at it. If you look at the above picture one way, it is definitely a musician playing a saxophone. If you look at it another way, it is a girl’s face. They are both there.
What perspective shift do parents of older, “children from hard places” (to use Dr. Karyn Purvis’s term) need? What can possibly be good about having to show your 11-year-old how to make his bed AGAIN? Or getting up with your 9-year-old in the middle of the night AGAIN? Just this: Your child has a need. YOU can meet it. If you had taken this child when they were first born, you would have expected to meet thousands of needs for them in their first year of life. Maybe you did take them as a newborn, and you did meet thousands of needs. Even though you did not expect them to have as many needs as they have at the age that they are, you can use those needs to strengthen attachment. Every time you can joyfully (or at least not resentfully) meet a need, you communicate to your child that you can be trusted. You are there. They are worth it. And they can use their voice to solve problems and get needs met. Dr. Karyn Purvis, the developer of Trust Based Relational Intervention® urged parents to celebrate when their child has a need and comes to them to meet it. Celebrate!! Celebrate it by meeting the need with a smile (and maybe a yawn if it’s the middle of the night). Celebrate it by telling your child you are glad they came to you for help. Celebrate it by telling them that you will help them practice whatever it is as long as they need you to.
Parenting an older child who has a history of attachment trauma is not for the faint of heart. The needs are great. Healing takes a long time and comes at great cost. A perspective change might be what you need to begin seeing your child’s many needs in a different light. They are opportunities for building trust and connection. You get to do that.
– Josette Kehl, MSW, LCSW, CCTP, TBRI® Practitioner, Family Coach