Saturday, August 4, 2018

Surprised by Attachment: Compassionate Nurture

Over the years I’ve taken care of many, many children whose number one fear seemed to be the fear of being nurtured by a mother figure. The most obvious instance was a child who was only four-years-old. He seemed securely attached to me and more “normal” than the most average child I’d ever met, until he realized he was stuck with me for a bit.

Once he realized he was stuck with me, he began refusing to do anything I asked of him. He wouldn’t put shoes on. He wouldn’t use the bathroom before leaving the house. He had to pee the second it was inconvenient for me- especially if I’d just asked him to go minutes before.  He wouldn’t eat food I prepared. He’d wait until he got to school, convince the teachers I didn’t feed him, and beg for food there. For two consecutive weeks, he didn’t eat one meal at home. He ate breakfast and lunch at school, Monday through Friday, and then fasted until snack time at Sunday school. I started only fixing his favorite meals and that scared him even more! His response when I baked him a treasured treat was to defecate on himself.

Any “good mom” move I tried to make was either thwarted by him in a way that seemed manipulative to me or refused by him altogether.

I had heard the phrase “Connect before you correct,” when interacting with kids from hard places, but this child would wet his pants if I made eye contact with him!

He was horror-stricken in my presence.

I was fairly unnerved in his.

For months, I was at a loss as to how to live in the same house with this truly precious and hurting child. Connection seemed impossible. I began to wonder if it always would be.

I began to wonder if the trauma everyone in the household was enduring in this child’s presence was going to destroy us all.

If I was ever going to connect with this child, I had to make some changes because he was terrified, and I knew that a terrified child is not building his tolerance for the thing he’s scared of.

Eventually, I had to embrace the fact that in order to love and nurture him well (and in order to love the rest of the family well), I might have to appear to be a bad parent to parents, teachers, and neighbors who had no context to understand his enormous fear.

I couldn’t let it bother me when people saw me care for only his very basic needs while using few words and no eye contact. It was all the connection he could handle from me. He was petrified with any more nurture from me.

I had to consider the definition of nurture: to care for and encourage the growth or development of.

And I had to remember that if the ways I nurtured my child was not encouraging his growth or development (or, in fact, doing quite the opposite), it was technically not nurture, and it had to be modified.

In order to connect with my most hurting children, I’ve had to acknowledge that more foundational than discipline, correction, or control are peacefulness, acceptance, and the willingness to take myself less seriously.

In order to nurture my hurting children with compassion, I’ve had to learn how to respond to each individual child’s need to feel safe and in control. I had to be willing to forfeit all I once expected from the parent/child relationship including the entitlement to “warm and fuzzy” feelings. While I understand correction is important in the long run, I had to learn that correction was impossible until my children felt safe with me. It was more important to create safe spaces, plan safe activities (they could succeed at), tighten boundaries and provide a predictable routine for the months or years to limit dysregulation during times that correction was only inducing shame in them.

I’ve had to learn from each interaction with each individual child how to help him feel safer so his anxiety and stress could be lower and so that he could function higher behaviorally. When this was done successfully, over time, my children began gaining the confidence they needed to build trusting relationships.

Before my children began feeling safe with me, they felt safest with chaos - because that was what was most most familiar. They delighted in “making me angry.” They had to test the limits of my love to believe it existed and know they could trust me and to rest in the knowledge that, with me, they are safe.

In order to help my children feel safe so I could eventually do more to nurture them, I had to consistently offer them an alternative to the chaos. Until I could be consistently calm- despite being surrounded by the chaos my children needed to stir up (to feel safe due to their early life experiences)- they couldn’t feel safe with me. For as long as I let chaos reign, our most hurting children depended on the familiar feeling that chaos provided for them.

Practically speaking, we created safe spaces in our house for individuals who needed them. We built in routine. We began to mantra anytime there’s an interruption from our typical family routine, it’s going to be a surprise and will be fun planned by Mom and Dad. Otherwise our hurting children were prone to sabotage the impending fun out of anxiety and fear. We had to learn to provide our children with only activities they could handle so they had chances to succeed behaviorally and so we could avoid attempting to discipline them before they felt safe enough to appropriately respond to our discipline. Before our children could trust us, we had to let go of the expectation that they would respect us. How could they? We have no evidence that anyone in their history ever respected them. We had to simplify our possessions, our schedule, our commitments, our careers, our meals, and even our wardrobes. For example, for the better part of two years, we were raising older children who bathed at night and changed into comfy clothes they would sleep in and then wear the following day! If we hadn’t, the morning routine would have been too overwhelming for a portion of our children and, therefore, torturous for the rest of us.

I found that the most “compassionate” way to nurture was not my most “natural” way to nurture. In fact, my “natural” approach to nurturing was both unfamiliar and terrorizing to my child. Compassionate nurture doesn’t always look like a picture of good parenting in the eyes of the world. Compassionate nurture is seeing our child’s fear and tolerance level for relationships and offering predictable nurture at that level - until he can handle more. Compassionate nurture begs us to ask forgiveness for the times we’ve overwhelmed our children by attempting to nurture them beyond that tolerance level. Compassionate nurture reminds the child consistently that we’re doing what we can now to care for him well, and we really look forward to a time when we can enjoy a deeper connection. Compassionate nurture is faithful and patient- hoping for the day true connection happens, without being resentful if it never does.

Once I began nurturing the aforementioned child compassionately, the rest of our household could begin to breathe.

As I’ve attempted to nurture my children compassionately, I’ve made a ton of mistakes and I’ve had to apologize often. I’ve had to continually attempt to discern the difference between what I can and cannot control. I’ve had to do some intense problem solving to determine what I can do to nurture my individual children in ways they can accept, while patiently hoping for our family’s healing.

It hasn’t been easy to let go of every expectation of the parent/child relationship. It hasn’t been easy to parent in a way that constantly elicited judgment. It hasn’t been easy to structure our lives in such a way that has often isolated us from our physical community.

In fact, it’s been excruciating. At times I thought I’d sacrificed a life worth living to nobody’s benefit and our entire family’s demise. I wondered if I’d lost myself completely as I often could barely recognize the person I stared at in the mirror.

However, I can now say a child who was once so terrorized in my presence that he defecated on himself as I offered him his favorite meal, now enjoys healthy, trusting relationships. He knows himself, loves justice, and is confident enough to explore his individual interests. He smiles, laughs, and loves others well.

Was the extent of what I see in him today ever a promise? No.

But, knowing that how I learned to care for him was paving the way for his relational freedom, I can finally say that all the pain and problem solving was worth it.

Blog Design by Get Polished