Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Why Aren't the Adoption Books Working?

“I’ve been doing everything in The Connected Child for five years and things only get worse. I’m now so scared of my daughter that I don’t even know how much longer she can live with us. I feel hopeless.”

Reading those words, my heart broke instantly. I knew Debbie*, the author of the email I was reading, was surrounded by other adoptive parents telling her that whether or not behaviors improve, the right thing to do is to parent her child with connection by using the specific strategies laid out in The Connected Child.

Many of us can relate to Debbie’s experience. We try and we try and we try. We read the most highly regarded material. We do the same thing over and again- somehow expecting different results- because we’re doing what the book says to do. It’s what our community is telling us is right and we trust them.

Some friends even tell us that the point of the book(s) is to tell us how to build a relationship with our child not to change their behavior. We begin wondering if waiting for behavior to change is selfish or unnecessary, but we can’t help the nagging suspicion that if our children trusted us it would be evident in their behavior- at least some of the time.


There are a few reasons adoption books can be inaccessible to parents. One reason, for me, is that merely reading the book is bringing up big feelings that are too stressful to work through while actually grasping the concepts in the book.

Others of us, like Debbie,  misunderstand when to begin utilizing specific relationship-building and correction strategies with our children. Our children must feel safe with us before a time-in, or many other connection or correction strategies, can be effective. Until “felt safety” is established, most interventions that are specifically designed to help parents and children connect are actually more destructive than they are constructive.

Before trying to utilize specific connection strategies I need to understand if my child feels safe enough in my presence and in their current circumstance for me to utilize that strategy with positive results. I also need to understand if I feel calm enough to try to connect with my child.


You might wonder how in the world we know if a child feels safe. I know I wondered for a very long time. Finally, a therapist explained that our children most often communicate their needs through their behavior. In the past I’ve cared for children who would wet their pants when a caregiver tried to connect with them. Children who react strongly to parenting are unintentionally explaining that, in that moment, the combination of proximity to the caregiver, conversation, request and eye contact are too overwhelming for them. It’s the caregiver’s job to adjust the circumstances and give the child the space he needs to function at his highest potential. As his relational tolerance is respected by a caregiver, it will grow.

It gets even trickier for some of our families. Some children who’ve endured trauma are demanding of a parent’s time, attention, and even physical nearness, but it just doesn’t seem close. If a child’s affect, tone, and body language are anxious while near their parent;  the nearness is not safe for them even if it’s what they think they need. In this event the parent still needs to find a way for a child to regulate their emotions in as close of proximity as possible so they can feel safe enough to enjoy meaningful connections. Often this is a good time to do a parallel large motor activity or do a chore together where parent and child are close, but not having to make eye contact or touch. In our experience, the sensory activities and chores that are repetitive are the most regulating. We know our children are getting the right kind of sensory input when the activity results in their bodies being calm.


I’ve personally noticed times when children I’ve cared for finally felt safe and were seeking attachment and I had too many big feelings to respond appropriately to them. Our lives together to that point had been defined by drama. My body tried to defend itself by distancing from that trauma drama. Parenting children whose early experiences were defined by trauma also exposed my greatest weaknesses and begged me to process the most traumatic events of my own life. Sadly, before I addressed my own big feelings, I was unable to connect with children who were looking for connection.

What do responsible parents do in that situation?

I know I had to pray and meditate. Others might try therapy, EMDR, Neurofeedback, or parent coaching. One idea is to write a letter to a child’s trauma. Doing so can serve as a reminder that trauma has robbed the child more than it ever has the parent- an understanding that helps us gain more compassion for our children. The goal is for us parents is to work through our own traumatic experiences (parenting and otherwise) so we can be calm enough to regulate and be a person our children can safely trust and attach to.


A few years ago I had the pleasure of attending a conference led by Dr. Bruce Perry. He told a story that I can’t find online, so I’m sure I’ll get the details confused, but the gist of the story lowered my stress greatly so I could learn how to connect with the most hurting children I’ve met.

Dr. Perry was helping a residential treatment center (RTC) develop a plan to improve their outcomes for youth they served who had endured childhood trauma. One youth was admitted and immediately refused to attend meetings or be in proximity to the treatment staff. The only person he could be within a hundred yards of was the facilities manager.

The staff called and asked Dr. Perry what they should do. They had to have something measurable to report to their funders so they could continue treating this youth. Dr. Perry said they should develop a new metric and call it the YFS. The staff would then measure how many yards from staff the new youth was each day.

The first few days the new youth watched the facilities manager on the grounds of the RTC from about 100 yards away. The staff diligently documented this information and, about a week in, they noticed the youth was only 60 yards from the facilities manager. A couple days later he was only 30 yards away.

A couple weeks after the staff began measuring, one member excitedly called Dr. Perry to report. “The YFS is zero!!!”

“The what?” asked Dr. Perry.

The staff member continued, “Our new youth, the one who refused to do anything for over two weeks. He still hasn’t been to group, but he’s within three feet of the facilities manager and he’s helping with a project.”

Within a couple more weeks this same youth felt safe enough to join the program- even attending groups, and, eventually, he even contributed positively to the community.

I was encouraged when hearing this story that if I watched how naturally close my children could be to me without being too stressed out to function, I could meet them in that place and work from there. My job was to provide them with a safe space, provide them with a safe routine that considered their relational and sensory tolerance, and be a safe adult. It was okay to remain at a safe distance as long as I was doing what I could do so my children could eventually feel safe enough to measure at zero YFP (yards from parent).

In my experience, the safer our relationship with our child is the more we’re able to benefit from and implement helpful strategies from the most reliable adoption books. By the time felt safety is established, we also know the child better and can modify the brilliant interventions to meet the child’s unique, complex needs.

The major challenge is being patient enough to wait for a child’s readiness. But when my child and I share a reciprocal smile over an inside joke, my heart melts instantly and I know it was worth the wait.

*Not her real name

To read more of my thoughts on why Adoption Books are sometimes inaccessible to our families visit the Attachment and Trauma Network Here

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  1. Oh, I understand what Debbie was asking. After all, how do you pull yourself up by your bootstraps before you can get ahold of the bootstraps?

    That example from Dr Perry gives such a good illustration of how. Patience, more realistic expectations, and self-care.

    I love the idea of writing to the child's trauma as a way of helping the parent heal from their own.

    1. I can relate to her too. Especially because I can often only do what I know because I'm too stressed out to take in new information.

      That story was a turning point in our family's life. Every bit of advice or information seemed overwhelming, but that story seemed to simplify everything for me.

      All I can handle is simple.


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