Theraplay for the attachment-challenged child

There are many labels that get tossed around when it comes to adopted children. Not getting caught up in those labels is important if you really want what’s best for your kid. By definition, older, and even younger, adopted children are ‘attachment challenged.’ They’ve had and lost primary caregivers, or they’ve never really had a primary caregiver until you step in as their new parent. Therefore, they are either recovering from the trauma of loss, or they just didn’t learn as an infant, how to attach to you. This is not terrible news, your child is likely to recover, and recover fully. EVEN if some authority tells you they have Reactive Attachment Disorder. Seriously, don’t panic. But also don’t ignore it. Find the right way to help them through it to become whole and as healthy as possible in their relationships. And remember, helping them early does make a difference.

The real challenge of any child who struggles with attachment on any level,  is understanding how to read and interpret their behaviors. Some of the things we’ve experienced include super-neediness, followed by total rejection once the parent responds to those needs. Or a child in a screaming rage fit who freaks out equally if you come closer or move away. They are in their own internal struggle: Desperate for your love, authority, nurturing, and terrified of letting themselves trust that you will provide for their needs. They also tend to try to fulfill their own prophecy because it makes them feel more in control…as in ‘if I believe these adults are going to abandon me, I’m going to do things that will make them want to abandon me.’ It’s heartbreaking and it leaves a parent at a loss for how to proceed in a way that best supports the child.

We found a local therapist who specializes in Theraplay for attachment challenged children. The therapist helps the parent learn how to incorporate some core messages into play, not psychoanalyzing the child through verbal interactions. We’ve seen her a handful of times with one of our children who struggles in this area most noticeably, and we’ve seen a significant improvement already. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to see even subtle shifts in your child’s ability to relax and be joyful. It’s so encouraging!

As the Mom, I think I was most attuned to the issues I was seeing because I represent the primary nurturer in our family. My kids behave differently with me than they do with their Dad or others. And by the way, adoptive Moms, there are going to be times you feel like they are sucking the very life out of you! Remember, most adopted kids arrive with a deficit of nurturing. You are the source that is going to fill those empty wells, which is a huge honor and a very, very taxing job.

I kept having this sinking feeling that my child was struggling within himself and I didn’t know how to help him. My best way to describe this is that he didn’t seem to know who he was or how he fit into this family or the world in general. He seemed discontent, combative at times, and generally as though he had chaos going on inside his head and heart. Moms (and Dads) if you have feelings like this about your child, don’t ignore them. Your gut instincts are important…seek help. Also, if you don’t feel like the therapist you’ve found is right, look for another one. You must feel comfortable with who you are choosing to help your family.

Here’s some info on Theraplay:

There are three goals of Theraplay: To help the child replace inappropriate solutions and behaviors with healthy, creative, and age-appropriate ones; to increase the child’s self-esteem; to enhance the relationship between the child and his/her caregivers.

Because the roots of development of the self and self-esteem and trust lie in the early years, Theraply treatment returns to the stage at which the child’s emotional development was derailed and provides the experiences that can restart the healthy cycle of interaction. Therefore activities are geared to the child’s current emotional level rather than to his/her chronological age.

Structure: Parents are trustworthy and predictable, and they help define and clarify the child’s experience. The adult conveys the message: you are safe with me because I will take good care of you.

Engage: Parents provide excitement, surprise, and stimulation in order to maintain a maximal level of alertness and engagement.

Nurture: Parents are warm, tender, soothing, calming and comforting. The message is: You are loveable, I will respond to your needs for care, affection, and praise.

Challenge: Parents encourage the child to move ahead, to strive a bit, and to become more independent. The message is: You are capable of growing and making a positive impact on the world.

One of the specific ways we’ve begun incorporating these ideas into play with our son has been to engage in purposeful, fun playtimes where the parent is running the show. Completely. Our child loves to play games, but will constantly try to change the game so he feels like he’s in charge. The goal is to teach him that it can be fun and safe to let the parent be in charge…taught through play experiences. So maybe we are bouncing a ball and counting how many times we pass it, and then I change the game to throwing the ball through the tire swing, and then moving the game to another place in the yard. All the while staying upbeat, focused on the child, and clearly in charge. No, I can’t do this all the time because I have three kids and yes, it’s exhausting! But a little of this goes a long way. And once you are thinking about it, it’s easy to incorporate into other areas (Mommy’s choosing the books tonight for storytime, for example). It doesn’t mean the child never gets to make his own choices and direct his own play, it just means that when Mom or Dad assert their authority, he’s less likely to react to it and more likely to yield and allow himself to be under the authority of his parents

I’m grateful to be finding this guidance that seems to be making such a difference for our family! The only thing is that the joyful version of my little guy is SO LOUD! Just this morning we were on a walk around the neighborhood and came to a corner near our house. A couple was sitting on their porch having coffee and laughing because they could hear my little chatterbox from a block away. They noted how happy he sounded. Which warmed my heart!


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