Connecting with Your Adopted Child

Empowerment is at the core of building healthy self-esteem in a child. According to TBRI, empowering principles focus on a child’s ecology and physiology. This is to say that empowerment of a child is directly related to the child’s feelings of safety within their environment and the balance of the child’s biological needs. Because adoptive children have often known their environment to be unstable, they tend to exhibit hypervigilant behavior. Hypervigilant behavior can be recognized when the child is consistently suspicious of the environment and remains alert to the changes therein. The child lives in constant distrust of the environment and is therefore constantly on the defense for whatever may seem threatening. The authors suggest that this child desires felt safety, which grows out of empowerment and entails a safe environment where a child is free to learn and grow. Another component of a child’s environment should include predictability to alleviate a child’s anxiety over what is coming next in their schedule. When the environment is predictable, the child is less guarded as he or she comes to expect and trust their schedule. An example of predictability would be establishing a bedtime routine. Transitions within the day should also be given special attention. Give a child “notice” of when the environment will be changing, so that the child can mentally prepare for the change. For example, if dinner is going to be ready in ten minutes, let the child know that they will be expected at the dinner table in ten minutes. This avoids anxiety over sudden changes in the child’s environment and establishes trust with the child.

The social and emotional health of a child is directly connected to their physical needs. Thus, it is also important to maintain a delicate balance of the child’s physiological demands. Children that have experienced a troubled infancy or have difficulty with attachment are often sensitive to the same sensations that are typical of an infant. Parents of children that have been harmed may implement safe touch, which includes asking the child permission before touching them, ensuring that the child is aware that they are going to be touched, making sure that the touch is friendly, and that the child does not feel trapped by the touch. Children are also calmed by “stereotypic” movement, which is repetitive movement, such as walking or bouncing on a trampoline. Repetitive movements make the child feel safe as they are stable and uninterrupted and allow the child an outlet to stress. Another area of concern should be hydration, which is particularly crucial to children who were exposed to alcohol in utero or have lacked attentive caregiving in the past. Nutrition is also important. The child may experience less mood swings and a more enhanced learning ability if their blood sugar is regulated by a balance between complex carbohydrates and protein. Food and drinks with high sugar content, caffeine, and that have been exposed to pesticides should be avoided.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of parenting is when the relationship feels completely open to being nurtured and the parent and child truly connect to deepen their relationship. Every parent has an idea or a memory of what emotional connection looks like. In TBRI, connecting principles focus on the relational needs of the child, which the authors suggest are dependent on awareness and engagement. Unfortunately, the child that has been adopted internationally often has to conquer some type of childhood trauma. This may be simply due to feelings of abandonment or cultural and social differences or could go as far as severe malnutrition, neglect, or physical and sexual abuse. Two of the most common responses to trauma are dissociation and hyperarousal. With dissociation, the child tries to maintain an emotional distance during activities in an effort, either conscious or subconscious, to aid past or avoid future emotional pain. Hyperactivity, hypervigilance, or sometimes even aggressive or abrasive behavior is characteristic of hyperarousal. Awareness and engagement address these responses while still encouraging the parent to remain understanding to them and enabling the child to feel safe.

Being aware involves observing the child’s anxiety level, voice intensity, and facial expression, while the parent maintains self-awareness. It is also important to recognize behavior or for the parent to ask themselves questions such as, “What is the child really saying?” or “What does the child really need?” When a child is reacting to emotional pain or avoiding a parent’s attempts to nurture them, they are doing just that, they are reacting not responding. A reaction is impulsive and often defensive. The child may say something cruel or become emotionally distant to the parent. A response is more mature and thoughtful. When a child responds to a nurturing stimulus as opposed to reacting to it, they are demonstrating that they were prepared to receive that nurturance. A child may also avoid eye contact. This can be changed by playfully moving your head into the child’s span of vision or praising the child when eye contact occurs. Match the child’s voice inflection and behaviors. An example would be to whisper if the child is whispering or to try kneeling to match the child’s eye level when talking to them. Matching is a form of engagement. This makes the parent more relatable to the child and is at the center of the attachment process in early childhood. Infants match their parent’s vocalizations and sleep cycles. The authors also suggest to encourage process, which is to help the child identify their feelings and needs. Feelings are more powerful and frustrating when they are confusing. Simply helping the child name and describe their feelings can make them less confusing.

The last of the principles that the authors include is the correcting principle, which is usually the least fun to apply for both parents and children. First and foremost, it is important to maintain structure but not at the expense of nurture. The key in TBRI is to maintain a balance between the two. When correcting, there are both proactive and redirective strategies. When the child misbehaves, the behavior should receive the minimum response to change the behavior; and once the behavior is changed, there is an immediate return to playful interaction between the parent and child. One proactive strategy is emotional regulation. An example of encouraging emotional regulation would be to ask the child to “stop and breathe” in order to redirect the child’s attention away from the problem behavior. It is also important to encourage the positive behaviors of the child. The authors also stress the use of life value terms, such as “showing respect” or “accepting no”. In “showing respect” the child is asked to change a disrespectful statement by trying again with respect and is then praised for showing respect. A child should be praised for “accepting no” when the child’s wishes are declined and they are still compliant with the parent’s wishes.

An equal part of correcting is using redirective strategies. It is important to give the child choices with discipline. Suggest to the child that they have two choices and then give them the opportunity to choose from two different forms of discipline that are relative to the misbehavior. Give the child a chance to redo the behavior appropriately. Avoid protecting the child from natural consequences as this inhibits the child from learning what good or bad things happen from their choices. The voice of the parent is also important. It should be more intense when disciplining, a little louder, lower in intonation, slower, and delivered close to the child. The authors cite that children with a history of abuse or neglect function predominantly from the “primitive” brain stem. Research suggests that 90% of all communication is nonverbal, but children that are at risk tend to process 99% of all communication as nonverbal. It is helpful to encourage the child to complete tasks by redirecting the child’s attention back to the task when they are asked to do something.

It is true that with all human beings, the past continues to affect the present. This can be seen in the behaviors of adopted children with a history of maltreatment. The principles presented by Trust-Based Relational Intervention include empowering, connecting, and correcting. These principles may serve as an insight into breaking the cycle of attachment and behavior problems and contribute to the more overarching goal of emotionally connecting the parent and the child.

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