When we first started the adoption process 10 years ago, I read and read and read everything I could find about attachment. Even with all that research, I was still completely unprepared for the overwhelming feelings I would experience in the face of my new son’s extreme terror, terror which took the form of extreme raging. Absolutely nothing I had read prepared me for either his fear-filled reaction or my own ugly feelings. How could I promote his attachment to me if all he wanted to do was hit and bite me? How could I like, much less love, a child who behaved like this?
I am happy to say that research into trauma and its effects on a child’s brain has uncovered much new information in the past ten years, and this is reflected in current adoption literature. We know so much more now, and that is good for both parents and children. However, it has not been easy to find a good single resource which combines both current research on trauma and the brain and also really useful and practical ways to apply this knowledge. This is one reason that I was so excited as I read Deborah Gray’s newest book, Attaching through Love, Hugs, and Play: Simple Strategies to Help Build Connections with Your Child.
When you read a lot of attachment books, it doesn’t take long to feel as though you’re reading the same things again and again. When I began this book, I assumed it would be like all those others. Instead, I found myself reaching for a pen because I kept coming across sentences and paragraphs that I wanted to be able to find again. While the information wasn’t new to me, the way Ms. Gray presented it made it fresh and valuable. There were both new ideas I had not encountered and new connections I had never made between ideas. By the end, I had marked many, many passages that I wanted to remember.
The thing I love most about this book is Ms. Gray’s focus on connection between the parent and child and that the connection must first come from the parent before the child can reciprocate. This is one of the biggest changes I see in the thinking about attachment. Ten years ago it all seemed to be what I needed to get my child to do in order for him to attach to me, but now the emphasis is on the adult working on building connections to the child so that the child can ultimately join in. We made the switch to focusing on adult-driven connection three years ago and have seen huge changes in our relationship with our son. Ms. Gray sums it up well when she says, “When forming secure attachments, you may find that it takes some daring to trust in the power of kindness and compassion” (p. 57).
Even though the book seems most pertinent to parenting children with a traumatic background, there was plenty of common-sense (though not necessarily commonly-remembered) parenting advice that I find helpful for interacting with all my children. For instance, sometimes in our busy lives, it is easy to forget to focus on our children’s positives. Ms. Gray shares one story of a mother who found her 13-year-old daughter to be “just nasty. I don’t even like her. Everything is a battle. I love her, but I wonder why I do.” In order to work on changing the relationship, this mother’s job was to comment on at least 20 positive things about her daughter each day. In order to remember, she was to give her daughter a dime each time. The mother eventually commented, “I thought you were nuts when you suggested this, but it’s working. Now I know the secret of this. I like myself better when I’m noticing all of the positives. The tension between us is way down. My daughter is smiling at me.” Can’t we all use the reminder that our children thrive on positive interactions?
The only part I found a little disappointing was her section on using negative consequences. Using negative consequences with children from trauma can be tricky. Ms. Gray does not touch very much on the high level of shame these children can feel and how a misuse of negative consequences can play into that shame and ultimately undermine the desired outcome. I believe that her examples are all with children who have reached a certain level of connectedness with their parents and thus can tolerate negative consequences. I know that it has taken us quite some time for our son to be able to accept (without reverting back to rage and self-loathing) any type of negative consequence. This section did not seem to be as fully developed as the others, which is too bad because it can be such a minefield in parent-child relationships.
I highly recommend this book, not only to adoptive parents but to all parents in general who wish to develop better relationships with their children. It would also be a very useful book to share with extended family and friends who might not understand how connected parenting works and who might wonder why a more traditional, authoritarian, punitive-based approach isn’t good enough. It certainly makes my short list for books I recommend to parents preparing to adopt. Do yourself and your children a favor and check it out.