If you have spent any amount of time in the adoption or foster care world you have most likely heard the term connected parenting. The term is tossed around fairly casually but knowing what it means and how to employ it in your own home is not an easy task. It is as literal as it reads while being more difficult than you can imagine. Connected parenting aims to help children who come from hard places such as adoption or have experienced early trauma. This can mean anything from the mom being in a car accident while she was pregnant or the child had an early hospital stay. The mother’s body could have been flooded with fear during an accident, or she could have experienced a particularly traumatic birth, which can cause a developing child to be affected by their fear hormones. Something happens that makes the child feel disconnected and afraid because their caregiver is unwilling or unable to provide for their immediate needs. Since the baby experiences what the mom experiences, the senses are overwhelmed and unable to process the situation. The inability of the caregiver to provide for his or her needs builds distrust and fear in the child. Because early trauma can come from a variety of places and situations, many if not all of them out of the adopted parents’ control, it is important for adoptive parents to begin working with these principles as soon as possible to correct the maladaptation of the child’s brain.
It was explained to me like this: when a baby cries, people usually come running immediately. From the very first cry, a baby is placed on the mother’s stomach where he or she will wiggle their way to mom’s breast, make eye contact, and start attempting to nurse. This happens minutes after birth. If the birth was traumatic, that moment is interrupted or doesn’t get to happen. If the birth mom doesn’t want to see the baby after birth, that moment is interrupted and doesn’t get to happen. If a baby is born into an orphanage with 100 other babies crying to have their needs met, that moment doesn’t happen. And the moments that follow are worse. So ordinarily when a baby cries, the mom, the dad, or a sibling comes running to see what is wrong. If the baby is hungry they are fed. If they are wet they are changed. If they are cold they are warmed. If they are scared, they are comforted. In ordinary circumstances, there is nothing more natural than a caregiver’s response to a crying baby. So let us assume for the first months those things didn’t happen. When the baby cried because he or she was hungry, no one came. When he or she was wet and cried, no one came. When he or she was scared, cold, too warm, sick, bored, or hurt and cried for help, no one came. So the baby learned that there was no one to depend on besides themselves. Connected parenting is working to undo that damage.
It is easier for a baby and an adoptive mom than a 5-year-old and an adoptive mom. When my littlest daughter was a six-week-old newborn, she was malnourished and traumatized from several fairly awful situations. She was very quiet. She didn’t cry much the first week. As much as that seems like a good thing, it was heartbreaking. She was convinced her needs wouldn’t be met so she didn’t even try to get them met. She made little mewling and annoyed noises that I figured out were her noise to signal that something was wrong. After a week of me carrying her around with me everywhere, wrapped in a baby carrier against my chest, her needs being met as soon as I became aware they existed, she started to cry. I have never been so relieved as the first time I heard her scream, her little face red because I wasn’t fast enough changing her damp diaper. She learned through a constant connection that I was a safe person and I would take care of her. I held her until my arms felt like they would fall off. She weighed next to nothing so holding her wasn’t a chore unless I had to do something else, too. I learned to cook dinner one-handed. I could do almost all of the house chores with one arm by the time she was old enough to lay down by herself and take a nap away from my direct line of sight. Even so, she regularly wouldn’t nap unless she was nestled on me, head on my chest, her little hand wrapped around my finger. Once she was aware that someone was going to take care of her, she was reluctant to let that person out of her sight.
As she got older we transitioned to her doing everything in the same room as me but she had to not be in my arms all of the time. Neither of us enjoyed that transition. The result is that at this point I have a 6-year old that is attached at my hip and is thoroughly and truly convinced that I love her and will meet all of her needs no matter how large or small. I think sometimes we did too good of a job because I want her to have a little independence and she struggles in that department.
For my girls that came to us later in their lives at 2 and 4 years old, the process was shockingly similar. I wore my girls around the house in a baby backpack and a moby wrap. My legs were super buff by the time they didn’t want that anymore. I fed them by hand, rocked them to sleep, made eye contact every way that I could, and basically babied them. It seemed to the outside eyes like I was spoiling my girls. I said (and often still say) yes to almost everything I could. I worked to replace all of the nos they heard in their early lives by being ignored and neglected with many yesses. I gave them reasons to trust me. Four years later, it is still an uphill battle. I exalt internally whenever my 8-year-old daughter asks me for help. She is fiercely, wildly, and painfully independent. She is also a little mama to her younger sisters, in an entirely unhealthy way. She did not and to some extent still does not believe or trust that our family is completely hers and that she is completely safe. She and my other 6-year-old were in five foster homes before we met them. She has a fair reason to be distrustful.
Connected parenting is about more than eye contact, saying yes, cuddles, and babying. It is also about upending everything you think you know about traditional parenting. Just throw it out the window. Kids who have faced trauma will not learn the same lesson from a time-out that a biological, non traumatized child will. A non traumatized child will think, “I did something naughty and I need to think about it. I had to stop my fun and I don’t want to do that again.” A traumatized child thinks, “I am bad. They don’t want me. They don’t want to see me. I’m a bad kid and probably they will just get rid of me now.” I know that seems melodramatic but I’ve heard variations of those words from all of my kids at different times when I thought I was being therapeutic but was just retraumatizing them with separation.
So, if time-outs, spankings, sentence writing, or the like don’t work, what can you do? Believe me, I feel you here. I sat in foster parent class just feeling like my hands had been handcuffed. I wasn’t a big believer in spanking to start with but the idea of removing all of the parenting tools that had been instilled in me by my own childhood experience was and still is very difficult. I’ve explained it this way to a friend: spanking is a shortcut to getting an immediate behavior change. Connected parenting is a long way around and feels like you’ve left all of your senses behind. The trouble is spanking doesn’t work the way we think it works. It isn’t teaching kids to avoid the thing that got them spanked. It is teaching them to avoid getting caught.
So, what do you do instead? For us, there is this ridiculous thing called time-ins. Since we have multiple children, it becomes very important to remove the child from the other children. Since time-outs are off the table because it makes them feel banished and unloved, we do a time-in. I’ll walk with the child to their safe space (usually their room where things they might throw are soft) and sit with them until they feel calm and willing to talk about the problem. Sometimes that is five minutes. They have held out for hours before—hours of screaming, crying, throwing, biting, and hitting. Sometimes I have to tag out with my husband and we switch so I don’t lose it and resort to spanking or yelling at them. When the kid is calmed down we talk. They need to make appropriate apologies and make right what they made wrong. If they broke something they need to do chores to repay the person (we replace things for them since they don’t make any money. It is more of a token effort on their part) and they may lose a privilege for a certain number of hours or days.
A big component for our kids is feeding them and giving them water every two hours. This goes back to the initial issue. When they cried as babies they weren’t fed or given a drink. It is very difficult for these kids to tell if they are hungry or thirsty. By feeding them every two hours we rewire what has been wired incorrectly. Even if our kids can’t tell the difference as much we can spot very quickly if someone needs a snack or drink to turn his or her attitude around. Some of this is parent training, no doubt. It is about us being in tune with our kids’ needs and giving them what they need before they even know they need it. For one of our daughters, this means sometimes practically force-feeding her a PB&J because she is unaware of anything besides rage when she gets hangry. Her body is almost entirely made up of lean muscle, so our theory is she metabolizes more quickly than the rest of us do. She needs food and drinks about every hour and a half, even if she doesn’t want it and maybe especially if she doesn’t want it. Sometimes she is so zoned out on Minecraft that she doesn’t want to stop for anything. Those are often the times when we have to press the issue that she take a break to stretch, eat, drink, and potty.
Another major connected parenting strategy is using eyes and hands when giving a direction. We make eye contact and hold hands if we are giving a direction we need them to follow. They don’t love it but it ensures they hear us. We also make them repeat back what we said. It is important to do this playfully and not in a demanding way or it will turn into a power struggle. This leads us to my most difficult but most necessary connected parenting rule: don’t get into power struggles. If you do, make sure you win. These kids are convinced you aren’t reliable and aren’t smart enough to take care of them. Therefore you need to prove again and again that you are loving, fair, and good. Truly it isn’t fair that you can’t just ask them to do something, have them do it, and move on with life. Most of my kids struggle to an extent with this. If I say something and they say no, I need to rephrase it. I cannot let it turn into a tug of war for power. This happens way more often than I am okay with it happening. I am embarrassed by how many arguments I have lost with my 6-year-old. Every time I lose, I am reinforcing the idea that I am not worth trusting. So the best way to avoid this is to just not get involved in the fight in the first place. Our line is, “I love you too much to fight with you.” And then just change the subject. This is incredibly easier to say than do.
I encourage you to read as many books on connected parenting that you can get your hands on and use their advice to heal your family. It has been nothing short of miraculous in ours.