The following is an informal book review by Claudia-Jacqueline Semar, M.Ed. She has granted us permission to reprint it here.
Ms. Semar is the Executive Director of International Child Foundation. She has worked in adoptions for more than 15 years, and as an adoptive mother, she has first-hand experience in the things she writes about.
I've been reading a book called The Connected Child. It's recommended often by families on the listservs. This is a bit that you may consider more relative to older children, but in fact it has deep significance for babies and toddlers, too.
Children who have been neglected or abused - and let's redefine this as children who have had their needs ignored, their cries unanswered, their food inadequate, and children who have been repeatedly frightened by events in their environment, chaos and violence, even if it did not touch them physically - these children have established biochemical brain patterns. No amount of talk therapy rewires the brain. (As you may have discovered when trying to persuade your spouse to change his or her behaviors.) In children, this is a particular challenge, because the younger they are, the less their cognitive skills have developed. Reason is not a tool they have at their disposal.
Under any sort of stress or pressure, a frightened child panics and reacts. Neglected or abused children have neurotransmitter systems that are stuck on "on." This is called hyper-arousal. This means they are always on the edge of panic - flight or fight. Everyone has been there - when you are so anxious and keyed up that you can't calm your mind. For them, this is a chronic condition. Relaxing and trusting their environment is a foreign sensation. They have been caught "off guard" and been hurt before, when they were most vulnerable. Thus they are not inclined to offer trust.
Older children may pretend to trust you. They know how to exhibit behaviors that win praise. But is it deep trust? Probably not. Not till after years of consistent non-violent parenting and encouragement - and with the tutelage of parents who have learned a few advanced techniques to disengage the hyper-arousal pattern.
For babies and toddlers, this pattern may be less obvious, but when your child comes home, it is still very important to reinforce re-patterning by making eye contact, gently massaging, being the person who feeds the child, sitting together, playing interactive games together, and teaching your child how to identify emotions.
In most child psychologists' offices you will see a chart of faces that have words naming the emotion under them. Why? It is because children with limited opportunities for emotional development and expression need to learn these distinctions.
Parents can help with this. When interacting, you can identify the emotion for your child. The more emotions you can help to identify, and the more variation and nuance, the greater grasp your child will have of what emotions are an how they work. That helps them master emotional control and builds confidence.
While playing, you can say, whey you child is laughing, "You are happy!" When your child is hurt, you can say "You are sad, it hurts." When you child is nervous about being left with a sitter or taken to a strange place, you can say "You are worried." When your child is frustrated, you can say "You are angry." All of the emotions can be identified, and put in a framework that you child can understand and learn to manage. As your child develops an understanding of time, you can add, "You are worried. Let's worry together for a minute, and then you can have fun again." Setting boundaries on emotions is a useful tool for all of us to have.
And you know, every skill you learn that benefits your relationship with your child, you can use on your spouse!
- Guest post by Claudia-Jacqueline Semar, M.Ed. -