As most families and agencies would say, Dr. Karyn Purvis, who lost her valiant battle with cancer on April 12, 2016, has been one of the most influential teachers for adoptive families. There are few conversations I have with adoptive families where I do not reference her words, wisdom, and expertise. “Be gentle”, “Are you asking or telling?”, and “Use your words” are so ingrained in me that they come out to just about any child (or adult) that I come across, in my adoption world or not. As a TBRI Educator, I was beyond blessed to sit and learn from Dr. Purvis at their intensive training, countless conferences, and Empowered to Connect before her passing. Each time I read her words, whether in the book The Connected Child or notes from past trainings, her lessons sink deeper, and I hope that I can turn to our clients and impart even a fraction of her wisdom as they care for their children from hard places. I took some time to reflect on all that I learned from Dr. Purvis and want to share those words with you today.
Adult Attachment Inventory
“We can only lead a child to a place of healing if we know the way ourselves.” – Dr. Karyn Purvis
Dr. Purvis’s instruction on evaluating adult attachment has not only been instrumental in my own personal journey, but is crucial for adoptive families to explore. As we consider taking children into our homes that have experienced trauma, we must give space and time to our own healing journey. These children are likely to trigger our own past wounds, no matter how big or small, and as the quote says above, we must lead the way into healing.
I took a flight a few days ago where I was struck again by the instructions to place the oxygen mask on yourself first before helping a child. The idea here is that you cannot help a child if you are passed out or harmed yourself by the lack of oxygen. If oxygen is flowing to you, you can quickly come to the aid of a child, calming them down and providing the oxygen they need to survive. The same principle applies to our own healing journeys. You cannot help a child if you are preoccupied with your own needs. You cannot guide a child toward healing if you don’t know what a healthy, secure person looks like for yourself. How do you know where to lead them? How do you teach them secure relationships if you are not secure yourself?
So what are the characteristics of a securely attached adult? Dr. Purvis outlines them simply as an adult that is able to:
- give care to another
- receive care from another
- be autonomous
- negotiate their own needs
Do you struggle with any of these areas? I can give care very easily but receiving that care from another person is quite difficult. Parents must be honest with themselves about their own childhood experiences and how that impacts you as an adult. Take some time to give real consideration to the list above that describe a securely attached adult. Which of these areas do you struggle with in your romantic, family, and friend relationships? If you struggle to receive care, you won’t be able to receive the love your child wants to extend to you. If you don’t know how to negotiate your needs, you will lean toward anger or distrust in your relationships. Perhaps you don’t trust that someone will meet your needs if you say them out loud, so you stay silent and grow resentful.
I encourage you to be honest with yourself and give grace and kindness to the areas where you struggle. This will make you better in all of your relationships, especially with your adopted child. When you learn to give love in a healthier way, your child learns to receive real love. If you can learn to be autonomous your child learns to trust others and trust themselves. Seek out the perspective of a counselor, pastor, friend, or spouse to identify the reasons you struggle with any of these areas. Journal, pray, and bring it to God to start your own healing journey to mark the path for your child to follow.
Finding and Giving Voice
“Tell your children ‘you are precious, you are valuable, and nobody else is created like you’” – Dr. Karyn Purvis
I have heard people speak of going into orphanages in Eastern Europe, filled with babies and toddlers, and describe the eerie silence. Is that what you would expect to hear from a room full of 2 year olds? What was discovered is that neglected children will stop crying once they learn that their cries are not attended to. If no one will respond and connect with you when you cry out, why take the time to cry out and feel that repeated rejection? Crying is a way of expressing a need, especially for a child that is not old enough to put their needs into words. If they experience neglect or abuse as a young child, they begin to feel as if they do not have a voice. As I mentioned above, learning to negotiate your needs requires an environment where you feel safe to express your needs and trust that you and your needs will be valued by a response. This cycle starts for us when as infants. You cried when you were hungry, your mother heard your cries, and fed you. This creates a cycle of trust, value, and love. Our children from hard places often have that cycle disrupted which solidifies the message that their needs are not important and no one will respond with care for them. As they grow, they stop speaking out their needs and develop strategies to meet their own needs. This often manifests in negative behaviors such as lying, stealing, manipulation, or aggression.
“Use your words” is one of my favorite catch phrases from Dr. Purvis because it teaches children to ask for what they need instead of using tantrums, lying, or acting out to communicate. It reinforces that their words, over negative behaviors, have power to get their needs met. They don’t need to hoard food if they learn they can ask for a snack and food will be provided to them. They don’t need to steal toys from their siblings if they learn they can ask to play with them.
Dr. Purvis encourages families to learn how to say “yes” over always saying “no”. This does not mean you become a pushover that spoils your child. You can learn to say yes to your child, even while technically saying no. For example, let’s say your child wants to watch a TV show or play with a particular toy but you are in a situation where they cannot do that in that moment. Instead of saying “no, we don’t have time for that” you can instead say, “right now we are doing this activity but tonight after dinner you can watch that TV show”. This message still keeps you on track for what you are doing in that moment while also telling the child that you heard their need (or want) and will meet that need, just not in that exact moment. Think over the last few days and all the times you said “no” to your child. Sometimes you must say “no” in situations where they are trying to run into the street or touching something that could harm them. However, I bet there are at least a few things that could be easily rephrased to turn your “no” into a “yes” and reinforce connection, trust, and security between you and your child.
Sensory Integration Disorder
“Deprivation and harm suffered early in life impact all the ways that a child develops – coordinator, ability to learn, social skills, size, and even the neurochemical pathways in the brain.” – Dr. Karyn Purvis
Dr. Purvis identifies 6 risk factors for children from hard places. Abuse, neglect, and trauma are the first factors that most people identify but Dr. Purvis also emphasizes earlier exposure to risk for the child in a difficult pregnancy, difficult birth, and early hospitalization. These risk factors influence the way children think, trust, and connect with others and these will impact our children regardless of the age they are adopted. One main area that these risk factors can hinder is our ability to process sensory input. Dr. Purvis states that our senses serve four primary functions:
- To alert the body and brain to important cues
- To protect the body and brain from becoming overwhelmed
- To select what is important to pay attention to
- To organize the brain automatically
We take in the world around us through our senses – taste, smell, see, hear, and touch. We will add to this list common list the senses of proprioceptive (deep tactile pressure) and vestibular (balance, body in relation to the earth). Our senses help us take in input from our environment, organize that input, and send us a message. For example, if we smell something burning, our brain very quickly processes that smell by telling us what the smell is (burning food or burning materials) and tells our body how to respond (look for fire in the house, run away from danger, stay calm because it is just a campfire, etc). When our children have a breakdown in processing, their brain is not able to compute the input their senses are giving them as quickly or in the same way are someone with typically functioning sensory processing.
For our children from hard places, a disruption in sensory processing often results in frustration, overstimulation, or dysregulation. If your child is oversensitive in one or more of their senses, they are taking in too much information and their brain cannot organize it in a way to keep us calm and understanding. These are children that cannot wear certain fabrics in their clothing because the feeling on their body is overstimulating. They may not be able to say to you this issue is occurring but if their brain is preoccupied with the feel of their clothes, they are not able to compartmentalize that input and are unable to focus in school or at the dinner table. They may be too easily startled by loud noises and their brain is not able to calm them down as quickly or interpret any loud noise they hear as a threat. Other children may be under stimulated by sensory input and need stronger or more intense input in order to organize their world and thoughts.
Children that have experienced any of the 6 risk factors that Dr. Purvis outlines are at risk of Sensory Processing Disorder. These children will often display these struggles with sensory input in their behavior and parents should keep watch this. Perhaps your child is aggressive when others come too close, shriek when their hair is brushed, or refuse to participate in certain activities. If your child has a complete meltdown when eating certain textures of food or certain articles of clothing, this could be misbehavior, but it likely indicates an issue with sensory processing.
Here are some things you can do if you think your child may be struggling with sensory input:
- Keep a log of your child’s odd or problematic behavior to see if there are patterns. Perhaps your child always has aggressive behavior after you come home from a crowded activity (party, church, grocery store, shopping, etc). This could indicate your child was overstimulated by the noise or bumping into others and their brain is not able to calm them down like it should once they are away from the overstimulation.
- Give your child lots of sensory rich activities each day. This will help them meet their sensory needs and teach their brain to sense, organize, and respond to sensory input. You can search online for sensory activities you can do at home with your child.
- Have your child evaluated for Sensory Processing Disorder by an Occupational Therapist. They will do an evaluation and treatment plan to help your child learn to regulate and get sensory needs met.
These three lessons are simple concepts but take a lot of intention and practice for you as a parent. Contact us at the Post Adoption Connection Center to learn more about how to integrate these concepts into your parenting, especially if you are experiencing difficulties with your child.