how Paradoxical Parenting works

I will be writing an extremely important post on bonding next week and this information will be helpful in implementing the upcoming technique. But first, I would like to say that there is no quick fix for our hurting children. The information below is not an instant solution, but it will help you move forward with some bonding methods that truly work.

Today we will be looking at Paradoxical Parenting, which works with children who have attachment issues (any child that has been through trauma, neglect, and/or abuse). Why? Because our children are no longer in control when we use this strategy.

Our children want to be in control. When they were in their previous situation everything in their life was out of control, so they now find a need to manage all moments of their existence so that whatever happened to them in the past won’t materialize again. They assume control, and in doing so, they believe they are keeping themselves safe.

“After all, one of the defining elements of a traumatic experience…is a complete loss of control and a sense of utter powerlessness. As a result, regaining control is an important aspect of coping with traumatic stress.” Dr. Bruce Perry

Really, you have to give your child a lot of credit for their intelligence, many of them have set in motion a set of survival skills.

Is your child defiant, does he/she create tension when asked to do something other than what they want? Does it seem like everything is a battle? This is a sign that your child wants control and deals with attachment issues. The book, The Whole-Brain Child, explains why our children are defiant and respond with “No.” “When the nervous system is reactive, it’s actually in a fight-flight-freeze puzzle piecesresponse state, from which it’s almost impossible to connect in an open and caring way with another person… When our entire focus is on self-defense, no matter what we do, we stay in that reactive, “no” state of mind. We become guarded, unable to join with someone else – by listening well, by giving them the benefit of the doubt, by considering their feelings, and so on. Even neutral comments can transform into fighting words, distorting what we hear to fit what we fear. This is how we enter a reactive state and prepare to fight, to flee, or even to freeze.” Does this describe your child? If you have a child who has been through a neglectful situation, trauma, or abuse, I can bet it does.

Paradoxical Parenting sets our child’s brain in thinking mode, instead of reacting mode. It is the idea that when you foresee an issue arising, you stop it by using language that defines what your child is about to do. You tell your child how you expect them to behave, or what they will say. If you know your child will yell at you, tell you “no,” stomp their feet, slam their door, or whatever negative behavior they might exhibit, you name it.

So, you might say to your son, “You’re going to hate doing this, so I want you to yell, ‘No way!’ and stomp off to your room.” Wait and see how your child responds. At first your child will look at you like you’ve come down from Mars. You say, “No, really,” and repeat what you said the first time. If they don’t move and still seem stumped, say, “Go ahead, I’m waiting.” You might be surprised by their reaction. Your child might say, “I’m not going to [insert what you said],” then move forward with the request as if they are the ones who just came down from outer space.

When my daughter had become more bonded with us, we found that Paradoxical Parenting lightened the mood. We make it dramatic (because I am the drama Queen after all). We act like a two-year-old, whining and waving our arms in the air, and she actually laughs. I am ALWAYS a proponent of adding laughter and smiles to our every day lives.

I recommend only using Paradoxical Parenting when absolutely necessary, if it’s over-utilized, your child will anticipate what is coming, and we want to catch them off guard. This is not a permanent fix, we only want to use this method to get them to participate in a specific bonding moment, or if there is an immediate need that should be met before the caregiver pulls their hair out.

Paradoxical Parenting takes the control from your child’s hands. No matter the outcome, in the end, the child does what we need them to do. Whatever decision your child makes, it is one we have chosen for them. If they act out, we told them to have free reign, and if they choose to do what we have asked (make their bed, get their backpack, clean up their mess) they have complied with our request. Win. Win.

*I did not come up with the concept of Paradoxical Parenting, it is a technique that is occasionally used by therapists.

signs of neglect, trauma, and attachment issues

My last post delved into attachment issues and what we need to know so we can begin helping our children. In that post, I said we would be looking at what attachment issues can look like and how we might not notice them.

I would like to change that verbiage a little. I will be writing on the symptoms of neglected, abused, and traumatized children, as well as children with attachment issues. I believe that many children who enter a foster or adoptive home due to neglect, abuse, and trauma will have difficulty attaching to their caregivers. For all of these children, trust has been broken and it will take an adult who is willing to work through their issues for them to heal and make attachments.

“The quality of early caregiving sets the stage for a child’s future interpersonal relationships.” – psychologyassociates.co.nz

Many of our children have come out of a traumatic experience, this includes, but is not limited to; a neglectful home, an abusive home, or an orphanage. (You can see a more extensive list here.) Even children who are adopted at birth can suffer from trauma. For instance, they may have had a birth mother who did drugs (including legal narcotics), or was hiding her pregnancy, or they simply may have difficulty separating from the mother they heard while in the womb. One mom, who adopted her son at birth, talked to me about his behavior issues. She felt they stemmed from the birth mother hiding her pregnancy, which resulted in lack of nutrition and possibly other problems.

When our children come into our care, they are bringing with them their traumatic experiences, which cause attachment issues and other problems in our children.

Our daughter, Payton, came to us when she was nine-months-old. She is the unfortunate example of what neglect and trauma can do to an infant. Many people think that babies and young children are resilient to the wrongs inflicted upon them, but I believe this thought process is very wrong, and my daughter is just one instance. (You can read my thoughts on the term “resilient child” here.)

Before entering foster care, my daughter’s bio mom had been homeless, and left Payton with countless strangers. While in foster care, she lived in four different homes.

Our first sign that something was amiss was when Payton’s foster mom brought her to us. Payton didn’t cry. She would laugh, but her smile didn’t reach her eyes. In fact, we thought it odd how much she laughed. We were completely new to her, she was in a strange house, a different room, but when she woke up in the morning, she still didn’t cry. (Yes, she slept those first couple months and then everything changed, and then major sleep disturbances ran our house.)

About a week after Payton arrived, the laughing stopped and she withdrew into herself. Our social worker, Belinda*, came by for a home visit, I told her about PaytonPayton and she observed her. She was shocked. Payotn’s first foster parents, the Beans*, had told her Payton was doing well, and they described her as being a “good baby.” Somehow we received the information that in the Bean house, Payton had spent most of her time in a playpen. Payton was so withdrawn that day when Belinda visited, she said she would diagnose her with Failure to Thrive, even though she wasn’t authorized to make the diagnosis. Payton didn’t match up with the definition of Failure to Thrive, she was overweight (she had been given a bottle to quiet her when she made noise, even if it was a cry for attention, hugs, or changing), so lack of nutrition wasn’t the issue. However the absence of emotional connection is what I believe led Belinda to say this.

I continued what I had begun the moment she joined our family, I ran to Payton when she fell (she never cried when she was hurt), I picked her up and hugged her, telling her I was there for her. I spent a large majority of my time with her or near her. Once she finally began noticing that someone was paying attention to her (I don’t think she realized yet that I truly cared about her) she was like a calf with it’s mama, she followed me everywhere. We had a long road ahead of us, but I was excited she was aware of my presence.

My daughter had been born into a harsh world, one where she quickly learned that no one would take care of her needs. She shut everything off and laughed at the world around her. She was so good at hiding her true feelings, the other foster parents thought she was fine. Well, I don’t really think Payton was so good at hiding everything, I think those foster parents didn’t notice what was right in front of them. I don’t believe any child escapes from trauma, neglect, or abuse unaffected.

As Payton began to heal, many other behaviors surfaced and we have had to learn to deal with each one as it attacks her.

Following is a list of behaviors that are common in children who have been neglected, abused, been through trauma, or have attachment issues. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

  • Overly aware of the world around them. It may seem like they aren’t paying attention, but they can give you directions to the grocery store.
  • Easily distracted/Difficulty focusing
  • Disconnected/Lack of emotions
  • Inability to entertain themselves. They haven’t learned to play and teaching them how seems like an endless task.
  • Becomes angered quickly
  • Self-centered/Wants constant attention on themselves
  • Apathetic about anything around them – consequences mean nothing
  • Irritable
  • Food issues – can be insatiable
  • Have great difficulty expressing feelings
  • Obstinate/Defiant
  • Controlling
  • Excessive worrier
  • Always alert/Hypervigilant
  • Emotional
  • Sleep issues
  • Lies
  • Untrusting

These symptoms can change as your child moves through their various stages of healing. A child may come into care disconnected, with a lack of emotions, but as healing takes place, they may become overly emotional. This is to be expected, I liken it to the stages of grief. As our children heal and realizations come, other areas of their brain and hearts open and show a different layer that needs to be worked through.

Your child may have exhibited some of these behaviors and you may not have recognized them as being related to their neglect or trauma, after all, some of these issues are common among children who have not been through a traumatic experience. That’s okay, you now have the information and can move forward in helping your child.

“Ultimately, what determines how children survive trauma, physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is whether the people around them – particularly the adults they should be able to trust and rely upon – stand by them with love, support, and encouragement.” –  Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

My follow up posts will give common sense approaches on how to help your child move past their trauma and bond. So you don’t miss any of the posts on Lovin’ Adoptin’ you can go the right side of my website and sign up to have the newest entries delivered to your email.

I also have an article coming out in the June issue of Adoption Today called, Connecting with Compassion. The June issue is mostly dedicated to attachment and trauma in adopted children.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Following are more posts on attachment:
attachment in adoption – the first things we need to know
let’s bond already – creating attachment with an adopted child
rocking: a simple first step to bonding (and it doesn’t just apply to infants)
play = bonding time
why “good nights” are illusive