by: Deborah A. Novo
It is natural to feel apprehensive and scared navigating through some of life’s challenges and expectations. Much of the time, we can do this with confidence and competence. However, scared doesn’t begin to identify the depth and breadth of the feeling that is experienced when our children with Reactive Attachment Disorder anticipate or perceive abandonment. The feeling could be more accurately described as panic and terror.
People outside the child’s inner circle may find it hard to believe the degree of distress and impairment that is observed and the myriad of triggers. One of our sons purposefully failed a school year so he wouldn’t have to graduate. His belief was that if he graduated he would “be deserted and on his own.”
Our other son and his girlfriend break up and he is in terror mode feeling like an infant again with no one to care for him. Despite their innumerable breakups they have never been “broken up” more than minutes as he frantically begs her not to leave.
When our children were younger triggers included me leaving the house to get groceries, them standing in the outfield during their baseball game, feeling rejected by classmates, spending respite at their grandparents among many, many other examples.
It is essential that mental health professionals, teachers and others involved understand the scope of emotion that real or perceived abandonment can provoke. Fearing abandonment on a chronic basis changes your brain and has significant, potentially life long, implications in creating connection and stability in relationships, academic success, sustaining employment and keeping oneself emotionally regulated and happy.
As parents, it is important to be prepared and respond appropriately. I have learned, through the years, that the best support you can give is a consistent, calm and empathetic response during these, often volatile, reactions. Anything else fuels their panic. There are tools that our family uses with the intention of balancing and healing their whole being so they can learn to soothe themselves and use their reasoning brain. Strategies such as yoga (free online yoga classes for all ages and levels at www.doyogawithme.com), Emotional Freedom Technique (free and easy instruction at www.emofree.com) and doing Brain Gym exercises are a few fun and very effective examples. When our sons were younger we would leave notes with the respite provider, to be given periodically, while we were away from our home. The notes had simple phrases that said, “we believe in you” and “you are safe and loved.” We still do this, but we now text these messages. I have placed Power Ranger stickers on my youngest son’s chest prior to his baseball games to remind him of the “power” within him. We recently resurrected his favorite stuffed version of that Power Ranger to help this now older teen. We continue to engage in quiet activities such as drawing, board games, Reiki and lots of hugs to minimize their intense reactions and promote their attachment, safety and self worth.
I have discovered that every experience, ultimately, has its benefits. For me, I have developed infinite compassion, advanced problem solving skills, articulate boundaries, self care and advocacy skills for my family. When parenting our special children there is no shortage of opportunity to practice growing in wisdom and love!