- Smile. This is possibly the singe biggest thing you can do to aid your attachment to your child. It is also great for how your child perceives you. The trouble comes when things get hard, our initial reaction is to let that hard reflect in our face and our body language. Oftentimes we aren't even aware of it. The end result is that when life is hard or our relationship with a certain child is hard, we go through life scowling. This scowling does two things. First, it signals to the child that you aren't a particularly nice person to be around, thus confirming their suspicions that they are better off keeping these new parent-types at arms distance. Second, frowning signals our brain that things are bad and our brain reacts accordingly, sending out the correct signals to the rest of our body. When we smile, our brain gets the news from our face that life is pretty good and also responds accordingly. It's crazy, but it's true. What you do with your face can affect your emotions and outlook on life. So, check your face when your child is around. Are you telling your child and your brain that things are bad, bad, bad (even if they are), or are you changing the atmosphere around your child and inside your brain that things are going to be OK?
- Control your thought life. At my worst moments in my parenting journey, I let fear and panic take over. At the just general hard parts that lasted for long periods of time, I would mutter about the unjustness of the whole situation and would fantasize about what life would have looked like with different choices having been made. I will tell you, that none of this is helpful, even if at the time it is what you want to do. It is the emotional equivalent of eating the entire package of cookies or the entire gallon of ice cream. It really feels good at that very moment, but makes you feel lousy afterwards and takes a long time to reverse the damage. Be careful about what neural pathways you are making in your brain. The more you think something, the easier it is to continue thinking it. Practice makes perfect and sometimes we perfect that wrong things. Yes, it takes effort to stop the little mental panic attacks or pity parties. Yes, it takes practice to force yourself to think of something else. (If you can't make yourself think about the positive side of the current situation, then at least think about a neutral topic.) Yes, it makes a difference. We act on what we believe at a deep level. If we have allowed ourselves to believe the worst, then that is going to color our actions with our children, even if we are trying to make those interactions positive. We have to stop the negativity in our own brains first. I will repeat, yes, I know first hand exactly how difficult this is. Kicking bad habits is never easy.
- Assume the best. Our children, even (especially?) our children from hard places, are doing the best with what they have. Sometimes, due to the past hurts, they just don't have all that much. We cut babies a lot of slack because we know (at least we should know) that little babies just don't have the capacity to do anything but react to their immediate need. When they're sad they cry. When they hurt, they scream. When they're happy, they giggle and coo and smile. Older children are not really all that different, it is just harder to figure out the cause of the behavior. With babies, the choices are few; with older children the choices are far greater and oftentimes they don't even know themselves what is making them upset. I know I spent far too long in the mindset that my son was acting in a way just to annoy me. That it was all about me. Instead, the behavior is pretty much all about the child. Deciding to join our child's team and figure out what is at the root of a behavior is far more useful than being on the opposing team and getting angry that the child scored a point off of us, the parent. Trust me when I say this is a game that no one wins at.
- Give yourself a break. This type of parenting is emotionally and physically exhausting. I think oftentimes we play this down and do not fully accept the level of effort required. We all know that when we are tired or sick everything is just that much harder, yet most of us who are therapeutic parents, are parenting from exhaustion and that makes our job that much more difficult. This is probably the most difficult thing to fix as well because often it depends on having outside resources that not everyone has available. I would strongly urge you to continue to look for ways that you can build breaks into your life. Your brain needs a rest. Your body needs a rest. It is not healthy to maintain the hyper-vigilance required to parent our children. If you are able to get a real break and rest your brain a bit, the sense of renewal gives us a sense of how utterly exhausted our children must be as well. One way J. and I have built in a break for me is to have a code. If I say I need to go to the fabric store, particularly if it is out of the blue, he knows I just need a break. He takes over and I get in the car and look at fabric. (You don't need to look at fabric, you can go do something else.)
I know these four things don't seem like a whole lot, but they were what was missing in our early adoptive years and I believe we paid the price in our relationship with our son. They are those things that sound overly simplistic, are incredibly hard to actually do, and have real payoffs in the end.
I have a new article published. 5 Tips for Starting the International Adoption Process