Why does my child follow me to the bathroom?

Those who take care of children who are recovering from a tough start to life commonly report that the child in their care follows them to the bathroom, and becomes unreasonably distressed when prevented from doing so. In my experience this issue is not confined to the parent caregiver seeking to go to the bathroom. The child protests the parent caregiver speaking on the phone, intrudes into conversations with visitors, and becomes unreasonably distressed during any brief separation.

The child reacts to temporary separations and moments when their parent caregiver is not responding to them as if they will be forgotten about or abandoned.

In my opinion there are two intertwined factors at play here. One is what the child has learnt about the accessibility and responsiveness of adults in a caregiving role. The other has to do with cognitive development during the first year post-partum.

If we look at cognitive development first, one of the most influential developmental achievements during infancy is object permanency; that is, the capacity to hold a mental representation of an object when the child does not have sensory experience of it. Once an infant becomes aware of the existence of objects independent of their direct sensory experience them, the infant can tolerate the absence of the object from their sensory experience, because the foundations for their understanding that the object continues to exist is there. If we think of the parent caregiver as an object in the world of the infant, once they are capable of object permanency they are able to tolerate brief separations from the parent caregiver without fearing that the parent caregiver is lost or has abandoned them.

As to what infants learn about the accessibility and responsiveness of adults in a caregiving role, in a conventional nurturing care environment infants soon learn that their parent caregiver is available and responsive without them having to maintain parental attention to make it so. This learning is a product of the parent caregiver sensitively and consistently anticipating and responding to the infants cues regarding their needs. The infant soon learns that the parent caregiver can be relied upon for needs provision, without them having to maintain the parent caregiver’s attention to make it so.

When parents struggle to be consistently available and responsive to their infant, there are impacts to their learning and development. The child struggles to understand that their parent caregiver is really there for them when they do not have direct sensory experience of them. The child also learns that in order to increase their chances of needs provision they must keep their parent caregiver close by and under their direct influence.

So, how does a parent caregiver address these impacts to learning and development? In my opinion, the answer lies with how children understand the continuing existence of the parent caregiver independent of direct sensory experience of them, and learn to trust in their responsiveness.

Infants come to understand that their parent caregiver continues to exist and is accessible to them as a result of many temporary separations and reunions, where the parent caregiver consistently attends to the infant whether they were crying or quiet. Further, infants learn that their parent caregiver can be relied upon for needs provision when they anticipate and respond to the infants needs without the infant having to work hard to make it so.

We can support a child’s security about the continuing existence of the parent caregiver and new learning about their responsiveness by replicating the conditions under which this learning and development would normally occur in a conventional nurturing care environment. We can do this by reconnecting with the child after a temporary separation before the child does anything to make it so (i.e. attending to them whether they are crying or quiet), and addressing their needs proactively (i.e. without them having to do anything to make it so).

What we are trying to achieve are experiences that promote trust in the existence of an accessible and responsive parent caregiver. This contrasts with, and challenges, problems in learning and development that give rise to preoccupations with the accessibility and responsiveness of adults in a caregiving role.

Children and young people who accept the continuing existence of a sensitive and responsive parent caregiver have less difficulty believing in their worth and trusting in (reliable) others. The world is less overwhelming for them. Viewed in this way, proactive re-connection and needs provision support attachment security.

Some suggestions:

  • Where a child will not tolerate any separations at all, try using baby monitors or walkie talkies so that they still feel connected during temporary separations;
  • Engage liberally in peek-a-boo with the younger child, and games of hide-and-seek with the school-aged child. Progress to covering yourself with a whole blanket before revealing yourself when playing peek-a-boo.
  • Put a photo of you both and notes in the lunch-boxes of school-aged children.
  • Have a pre-prepared snack for the school-aged child and give it to them at reunion.

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What I would have birth parents hear after the removal of their child

Let me preface this blog by acknowledging that it will be controversial to some. It is a difficult topic. But, I feel I owe it to the children and young people (and care experienced adults) I work with to write it.

Twenty seven years speaking to children and young people (and care experienced adults) who have been removed from the care of their birth parents due to grossly inadequate care and maltreatment has left me with deep concerns about the impact of parental separation and loss on the developing child, and the capacity for alternate care and therapeutic supports alone to compensate for this. What I am referring to are those instances where birth parents drift out of the lives of their children when long-term orders for care and protection are made. I acknowledge that there are circumstances where great caution needs to be exercised regarding contact (eg, where concerns involve child sexual abuse), and that in some instances contact is simply not possible or in the overall best interests of the child or young person. Nevertheless, whereas many aspects of the growth and development of the removed child are addressed via their placement in stable and loving care environments, there is a risk that attachment security continues to be adversely affected where the relationship with birth parents remains unrepaired or is lost.

From Pearce, C (2016) A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder (Second Edition). London: JKP

I have written here about a how person’s overall attachment style, and their associated approach to life and relationships, is influenced by all of their attachment relationships. In short, a person’s overall attachment security derives from an intermingling of all of their key attachment relationships. Where some of those attachment relationships have been inadequate, the task of achieving overall attachment security is that much harder and rests on supporting the development of positive new attachment relationships and the repair of damaged ones.

Sadly, it is my observation that many children and young people do not get the opportunity to form the enriched attachment relationships that compensate for unrepaired ones, nor do their have an opportunity to repair those in need of it.

This brings me to the topic of this blog. What would I have birth parents hear after the removal of their child? While these comments are generally applicable to birth parents who experience the removal of their children due to serious child protection concerns, the birth parents I would particularly target this to are those who are likely to withdraw from contact and involvement in the life of their child.

Birth parents, I get that you have heard that you are a poor parent and a threat to your child. I get that what others have said sounds like your children are better off without you. I want you to know that I am concerned about what has happened that got you and your child to where we are now. It is not good for you, nor your child. Your child needs you to fight. To fight to overcome the challenges in your life that have gotten in the way of being the parent your child needs you to be. To fight to overcome the urge to give up and withdraw from their lives. One day not too far away, it will be important to your child that you tried. It will help them to feel that they mattered, and that they still do matter. Even if it is not possible for your child to safely live with you, they need you to be involved and interested in their life. This will promote their feelings of worthiness that, in turn, will support them to make healthy relationships with others and good decisions in life.

Though they may not live with you, your child still needs you.

In many instances, a child’s ongoing relationship with their birth parents is a vital aspect to their recovery from early trauma.

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What does my child’s recovery from early trauma look like?

Anyone who has played Spotto (Spot the yellow car) with children knows that there are many more yellow cars on the road than you typically notice when driving. Similarly, when playing I Spy there are many more things starting with a given letter of the alphabet in your immediate environment you would usually take note of. We selectively attend to certain aspects of our environment and not to others. What we see is very much determined by where we apply our attention.

When caring for a child who is recovering from a tough start to life due to grossly inadequate care and/or maltreatment there is much concern about its impact on the developing child. It follows that most adults who care for and relate with children and young people who have experienced abuse and neglect can readily see the effects.

Consider how this impacts your role in the life of a child or young person recovering from complex early trauma. Whether you are in a caregiver role or delivering a professional therapeutic service, your knowledge of the impacts of abuse and neglect mean that you are likely to focus a lot on signs of them, including as part of your endeavour to see if the child or young person is recovering.

Unfortunately, this focus on signs of abuse and neglect means that you are more likely to keep seeing signs adverse impacts, including when the child or young person is making progress in their recovery.

We see what we are paying attention to. In order to see signs of recovery, you need to know what recovery looks like. Once you turn you mind to what recovery looks like you are more likely to see it.

A focus on what recovery looks like benefits adults who care for and relate to children and young people who have experienced abuse and neglect during the (early) developmental period, and the children themselves. Adults who are able to see signs of recovery feel more competent in the role they perform with these children and young people. This sustains their endeavours through inevitable tough times. The self-image of children and young people is strongly influenced by their experience of how significant adults in their lives see them. Observing and acknowledging signs of their recovery helps children and young people experience themselves in a more positive way.

Children who think they are bad, feel bad, and act bad. They are typically admonished for acting bad, thus conforming the original thought. When this happens over and over, this becomes a belief that influences their approach to life and relationships in an enduring way. It is not too much of a simplification to say that children who think that they are capable and worthy feel good, act good (most of the time), and are likely to be acknowledged in this through positive relatedness with others.

Here are a few of the signs of recovery to look for:

  • Attention to grooming and care about appearance – you might see this from the Primary school years onwards. It reflects an emerging sense of self-worth, care regarding the opinion of others, and an openness to being viewed positively by them.
  • Use of words to draw attention to experiences and needs, as opposed to coercive gestures. Children and young people who have experienced grossly inadequate care have poorly developed inner-state language and/or lack of motivation to communicate verbally about their experiences and needs. Using their words reflects developmental growth, improving self-worth, and growing trust in the responsiveness of adult caregivers.
  • Acceptance of care and age-appropriate dependency – reflects new learning about the accessibility and responsiveness of adults in a caregiving role.
  • A range of genuine emotion that is congruent with content and context – Children and young people who have experienced grossly inadequate care and/or maltreatment often have a restricted emotional repertoire. As a result of being inconsistently soothed during the early developmental period, they have learnt to avoid emotions, lest they be overwhelmed by them. Through caring co-regulation and natural expression by caregiving adults, these children and young people feel safe to explore a range of emotions and achieve emotional growth.

And, the big one:

  • .Self-regulation – in consideration of their own worth and the value they place on their relationships with key others in their life. This is promoted through healing connections in which the child or young person experiences themselves as good, deserving, and competent and adults as understanding, responsive, and safe. In all of your interactions with a child or young person recovering from a tough start to life, try to facilitate experiences of their worth and of yourself as someone upon whom they can depend.

For more signs of recovery, refer to the graphic below, taken from my Connected Classrooms training, a program of The CARE Curriculum:

If you took something useful away from this article, please consider liking it and making a comment. I am interested to read what other behaviours you would like me to turn my mind to.

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Why does my child antagonize others and then complain of being bullied?

Antagonizing others and then complaining of being bullied, though it is easily viewed as irrational and self-defeating, stems from very real (and justified) feelings of being poorly treated in life. Children and young people who have experienced relational trauma are prone to maintaining an exaggerated view of their vulnerability and the malintent of others towards them. Some compensate for this by adopting a persona of toughness and aggressiveness meant to warn others off ‘messing with them’. Their intent is to maintain feelings of relational safety. Unfortunately, their aggressiveness can invite a retaliatory response from others that confirms their belief in their vulnerability and the threat posed by others. Though the attribution of bullying is made towards the contemporary (reciprocating) aggressor, the feeling of being vulnerable and bullied stems from past abuse and neglect.

Children and young people who approach the world and relationships in this way are often not amenable to endeavours to explain how they provoked aggression from others towards them. Such endeavours are incongruent with how they see the world and relationships and their place in them. It is not a case of they can give it but they cant take it. These children and young people have been deeply hurt and until that hurt is healed they are destined to maintain this maladaptive approach to life and relationships.

In my experience, the way to address this issue is to focus less on their behaviour and more on the feelings of relational vulnerability and insecurity that give rise to them. We need to intentionally, and in sustained manner, facilitate experiences of their competency, worth, and of the sensitivity and responsiveness of others. This is conventionally learnt by the developing child in the home with adults who delight in spending time with them, anticipate and respond to their needs, share their highs and lows, and support their experience of mastery.

It is the relationships a child has with themselves and with the adults who care or them that is most influential in how they approach life and relationships. Where relationships have been inadequate, it is through enriched care that children and young people have the best chance to form more adaptive representations of themselves and others, and approach life and relationships in a more functional and self-promoting way.

Pearce, C (2016) A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder (Second Edition). London: JKP

If you took something useful away from this article, please consider liking it and making a comment. I am interested to read what other behaviours you would like me to turn my mind to.

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Why does my child lie?

Lying is not necessarily evidence of a character flaw or lack of connection with reality. Children and young people who are recovering from a tough start to life due to abuse and neglect lie for self-protection. Such is their profound insecurity about their worth and the accessibility and responsiveness of adults in a caregiving role, they lie to preserve connection and avoid exacerbating pervasive feelings of shame.

Lying reflects the child or young person’s desire to desire to make and maintain relational connection with others and be viewed in a positive light. As such, lying is not evidence of antisocial tendencies. Nevertheless, lying is self-defeating as it can perpetuate the feeling of being beyond the genuine approval of others. As a result, the child or young person struggles to truly realise a positive sense of self.

For children and young people who are recovering from a tough start to life, lying comes from a place of shame and insecurity. As such, disapproval and sanctions for lying only exacerbate the reasons for lying and perpetuate the behaviour.

We need to be realistic. Most people lie, sometimes. However, if we wish to reduce this self-defeating behaviour we need to help the child or young person achieve and maintain a more positive sense of self and relational security.

When interacting with the child or young person who lies often, acknowledge their experience with your words and projected emotion, respond to their needs, and leave them feeling competent and worthy. The child or young person who has a healthy sense of their worth and feels secure about their relationships with others has less need of lying. They regulate their behaviour in consideration of their worth and relationships. You will know you are getting somewhere when they begin to take responsibility where previously they might have lied.

If you took something useful away from this article, please consider liking it and making a comment. I am interested to read what other behaviours you would like me to turn my mind to.

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Why does my child smile when I am angry?

Smiling when you are angry is not necessarily a sign that the child or young person in your care is feeling self-satisfied and smug. Many children and young people who are recovering from a tough start to life due to abuse and neglect are unsettled by heightened emotion in adults. For them, it is associated with something bad happening. From an early age infants smile in order to induce positive connection and emotion in others. The Still Face Experiments show that infants will smile in order to regulate connection and responsiveness from their caregivers. Viewed in this way, smiling may very well reflect an instinctive behaviour that serves to induce positive emotions and care from adults. Far from feeling self-satisfied, the child or young person is feeling unsafe and smiling is an instinctive reaction and strategy for relieving anxiety and restoring feelings of wellbeing by regulating you.

At other times (and, perhaps, at the same time), children and young people who are recovering from a tough start to life really are satisfied when you you are angry at them. They crave the feeling of being understood in relation to their experience. If they are angry and successfully make you angry, they feel understood and acknowledged in their experience. They also feel able to influence the emotions (and, hence, behaviours) of others, which is profoundly reassuring.

As referred to in previous blogs in this series about messy rooms and destroying their belongings, it is important to understand and respond to the real reason for behaviours of concern. Only then will the child or young person feel heard and regulate their actions in consideration of their worth and their relationship with you.

If you accept what I have laid out above, you will see that smiling is the child or young person’s way of feeling safe and understood; notwithstanding that their behaviour appears counter-intuitive and self-defeating. Remember from my previous post about destroyed belongings, need trumps reason. The child or young person may always smile when others are angry, but we should see this not as a signs of self-satisfaction or smugness, but as relating a need to feel safe and heard in relation to their experience.

So, support them to feel competent through games and other activities and acknowledging their experience in your words, actions, and shared emotions. In time you might expect to see them as less preoccupied with controlling the emotions of others and more likely to facilitate understanding of their experience through the words that they use to communicate about themselves.

The CARE Curriculum

If you took something useful away from this article, please consider liking it and making a comment. I am interested to read what other behaviours you would like me to turn my mind to.

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Why do my kids destroy their belongings?

Destruction of their clothes, toys and other belongings is not necessarily a sign of ingratitude or disrespect. Many children who are recovering from a tough start to life due to abuse and neglect are mistrustful of receiving nice things and experience them as incongruent with their perception of their own worth and deservedness. They are unsettled by inconsistency, including in their experience of adults in a caregiving role. They may break or damage their belongings in the pursuit of consistency and, also, to reduce the likelihood of them being taken by others. Their apparent lack of care for their belongings reflects a lack of attachment to them, in anticipation that they will be lost.

A mentioned in my previous post titled Why is my child’s room always messy?, the above paragraph reflects the importance of approaching the care of children and young people who have experienced a tough start to life in thoughtful and intentional manner. None of us do anything for no reason, and until we address a child or young person’s reasons we are likely to continue to see the behaviour.

The behaviours we are concerned about are generally the child or young persons way of satisfying a need that they are preoccupied with. A preoccupation with needs arises in (prior) caregiving arrangements where there has been inadequate needs provision, especially during the early developmental period. In the case of destroying their belongings, the child or young person is pursuing consistency in their experience; of themselves, of others, and their world.

A statement I often use is ‘needs trump reason‘, by which I mean the child or young person is more likely to satisfy a need ahead of thinking about their actions and consequences that flow from our disapproval. What looks unreasonable and self-defeating in our eyes is a source of comfort and reassurance for the child or young person. Consistency is calming, and this is especially important among children and young people who are prone to uncomfortable emotions and other sensations as a result of a history of recurrent and poorly relieved distress.

Successfully addressing behaviours of concern involves turning one’s mind to the reasons for the behaviour, responding to the reasons, and keeping an eye out for signs of success in your endeavours. In the case of destroying their belongings, this might be seen as part of a child or young person’s endeavour to achieve consistency in their experience. We can respond to this by enriching their experience of consistency through developing and maintaining routines and rituals, especially in relation to caregiving practices and one-to-one time. If you already have many routines and rituals and/or are having difficulty thinking about how to enrich the child or young person’s experience of consistency, make a list of all the things that happen sometimes in your home. Can any of these be turning into a consistent routine or ritual?

Success in your endeavours is likely to be reflected by the child or young person showing more care towards their belongings (and themselves).

The CARE Curriculum

If you took something useful away from this article, please consider liking it and making a comment. I am interested to read what other behaviours you would like me to turn my mind to.

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Why is my child’s room always messy?

Messy bedrooms are not necessarily evidence of a chaotic mind or wilful disobedience. For children who are recovering from a tough start to life due to abuse and neglect or other forms of hardship, it can be a sign that they struggle to feel secure about what they have, and that they need to see their possessions in order to feel reassured that their needs are understood and important, and that they are loved and worthy.

The paragraph reflects one of the central tenets of my work with children and young people who are recovering from adversity; the requirement that we approach the caregiving role mindfully and intentionally, considering not only the behaviour we can see but also the reason why the child or young person is doing it. This is necessary because until such time as the child or young person feels sufficiently acknowledged and responded to in relation to the real reasons why they do what they do, they will continue to struggle to feel truly heard, cared for, and worthy. The consequences of this is an ongoing preoccupation with their needs and coercive behaviours to reassure themselves about their access to those things that represent that they are loved and worthy of care.

If you accept this and are willing to try an alternative approach to addressing the issue of messy bedrooms, try using shelving to display the items that are important to the child or young person in your care, and open racks (and shelving) for clothes instead of closed cupboards or drawers. I anticipate that in time this will lead to a tidier bedroom and, perhaps, a calmer home.

If you took something useful away from this article, please consider liking it and making a comment. I am interested to read what other behaviours you would like me to turn my mind to.

If you would like to make a small donation in support of me producing this blog, please consider buying me a coffee.

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Attentional factors and attachment security

We all live our life moving between two worlds.

In one world, we experience ourselves, others, and our world in a positive way. We notice more of the good things when we are there.

In the other world, we experience ourselves, others and our world in a negative way. We notice more of the bad things when we are there.

The difference from person to person is how much time we spend in each world, and the consequences in terms of our feelings, actions, and choices.

Ideally, we spend as much time as possible living where we experience ourselves, others, and our world in a positive way.

It helps to notice the things that remind us we are in a good place.

What do you notice about yourself, others, and your world when you are in a good place?

You: _______________________________________

Others: ____________________________________

My world : _________________________________

Write your answers and put them somewhere you will see them each day.

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What is the distinctive atmosphere or quality that you project in your role?

A quick Google search reveals that aura can be defined as the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a person, thing, or place (Oxford Languages).

In my work, I am particularly interested in the therapeutic benefits of relational connection and what it is about a person, be they professional or lay, that makes them therapeutic to others.

In a sense, I write about the aura of a therapeutic person, without using the term that is typically steeped in mysticism.

So, if we think about what is the distinctive atmosphere or quality that seems to surround and be generated by a [therapeutic] person, I think that the answer lies in the letters that make the word, particularly as is reflected in my work.

Firstly, the ‘A’ refers to accessible. The therapeutic person is there for others, such that they feel supported.

The ‘U’ refers to understanding. The therapeutic person understands the experience of others, such that they feel acknowledged.

The ‘R’ refers to responsive. The therapeutic person responds to the experience of others, such that they feel worthy.

The second ‘A’ refers to attuned. The therapeutic person is emotionally-connected and empathic towards others, such that they feel togetherness.

AURA: Accessible, Understanding, Responsive, Attuned.

There is one more quality that I consider is vital here: consistency. It makes a difference if a person is consistently accessible, understanding, responsive, and attuned, or not. Consistency supports an experience of the therapeutic person being always accessible, understanding, responsive, and attuned, such that their therapeutic qualities can can be depended upon.

The CARE Curriculum supports people to be more aware of their aura (as defined above) and a methodology for projecting a therapeutic aura.

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