June 13, 2011

The Power of Saying Yes- Lessons from the Attachment/Trauma Seminar

It’s been nearly a month since I attended Dr. Karyn Purvis’ attachment and trauma seminar at Summit 7. I’ve worked really hard to incorporate as many new strategies as I could into our daily routine. Some worked, some didn’t. I think the main thing with therapeutic parenting is that you have to do what works for you and your child- what is one family’s magic bullet, may be one family’s stressful trigger point.


There are a few things that I learned there that I think are very universal for all families. The main thing is something that Dr. Purvis calls “getting in yeses.”

A newborn who is born into a family who wants him and takes loving care of him child hears an average of several thousand “yeses” before they get to toddlerhood. Baby is hungry and cries and mom comes to him and by feeding him, is essentially saying, “Yes! I hear you! I know you are hungry and I will take care of that need!” A baby that is tired cries and by mom rocking him to sleep while singing songs, she essentially says, “Yes! I hear you crying! I want to love on you and put you to sleep!” A baby who is lonely cries and by mom coming to him and playing with him and giving him attention and eye contact, she essentially says, “Yes! You are so precious and adored! I want to spend time with you and show you how valuable you are!”

Babies are hardwired to need adults every two hours (when they get hungry). If that need is met, that baby’s sense of self and his place in the family and in the world is established. After a couple of years of having constant needs and having those needs met , that child has had two years of continuous reassurance that he is loved and valued and safe. So when that same darling little baby, at two years of age, tries to stick something in the outlet and mom shouts out “NO!” he might be angry, but he still knows that mom is safe and that he is still loved even though he’s been told no. His sense of self and his place in the family is not shattered because he has years of positive responses “in reserve”.

Now- take the child who has lived in an orphanage or on the street. He has not heard “Yes.” He has never been made to feel valuable by knowing that someone cares enough to meet his needs. After only 30 days of not having his needs met, a newborn baby will stop crying when he is hungry. Thirty days is all it takes for a baby to determine that he can not rely on someone to meet his needs.

When we bring these children into our homes, we have to be understanding of how profound this sense of self reliance can be. We have to be patient when helping them assimilate into our families. Creating a culture where a child feels safe enough to be reliant on another takes time, creativity and the patience of a saint. Dr. Purvis says that one of best ways to do this is to make a concerted effort to get as many yeses in every day as you can. We have (sometimes) years of making up for all those yeses that our children never heard. For me, this is one of the hardest things that I do all day. For example:

Miles comes to me and wants a snack. It is not snack time. He is not truly hungry and it is almost dinner time. In no way is he going to get a snack out of me. Instead of saying to him, “No. It is not snack time. Go play.” It is better to say, “Yes! Of course you can have a snack! As soon as dinner is over!” Turn the natural no into a yes. It goes against our gut to say yes when we really mean no, but in our children’s mind, they just need the affirmation that eventually that need/want/desire will be met .

Often times, as adoptive parents, we forget that even the smallest amount of neglect and/or abuse can have a long and lasting impression on a child. We tend to believe the old adage that love is enough and that once these children from hurt places have a family that they will simply forget all the old feelings that they have.

Dr. Purvis gave an example of a scientific study done on 5 month old babies. A stranger came in the room and stood in front of the baby’s faces and would not smile. The stranger remained stoic even when the babies cooed, laughed, cried and tried everything they could to engage the stranger. This encounter lasted only 2 minutes then the stranger left. 15 months later, when those same babies were 20 months old they were shown a slide show of different people’s faces. When the stranger’s face (who had acted disengaged before) came up in the slideshow, the baby’s became visibly upset. Many of them turned their heads, some cried, some even gagged and choked because the image created so much stress in them. In this instance, there was no abuse or neglect- simply a failure to connect. Now imagine the impact that adding trauma, abuse and neglect add into that equation!? The power of making important connections for children from birth is HUGE!

For me, it was a wake up call in not only parenting therapeutically, but in parenting from a place of understanding. So many times we expect our children who are adopted from hard places to just fall into our families and forge those connections and they don’t know how. While it is so easy to get angry and frustrated (which is almost always my gut reaction) the response needs to come from a place of empathy and understanding. We wouldn’t adopt a child with no arms and expect them to come home and be able to swing across the monkey bars. So why do we adopt children and expect them to know how to love and be connected when they don’t always have the tools to be able to do it?

Attending the seminar was so valuable for me. I still struggle with my reactions to many of my child’s behaviors, but I at least recognize when I am not appropriate. Many times as parents, who are parenting any type of special needs, we need to take a step back, re-evaluate and reassemble the big picture. They need us to remember that those early years before they came to us have a bigger impact than we can always know or understand. Our children deserve that from us. They deserve our “yeses”. They need our actions to remind them that “Yes. I see you. Yes. I hear you. Yes. I will take care of you. Yes. I adore you.” Even when it’s hard. Even when it hurts. Even when it’s not easy. Get your yeses in.

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