Attachment Disorders – Breaking Things
Attachment issues and an attachment disorder can take place when an infant and/or young child is exposed to an environment of extreme instability, chaos, multiple care providers, neglect, and/or any form of abuse.
The result leads to a skewed and negative view of the world around them. It’s not a choice but rather how their brain becomes formed. That development then has long-lasting effects on how they interact with all relationships both within the family and with others.
Attachment issues are not exclusive for children who have been placed in foster care or up for adoption. I have worked with many adults who have attachment issues due to unstable family dynamics as a child. Also, not all children who are adopted will have attachment issues.
However, many children who are adopted or in the foster care system have attachment issues or a full attachment disorder. Again, this is not a choice but rather how their brain has become wired to view the world.
Where to start
For greater information on what is attachment and attachment disorders please refer to my post Information You Must Know as an Adoptive Parent: A Therapist’s Guide to Attachment Disorders. That really is the necessary starting point to understanding the significant struggles foster children and adoptive children potentially struggle with.
Following that post, I urge you to read When Love is Skewed, which will help you understand how a child with attachment issues views love.
As a Christian mental health therapist, I have worked with hundreds of adopted children and children who have been in the foster care system. It is a topic that God has placed near and dear to my heart! At the same time, these children and stories are the hardest to hear and help. There is always hope but the road is long, winding, and at times met with wrong-turns and lost ways.
It takes a special person and family to take in children and offer love and protection. I truly believe this is a calling from God for some individuals.
What I also have come to experience is there is not nearly enough information and training to help equip adoptive parents and foster parents to understand and care for these children in the ways that they need.
The focus of this post will address another common component of control and that’s breaking things.
The definition of control is the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.
As discussed in a previous post focusing on control, children with attachment issues struggle with greater urges to control the situation around them.
As with anyone else, the desire to control tends to come from feeling out of control in other areas of their lives and/or feeling like they know more than the people around them.
I often hear examples of children with attachment issues breaking items. That’s not a new behavior. Children without attachment issues break things, too. The difference tends to be the intensity and purpose driving the behavior.
Breaking other’s property
Breaking items and aggression tends to come from a place of anger. But anger is not a primary emotion. Meaning it can’t take place by itself. It piggybacks off of a vulnerable emotion of sadness, anxiety, and/or embarrassment.
Children with attachment issues have a wealth of vulnerable emotions that they often don’t feel safe or secure enough to express. The result is a whole lot of anger that has to come out some how.
The method of releasing anger through breaking things can come from modeled behavior, retaliation and/or lack of knowing other options. These behaviors are often not conscious actions. Or at least there isn’t solid understanding of why breaking things provides momentary satisfaction.
Have you ever wadded up a piece of paper and thrown it away? There’s satisfaction in it. That’s obviously a healthier and smaller scale action but the purpose tends to be the same. After I pay bills online, I write a large Pd. on the paper bill and then rip it up before throwing it away. The process brings satisfaction.
Ways to Support
When parents have a toddler in the home they “toddler-proof” the home. It becomes an accepted understanding that the child is going to get into everything. The acceptance helps to decrease the frustration. It’s a season.
The same is true for children with attachment issues who are placed into new environments. It’s a defense mechanism to protect themselves and handle/manage their emotions to the best of their ability. It’s a season. Albeit a bit more unpredictable but a season nonetheless. When there can be acceptance by foster and/or adoptive parents that destruction may occur, it can also help to reduce frustration.
Here are some options to help meet the child where they are but to keep the behavior within healthy boundaries.
- A shred bin – paper that is okay for the child to rip and crumple.
- Bubble wrap – the tactile process of popping the bubbles as well as the sound can feel more destructive than it actually is.
- Keep old clothes that have holes in them or are too worn to give away. Allow the child to rip and/or cut the items.
Breaking their own property
I’ve worked with children who have purposefully ripped or bitten holes in their clothing. Their family and living environments were not stable, healthy, or completely safe. The common theme with each of these children have been control.
One child told me, “If my clothes are too nice, someone will take them.” This child was no longer living in a harsh environment. He had been adopted into a healthy home that was financially sound. No one was going to steal his clothing, but this was still his thought process. He had been in an environment where he had had to learn to ‘rough-up’ his possessions to a point that no one else would want them.
I’ve seen this behavior with toys as well. Children who have endured trauma and struggle with attachment issues will break their own toys soon after receiving them. When questioned, again the theme turns to control.
A different child explained that if he broke the toy it was his choice and easier than if someone else took it, threw it away, or broke it. He had become proficient at guarding his heart because he had learned that if he liked something or became attached to it, someone could use that against him. And he would be hurt again.
Children who struggle with attachment issues often view love through tangible items as opposed to the abstract experience of love. This means they are also attempting to be in control of the love they are receiving. It is easier to be the one to ‘break’ or ‘stop’ love than to have it taken from them.
Ways to Support
I’ve worked with families to help them reinforce the experience of safety for the child. The most important component is to meet the child where they are. It is not that we are wanting these to have to be the solutions forever but if the child’s sense of safety always feels threatened there won’t be any progress either.
Here are some ideas that have helped to reduce the breaking of their own items.
- A toy chest with a padlock that the child has the key to.
- Buy duplicates of some favorite clothing items. (No need for them to be expensive)
- A lock on the closet door. (Make sure it can only be locked from the outside so the child can’t lock themselves in)
I pray that this post helps you to better understand a child who has endured far more than they should.
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