Beyond the books - Blindsided by attachment


Siobhan Rowe
Focus on Adoption magazine

Aleisha and Garry Jenkins adopted their first child, Sadie, as a newborn from the US. Two years later, they approached the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), hoping to adopt two older children. They were surprised when the MCFD proposed a sibling group of two: Elliot, a little boy of 18 months, and his sister, Maya, three years old. Though they didn’t expect such young children, the couple pursued the adoption.

The Ministry social worker intimated that Maya had received, “less than stimulating care” in the first of her two foster homes. Though Aleisah and Gary never received a full explanation for this, they quickly came to believe that it was extremely poor care indeed. Elliot had been in one foster home, which, though rather chaotic, was loving. Before the adoption, the children had been reunited in this home.

As soon as Gary and Aleisha met Maya, they knew that she would present the biggest challenge. On their first trip alone to a mall with the kids during a pre-placement visit, she tried to run away several times. She set the alarm off in the elevator and caused a missing child panic, which involved the entire store being closed.

Things didn’t improve much when they finally bought the children home. Though Elliot settled in fairly easily, Maya was a different matter. She resisted all requests to comply with the few simple rules of the house; she was aggressive with her brother and sister, and broke their toys.

Bedtime was a nightmare. Maya regressed in her toileting, to the extent that she would simply go on the floor, right outside the bathroom. Issues over food were huge. “Sometimes she refused to eat whatever we put in front of her, even though we knew she liked it,” says Aleisha. “Then one minute she would eat a huge meal, and 10 minutes later she’d say she was starving. She was obsessed with food.”

Aleisha remembers that, at the time, the MCFD social worker advised her to follow the structure at the foster home, at least at first. “There wasn’t any structure to follow!” she exclaims. As well as the extremely difficult behaviour, Maya did not show affection and was not willingly receive it. Though she didn’t mind touching hands, she would never hold hands. When she hugged, it was hard and aggressive; she hugged people indiscriminately, and had no understanding of rudimentary personal safety.

Though Aleisha and Gary had done all the recommended reading, attended courses and met lots of adoptive parents, they were devastated at the chaos in their new family. Three years later, as Aleisha recounts their story, her voice is full of emotion, especially when she recalls herself behaving like the parent she had never wanted to be - one that shouted at her kids and used threats to control them.

After four months, Aleisha was desperate. Not only had Maya not formed an attachment to her, she had not formed one to Maya; in fact, she says, she didn’t like her. She wasn’t sure what she needed, but when the social workers suggested that perhaps the placement of Maya just wasn’t working out, she knew that she didn’t want it to disrupt. Instead she said, “Just get us some help.”

That came in the form of a Behaviourist. For the first few visits, Celia, the Behaviourist, just came over and watched the kids and Aleisha - thankfully she had an instant rapport with the children. Celia helped Aleisha track and notice patterns of behaviour, and to identify what was triggering problems with Maya. Though this was a trying process, Aleisha says it was invaluable.

As a result of this work, Celia taught Aleisha the skill of non-verbal redirection. When the kids were jumping on the sofa for instance, rather than talk, she would simply go in and take them off the sofa - again and again and again. The idea is that actions speak louder than words, because words often escalate the problem. Aleisha laughs, “Kids can’t tune you out when you are not saying anything.”

The house didn’t go completely silent. But when Aleisha did need to speak to the kids over a problem behaviour, she talked positively.“I would ask her to put her toys away. Rather than argue when she didn’t, I would say, ‘We’re out in the garden having fun. Come out and join us when you put those toys away.’ “It’s not about changing the child. It’s about how you react to behaviour in a positive way. It’s about rephrasing things and always having the child with you,” explains Aleisha.

Time-outs were never used - on the basis that isolating a child who already feels unattached is not the right thing to do. Instead, Aleisah bought three little floor mats. If a child, usually Maya, was out of control she would be asked to sit on the mat close to Aleisha. When she calmed down Aleisha would remind her of the rules in the house and ask her to repeat them. The mats worked well and had the advantage of being mobile. The kids did not want them taken out at someone else’s house!

Celia had warned that there would be no instant results and she was correct. Resisting this new regime, Maya would up the ante and behave even worse—after all, all she had learned before was how to get attention by pushing peoples’ buttons. Aleisha recalls that Maya had no concept that when you get hurt you go to Mommy. She describes her falling over and just sitting alone, not even crying. She also remembers how fascinated she was with babies, particularly if they were being breastfed and that she had a tough time accepting that she was ever a baby.

It took around 18 months to see a big improvement. Now Maya looks to her parents for help, is clearer about boundaries with other people, accepts the routines of the family, and is also able to show a little more affection—though this is still limited. She now actually talks to her mom and dad, asks questions and answers them—though it can still take a bit of prompting. Aleisha says Maya is far less defiant and far less stressed. When things get too much though, Maya does regress.

Aleisha knows that there is still much work to do, but feels far more equipped to do it now. She recalls the night she tucked the kids in, and felt the same level of feeling for Maya, as she did for the other children. She describes how she can now take all three kids swimming, and Maya will shout over to her, “Watch me Mom! Watch me!”

Aleisha enjoys the time she has alone with Maya, and Maya does too. Aleisha took Celia’s advice to keep a journal during this time. “It not only helped me write down how I was feeling, it also reminded me, as time went on, how far we had come.”

As far as advice for other parents facing similar problems, Aleisha has three words, “Get professional help.” She finishes by saying that if she hadn’t done so, Maya may not be with the family now.

(Names in this article have been changed.)