This story is the first from a series written on behalf of a mom who placed her children at IACD years ago. She writes from a place of love as a woman who has endured the feelings of love and loss after adopting children with reactive attachment disorder. Her boys are now grown men. These are her reflections and memories, from life experiences and the wisdom that time bestows. And from a place of frailty that only a parent can know.
(The author has used pseudonyms for the protection and privacy of her children.)
They were lost in the sea of small bodies; squeezed in about low tables for the afternoon snack. The staff person at Child Haven (cottages that housed abused and neglected children taken into state custody) escorted us to meet the two brothers who were to become our foster children.
My husband and I maneuvered our way between rows of toddlers still napping. Billy, 3, and Todd, 2, sat by themselves at a table munching on saltines. We squatted down to sit with them. I had a story to read. Immediately Billy snatched the book from my hand and insisted, “I’ll read it.” Meanwhile, Todd gave me a coy look and sparkling smile, his blond locks falling about his round face. He pointed down to his untied shoelaces; stretching his little foot toward me, he beckoned: “Tie this.”
At age 2, Todd had already mastered the art and purpose of “superficial charm”. He knew instinctively the looks, facial expressions, words and gestures necessary to cast his spell upon the adults in his life and get them to do what he wanted. It was a matter of survival and in that simple exchange my heartstrings were being lined up to be strummed.
Charm Disguised as Love
By the time our sons were ages 4 and 5, we had adopted them. Yet, it took me years to understand the dysfunction of this dynamic.
It is the “superficial” part of superficial charm that is difficult for a parent to decipher with a child who has reactive attachment disorder.
As parents, it’s natural to fall in love with our babies. It is their cute innocence that draws us in and even makes us proud to show them off. Babies enjoy being cute and charming because it puts a smile on the parent’s face and the baby wants the affections of the parent.
What I took too long to decipher was that Todd’s version of charm was superficial because its sole purpose was to control and manipulate me. In most cases, he was not motivated by any desire for authentic connection. Because the nature of being charmed is so insidious, it is important to remember that the charm of children with healthy attachment may look similar to those of children with disrupted attachment. However, the motivation underneath is frequently very different.
It was a painful loss for me to come to terms with this reality. I felt like I had been tricked for years by my own children.
I perceived the charm as a means of forging a playful bond with my adoptive sons. More often than not, I was being used like an object, exploited for the goods and services I provided. When I began to understand the implications of superficial charm, I felt disoriented and suspect of exchanges that I had previously enjoyed.
Indeed, even as my now adopted sons are nearing adulthood, I find my tender heart is still vulnerable to being deceived in these relationships.
Learning to Avoid the Deceitful Traps of Attachment Disorder
When I began to understand the nuances of this superficial charm, I was determined to avoid the traps. It was a turning point for me. I began to understand that children who suffered from abuse and neglect during the first two years of life develop adaptations for survival. Superficial charm is an adaptation which helps babies survive. They had to adapt this behavior to get their needs met. With the help of clinicians, I began to see that each time my child was able to use superficial charm to control and manipulate me or other adults he was staying stuck in an unhealthy understanding and experience of relationship.
I used different parenting strategies to address the trappings of superficial charm. While I would still be playful and light-hearted in response to my child’s charm, I would be careful not to let my child’s superficial charm be the motivation behind him getting what he wants or what he was trying to control or exploit. Instead, rewards would come from his interacting in a respectful, responsible, and reciprocal manner. For instance, joining the family in recreational activity or completing chores with a positive attitude. The key is giving the child opportunities to practice getting his needs met by depending on and valuing relationships instead of manipulating them.
It was not easy coming to terms with the truth behind my child’s charm. However, learning and understanding the possible unconscious motivations for the behavior helped build patience and empathy into my parenting. If I had more knowledge and understanding of attachment disorder even before I stepped into Child Haven, I might have been able to handle issues differently.
I share this parenting journey with the hope that I can become a part of the growing and learning of other parents. You may be where I was when I began this journey. I remember how it felt to feel my heart torn between the tender feelings of loss and love, all at once. You are not alone.
Learn more about the dynamics of attachment disorder and how to cope as a parent. Visit our video page and invite Forrest to speak to your parent group or organization.
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