Attachment: Parenting Through the Hard Stuff

April 30, 2015 April/May 2015 Feature Attachment, Attachment, attachment activities, baby-wearing, Theraplay, Trust Based Parenting, working mom 1 Comments

A few weeks ago we read a post on Lauren’s blog and thought it would be an excellent resource to share here. Lauren was gracious enough to allow us to use it. There is so much good stuff, we broke it down into two posts, this is post two, post one is here. Thank you, Lauren, for sharing what you’ve learned in your adoptive attachment journey.


Attaching During Discipline:

Redirecting – My first inclination is to realize kids are kids and sometimes they do things wrong with no malicious intent. My first step is to simply redirect and not even bring attention to what they did wrong and just point to what I want them to do. More times than not if I do not bring attention to what they did wrong they have absolutely no desire to do it again. When redirecting, I say things playfully to diffuse the situation: say in silly voice “Let’s try that again!” or “We don’t need to do that, my baby might get hurt!”

Sharing Power – By giving choices when able to (early on sometimes choices can be too much though).

Grace – My very first response to her doing something wrong – something she knows is wrong – and where a simple redirection will not work, is allowing for grace. I get down on her eye level and place my hand on her shoulder and say in a very sweet and non-threatening way, “Zoey, we don’t throw x at mommy when she asked for you to hand it to me. Want to try to hand it to me nicely?” I then hand it back to her and pray she does what I have asked…ha! Most of the times this typically works but occasionally it doesn’t and I have to step up my game. Or it’s an action like hitting where I need to remove her from the situation immediately.

Back Up Plan – If child throws, won’t put up, won’t go where asked or does something that needs a redo but the child resists redo or “freezes”, I physically do for the child by taking his hand and picking it up and putting where it needs to go (or carrying child etc). Even if he cries, screams, says no, I continue with the desired action and praise him like he did it on his own and then move on “Thank you for putting it up, good listening!” (sometimes he stays mad and hung up that I made him comply but I just distract him and move forward). This models the desired behavior, forces success (even if not truly earned), and avoids a power struggle and feeling like he needs punishment.


Responding to Hitting:

Understanding Why Kids Hit – Children hit out of anxiety and fear. Early on you really have to try to prevent the opportunity from arising by keeping the child close to you whenever possible, and not leaving siblings alone if you know hitting is likely. Whenever you can interject yourself between them when you see the hitting, pinching, etc coming and catch hand then say, “I won’t let you hit ____.” Or “Good job you didn’t hit.” Same if the child is trying to hit a parent. If they still try to keep hitting then take the child to safe spot or thinking spot and hold them, saying “You are having a hard time being gentle, so mommy will help you calm down.”

Time-In – Rather than putting child in timeout, we sometimes put her in time-in. Sometimes that involves a brief period of holding with words like “You may not hit the dog (sibling etc). I will let you down when your body is ready to make wise choices.” The idea is to hold her until she calms down. Sometimes this goes into full blown tantrum so see that section below…

Practice Being Gentle – (Example taken from an attachment website) “At about 26 months, our son started hitting his siblings. No consequence seemed to alleviate the behavior. I started wondering if I should invest in protective padding for the other kids. Fortunately, our attachment psychologist gave us a winning alternativeL She lined up all three kids (ages 9, 8, and 26 months) on a couch. She opened a package of candy Nerds™. She asked the 9yo to practice being gentle to the 8yo. The 9yo lovingly stroked 8yo’s hand. She popped a candy Nerd in 9yo’s mouth. Then, she asked 8yo to be gentle to the 26mo. The 8yo complied and a Nerd was placed in his mouth. As you might guess, by this time, the 26mo’s little mouth was hanging open and he’s stroking everyone’s hands. The psychologist told us to do this multiple times a day. To just stop everything and practice “being gentle.” At which point, of course, a little candy gets popped into the mouth of each person as they take a turn being gentle. In hours, the hitting decreased by 90%.”

Jumping – The child may benefit by jumping on a mini exercise trampoline while repeating, “I will be gentle,” ten times.

Give Sympathy to the Victim – When a child hits, turn to the victim and shower him with sympathy: hugs, kisses, words of condolence, and perhaps even a small treat to make him feel better. Give no attention to the offender.

Demanding Language:

For demanding language or unkind language protests (after home long enough to learn basic words like please, thank you) simply model what the appropriate way to request is. For instance child screams and demands “JUICE!!!” say back “Juice, please.” At first you may have to tell them “Say juice, please” but eventually you just give them the words only and accept even if they only say back “please”.

Temper Tantrums:

This is an excerpt from an attachment website that I printed out and source frequently in the moment.

Note: Some children with attachment problems try to harm themselves during temper tantrums by head banging, hair pulling, self-biting/hitting, etc… If self-harm is an issue for your child, please consult an attachment therapist immediately. Head banging, in particular, can do permanent neurological damage and needs to be addressed immediately.

Understanding the Tantrum – Our kids usually need our help to calm down and regulate so holding them even if in time-in is a great connecting and correcting opportunity. Saying “It’s ok to be mad. Mommy will help you calm down” or “This mommy will never leave you. I love you when you are mad and sad and forever and ever”. Initially they may turn their back to us or try to leave our presence because they don’t feel safe being mad and upset with us. Always follow them and try to stay in view so they know you can handle their big feelings and help them through it. Try to get closer each time as much as they allow, try putting one hand on them, etc. Eventually they will come to you and want you to hold them when mad upset (and that’s a great sign!)

Slow Breathing – Say, “Take a deep breath with Mommy,” and take several slow, deep breaths in a row.

Counting – Pick up the child, count slowly (up to 1 minute per year old), all the while breathing slower and slower as you count. With practice, the child builds an internal way of coping.

Physical Jolt – Because the meltdown is connected to the nonverbal part of the brain, you can sometimes readjust brain focus with a physical activity. Like jump (preferably hard, like from a low couch onto the floor, or on one of those little exercise trampolines – the personal size – with a parent) or run. Dancing to Sesame Street CDs often produces great results.

Inside-Out Stretch Ball – At an attachment workshop I was introduced to an “Inside-Out Stretch Ball” or “Mondo Ball.” The ball is small, made of very soft rubber, and can turn inside out. One side is smooth, the other side has soft rubber spikes. In the middle of a meltdown, I flip it to the spikey side in front of him (a visual, nonverbal representation.) When he calms, I reverse to the smooth side.

Stay Close, Avert Gaze – During a raging meltdown, stand close by, but avert your gaze. Let the rage go. Then look at the child with concern.

Close Time with Mommy – As soon as a sequence of tantrums begins, I know my son is overly anxious and needs to be close to me. I immediately say, “Looks like Johnny needs to be close to Mommy,” and I keep him close in the Ergo until he calms and remains calm for a significant period of time.


Encourage with Choices:

When a child refuses to comply with his parent’s request, the parent can give the child a choice. For example, the parent might tell the child it is time put away his toys. The child refuses. The parent then says, “Would you rather put away your toys right now or would you rather go to your thinking spot and think about putting away your toys?” When he is done thinking about doing the job, he immediately attends to the parent’s original request.

In some cases, the parent is able to preemptively determine that a child is about to make a poor choice. For example, a child might always throw a temper tantrum about getting dressed in the morning. Instead of waiting for the child to make a sad choice (and start the tantrum), you might say, “You are going to get dressed. Would you like to get dressed right now and go pick out your favorite cereal for breakfast, or would you rather sit and think about getting dressed and have Mommy choose your cereal?”

Thinking Spot – My children are always in the same room as me and I never send her away for discipline. We have thinking spots in each room of the house. That way it makes things easier and I do not have to go across the house to make this happen. We are right there and can address it in the same room where the incident happened. Same goes for curbs outside a grocery store or side of the park. I feel like keeping the thinking spot not tied to a specific spot in the house has made it much easier to take this discipline tool outside the house.

Trampoline Jumps – She jumps on the trampoline several times a day, not connected with a behavioral consequence. I read in an attachment book that serotonin is being release via the joint compression in the jumps. One book suggested having the child chant out phrases of whatever they are struggling with as they jump so they associate that “good feeling” with what they are chanting. For example “I will be nice to my brother.”

Anticipating the Anxiety:

I read the following on an attachment website and I thought it explains it perfectly so I just copied and pasted it word for word…

“While my son is playing independently, he becomes very anxious if he doesn’t know where we are and what we’re doing. Something as simple as going to the kitchen to refill my cup can cause a meltdown if he looks up and I’m not where he saw me last.

I’ve found that my son is a lot less anxious when I tell him where I am going and what I am doing. Saying, “Mommy is going in the kitchen to get more water. I will be right back. Mommy always comes back,” causes him to watch me leave and proves to him over and over throughout the day that Mommy always comes back.

I don’t really need to be leaving the room to announce what I’m doing. I often give my son the play by play and he feels safer. For example, just picking things up in the same room causes him to lose track of me and the anxiety kicks in. So to prevent the anxiety from kicking in, I tell my son what I am doing as I do it. “Mommy is going to the closet to get a shirt. Look, Mommy picked a blue shirt to wear. Now Mommy is going to brush her hair.” The safer and less anxious he became the less I needed to give the play by play except for my comings and goings from rooms.

We actually began doing this a few months after our son came home when he didn’t care if I was there or not. By announcing my every move, he began to notice me more and would watch to see what I was doing. Later when he went from avoidant to anxious, my announcements saved us from meltdowns a lot of the time.”


Attachment Ideas When Going Back to Work:

– Let child take attachment lovey to school. Our daughter was extremely attached to an empty bottle. So I worked it out with daycare that she could carry around that empty bottle all day… ha!

– Sleep with a certain blanket every night that your child can take to school each morning to use at naptime every day so that the smell is safe and familiar.

– Laminate a photo of the parent that the child can wear or carry when the parent is gone.

– Make a nametag that says “Mommy” (or “Daddy”). When Mommy leaves, she can ask the child to hold it while she is gone and give it back to her when she returns.

– Make a book that shows parent leaving, working, and then returning.

– Make sure the teacher uses the same phrases that you use at home when playing games like the “slinky game” for example “Mommy goes to work…mommy always comes back”. But make sure they know word for word what you and your child repeat, so the child again has comfort in the familiarity.

– Have a pick up routine. For example every time I see Zoey for the first time at pickup I get down on my knees open my arms really wide and practically yell, “Zoey I am so excited to see you. I have missed you SOOOO MUCH!!” She then runs and hugs me. Four years later that’s still what we do everyday. One day I didn’t do it because I was sidetracked and she made me walk out and come back in and do it “the right way”!

– I always have a snack waiting in the car. I know it is not the best move since dinner will be soon but it will not be soon enough so I give a small nutritious snack like nuts to keep her blood sugar up and going long enough for me to get home and make dinner.

– Make a comic strip – one box for each day that the parent will be gone – to represent the passage of time if overnights are required.

Attachment Checklist:

Below are a couple of great attachment checklists I have found. If you are like me and like to be able to see documented progress I would suggest you printing and filling these out periodically. It is a great way for you to realize how far you have come and also a great way for you to see that you are not making progress in some areas and may need some extra help. 

Infant Attachment Checklist
Child Attachment Checklist

And don’t ever feel bad if you feel like you need outside help. It was completing a checklist like the one below that I realized we needed to start Theraplay for my daughter. Things were going great and we were cruising right along in our attachment when we started the process for another child. After going to Korea and meeting our son, it brought up lots of feelings with my daughter and really set us back on the attachment train. I didn’t realize how bad it set us back until completing a checklist (Keep in mind, this was three years after coming home). It was at that moment I knew I needed extra support and I am so thankful we started Theraplay. If you ever find yourself in this moment I cannot suggest Theraplay enough!

Sources: If I accidentally forgot to source somewhere please let me know. These are just notes I have compiled over the years and not sure I remembered every source – only posting to help other moms. In no way am I trying to take someone else’s information without giving them credit!

A 4Ever Family
Healing with Love and Limits
12 Ways to Build Attachment Empowered to Connect

— photos by Tish Goff


Lauren and her husband Eric live in Birmingham, AL. They have a 4 year old daughter Zoey, home from South Korea in 2011. Currently, the Bush family is in South Korea to bring home their 2 year old son, Atlas.

You can read more about Lauren and her growing family at her blog, How The Bush Grows.

One response to “Attachment: Parenting Through the Hard Stuff”

  1. Michelle McCormick says:

    Sooo good!!! Love me some Karyn Purvis!!! These are great tools to have in our toolbox as we work to build attachment with our little ones from “hard places”!!! Thank you so much for sharing how you are implementing these strategies with your daughter!!! We are in the “waiting” process for our referral and so appreciate all that you have shared about building that trust and attachment as well as how to work through the tantrums, meltdowns etc… Love your momma heart!!!

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