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When the Cycle is Broken…

May 22, 2014

Originally written for and posted on where I have recently been honored to serve on their advisory board.

I remember rocking….rocking….rocking… the denim blue glider that was nestled into the corner of my bedroom, gazing at a sleeping newborn perched on top of a yellow, velour covered Boppy® pillow.  We rocked with each other in loving peacefulness, the only sounds were the creaking of the glider that desperately needed some lubricant and tiny, sweet, breathy newborn exhales.  I remember thinking to myself….knowing enough about children to understand the future of our relationship but so entrenched in the depth of my love for his little perfection…. “I cannot imagine ever have a feeling for him that isn’t pure love and adoration.”  I knew that I would one day feel frustrated, even mad (and believe me, I have) but I truly could not fathom what that would feel like.

My little guy spent hours- wrapped in my arms.  I touched him almost constantly.  I gazed at him with eyes that said “You are perfect.  The love I have for you is practically more than I can bare.”  We rocked and rocked and rocked….either in the rocking chair or just holding him my arms, automatically swaying the same as I do now when his eight-year-old long-legs are wrapped around my waist, or even if I have a baby doll in my arms.  He cried.  I went.  I held. I spoke gently.  I didn’t speak a harsh word, use a harsh tone, look at him with harsh eyes, or even have a harsh thought for literally months.  Every.single.thing he needed he received, almost instantly.  And through that always-repeating cycle of he has a need, I meet that need the foundation was laid for secure attachment.   Through a secure attachment experience he began to develop the capacity for relationship.  His sensory system developed optimally.  His neurochemistry was balanced.  His ability to self-regulate began to bloom.  He began to learn “I am wonderful.  I am worthy of love and attention.  My needs will be met.  I am safe.  I can trust adult.”  And his brain- released from the need to keep himself safe- was able to devote the appropriate amount of energy to developing connections to his prefrontal cortex- the part of his brain that now gives him impulse control, the ability to focus his attention, tolerate frustration, and learn math facts.  Attachment impacts everything.

What about the children who spend their first months in a small plastic crib in the NICU?  Or the babies who are cared for by moms who are too intoxicated to hold or feed them.  Or the toddler in an orphanage who begs for food or sometimes goes days – not minutes but days- without being held.  The newborn who is not met with a loving gaze.  The child whose life is scary, overwhelming, and chaotic.

All children adopted from foster care, the US, or through international adoption have experienced trauma.  At the very “least” (and there is nothing “least” about it) they’ve lost their parents.  They’ve lost familiarity even if the familiarity was scary or neglectful.  They’ve lost the person who looks like them.  They’ve lost the right to grow up with people genetically related to them.  Children in foster care have been taken into protective custody because their parents weren’t able to care for them, and they experienced abuse or neglect.  We now know that it is never accurate to say “He was only neglected- not abused.”  We now know that “only neglect” is profoundly damaging to the developing brain.  Children in neglectful biological families, in foster care, or in an orphanage have had the attachment cycle {he has a need, I meet that need} disrupted, sometimes profoundly.  Even the best orphanage does not have enough caregivers to provide a child with the one-on-one attention that babies and toddler need to thrive.  Just as attachment lays the foundation for optimal development, disrupted attachment impacts a child’s whole being; their sensory processing system, neurochemistry, cognitive functioning, emotional and behavioral regulation, and his self-concept.

Overlooked children may be even more profoundly impacted due to the often negative-stereotypes about infants and children with down syndrome, HIV, or other medical special need.  These children may be more isolated, less nurtured, and more harshly disciplined than other children due to cultural misconceptions about worthiness or communicability.  Children with medical special needs undergo medical treatments and experience pain and discomfort, which can impact the emotional development of a child in even the most optimal conditions.    But challenges related to trauma and attachment are not unique to children with identified medical special needs.  All children adopted after foster or orphanage care have had their attachment cycle damaged.  Once we understand what caused our children’s difficulties (the tantrums, defiance, lying, stealing, shutting-down, manipulation, control, etc.) we can begin to repair the attachment cycle, heal their bodies, calm their brains, and improve their behaviors.


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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Maria permalink
    July 30, 2014 4:05 pm

    I would like to get more information on how to understand the cause of our kids’ difficulties (tantrums, defiance, lying, stealing, shutting-down, manipulation, control, etc.)in order to help them better.

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