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Be calm. Be confident. Be compassionate.

March 21, 2016

I think I finally get it.  Or at least, I’m getting it in a deeper way.  In a whole-body, brain and heart, I can feel it in my bones kind of way.

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In the past few weeks, I’ve have the opportunity to experience first-hand some extremely dysregulated behavior in my office.  In two circumstances, I couldn’t do anything except stay calm and wait.  In a third, I could have chosen a different path (the situation was a bit more contained and I had more power than in the other two circumstances, which were much more vulnerable), but didn’t.  I fully embrace the truth that I am not triggered by a dysregulated child in the same way that a parent would be.  I don’t feel as wary.  I don’t have the same level of attachment involved, which always muddies the waters.  But I think it’s because of these very facts that I was able to maintain the clarity that allowed for this profound knowing to take place.

When children with attachment trauma become extremely dysregulated, enter the red zone, have a down-stairs brain tantrum, we are witnessing a pocket of their disorganized attachment.  I can feel this in my body.  Their nervous system becomes so distressed, so dysregulated, so disorganized.  You can hear this in their tone of voice, see it in their eyes.  Knowing I am seeing their disorganized attachment coming through brings me so much calmness.  So much compassion.  So much sadness.  So much clarity about what I need to do.

The very thing a disorganized system expects is to be met with what led to the disorganization in the nervous system.  It expects anger.  Fear.  Threats.  Dysregulation.  When we meet the pocket of disorganized attachment with the EXACT OPPOSITE, change happens.

When your child is throwing a chair, or a rock…screaming at you….spitting at you (all of these have happened to me recently).  When they suddenly behave as though they have to protect themselves from you by allowing their FIGHT response to surge forward, what they need is your calm presence.  Your strong presence.  Your confidence that you can handle this situation with a calm and compassionate stance.  Your commitment to loving even their parts that are hardest to love.  Your knowing that THIS is not who your child really is…this is just a terrified, disorganized pocket.

When you stand calm, confident, and compassionate eventually you invite your child into connection. This is a fact I have known and embodied for many years now.  What I have known for years, but only truly embodied in the past several weeks, is the truth that it is this calm, confident, and compassionate self that is laying one brick in the foundation of your child’s secure attachment.  New research in the field of memory reconsolidation PROVES that when your nervous system is expecting one thing (an angry, frightening, or frightened caregiver) and it is met with the opposite (a calm, confident, and compassionate caregiver) that THIS is the magic key.  This unexpected surprise– a disconfirming experience– actually unlocks and CHANGES a small portion of the disorganization in your child.

This must be done over and over and over again.  I wish that weren’t the truth.  I wish that this only needed to happen once. But your child didn’t have ONE experience that created a disorganized attachment system.  Your child had many.  Hundreds.  Thousands?  So many new experiences are required.  Luckily, they provide us with many opportunities. Our hurting children are so smart to continue to provide opportunities for a disconfirming experience.

Calm.  Confident.  Compassionate.  Not “lacking boundaries” or “giving in to everything your child wants.”  In every episode I can think of in my office, the disorganized behavior erupted after a limit was set.  In every case, we (the child’s parents and I) did not waiver on the limit.  We did stay calm, confident, and compassionate.  We freely and eagerly offered the opportunity to repair because the intensity of the shame that comes forward after an episode of dysregulation is usually powerful.  Because dysregulated individuals need to know that all parts of them are welcomed and loved.  We offered a drink.  Because I know I’m thirsty after releasing so much intense energy.  I promised the child I’d see them the next week and when I saw them again, I welcomed them with such genuine gladness to be reunited…another opportunity for a disconfirming experience.  I hold no residue of the trauma because I do not take it personally (it’s never personal…even when it is).

The infrequent experiences I have with severe dysregulation and disorganization- the level that truly strips me of all potential opportunities to intervene and forces me to just stay calm, confident, and compassionate- cannot compare to the constant dysregulation that you experience in your home.  I get it.  Secure attachment is born of 33% attunement.  33% rupture.  33% repair.  You won’t be able to stay calm, confident, and compassionate in every situation.  You’re going to get triggered.  You’re going to yell or be scary to your child.  This is an opportunity to repair.  Repair is another non-negotiable ingredient in secure attachment, and it is only through rupture that we are provided the opportunity to repair.  I am grateful for ruptures.  I am grateful that I can encourage you to aim for 33% attunement.  33% of the time you can stay calm, confident, and compassionate in the face of dysregulation.  Meet your child’s disorganized attachment with your calm, confident, and compassionate secure attachment.  And lay another brick- knowing that you are truly changing and rebuilding their disorganized attachment system.

~

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Join us in Austin on April 29 & 30 for our 3rd annual retreat for struggling parents raising challenging children- EMPOWER, EMBRACE, EMERGE.

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.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. March 21, 2016 11:15 am

    Great article, Robyn! So much truth, and I can testify this is THE BEST way to respond. As a mother who did not raise children with extreme trauma, but rather, 3 healthy active boys without a father, I had my challenges. This technique of responding in Calmness is effective in so many other situations, i.e. Marital, work, friendships, familial. Thanks for sharing!

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