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Connecting With Your Disorganized Child

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By Jamie Roach

What do you do when your child clings to your leg when you drop them off at daycare and then take a swipe at you when you pick them up? How are you supposed to know how to respond when it feels like your teen is beckoning you closer with one hand while pushing you away with the other?

This is the third and final post in our series on attachment strategies children employ to deal with anxiety. In May, we talked about the “anxious or clingy child” who tends to hold tightly to their parents and avoid separation. In June, we covered the “withdrawn child,” who tends to withdraw in an attempt to not be “too much” for others to hold. And finally, this month, we will look at the child whose strategy is the only one designated as “disorganized.” The research has given us this label because, unlike the first two, it is unpredictable. One minute the child may seek connection by being clingy and the next by withdrawing.

There are a few important things to remember as you parent a child employing disorganized connection strategies. First, keep in mind that these strategies are in service of their desire to deeply connect with others and gain a felt sense of safety, which is hardwired into every person. Second, understand that these impulses are happening at a non-conscious level. Your child is not thinking, “I will get my parent’s attention by _____________.” Rather, it is a reaction learned outside of the child’s conscious awareness. It is helpful to remember that the intent of the strategy is to gain a sense of connection, safety, and support, even when its impact ends up being detrimental and does not work.

If you have a child whose behavior appears chaotic, swinging from one extreme to the other, please be kind to yourself. I imagine it feels like you have been run over by a bulldozer and abandoned at the same time. I imagine your mind is confused and your heart is hurting. Perhaps you are feeling anxious and worried. All of these feelings and experiences make it very difficult to parent well. So again, the best advice I can give you is to be patient with yourself and show yourself all the grace and kindness bestowed upon you by the God who loves you and sustains you.

If any of these feelings sound familiar, why not pause right now and take two minutes to do this brief exercise. Place your hand over your heart and imagine the God who is love holding you, loving you, accepting you just as you are. Then name exactly what it is you are feeling inside, whisper it softly. Now can you remind yourself that there is no greater challenge than parenting, especially parenting a child whose inner world feels chaotic. There is nothing wrong with you, you are just facing a tremendous challenge (read that last sentence again). Finally, take a couple of moments to speak to yourself with kindness. Show yourself the same care you would a good friend or someone else you love deeply.

Now notice how you feel. Perhaps you are feeling a bit more peaceful? Perhaps you have a greater sense of God’s Spirit supporting you? Now from that place of greater inner peace consider these tips for connecting with your child.

 

Tips for connecting with the child whose attempts at connection are disorganized/chaotic.

  1. Tune in. Feeling seen and understood by you organizes their internal experience.
  2. Be consistent and reliable. It provides structure to their collapsed world.
  3. Thread the needle. Pay attention to how your child responds to the space between you. Do your best to draw them close without being overbearing.
  4. Be a private eye. Look for any hint of positive emotional expression.

Presence-centered parenting begins with being present with the One who loves and accepts us unconditionally so that we may be that same accepting and healing presence in the lives of our children just as they are. This truth is especially important to keep in mind when relating to a child that feels especially vulnerable and fragile on the inside. God’s love flowing through you can bring the stability and connection your child’s heart is desperately seeking.

Thanks for following along with this series where we took a look at the different attachment strategies we all use to find safety and connection. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts or any questions you might have.

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