Rethinking Control, Part 5: Giving Away Control to Meet the Needs of Children with Attachment Difficulties

Throughout this series about rethinking control, I’ve written about how you’re completely in control of yourself and nothing else. This includes your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. When you have a skewed understanding of what you can and cannot control, you may find yourself dealing with anger. One of the things that you cannot control, and which often causes anger, is your child, and your child’s thoughts feelings and behavior. All you can control is yourself, which may not seem like much, but there are, in fact, many things even within yourself that you can control.

Today, as we conclude this series (some of you are relieved), I will be turning a lot of what I’ve written about on its head. Once you’ve come to a firm understanding of what you can and can’t control, and once you’ve truly controlled that which you actually can, you are then capable of willingly giving away that control.

This may take some explaining, so bear with me.

My fourteen-year-old adopted son could be described as demanding. He seems to always be yelling for someone to bring him a drink, scratch his feet, come watch this video, or take him to do something fun. Usually, there isn’t a “please” attached to the demand, and if the demand is met, there often isn’t a “thank you” in response.

Like many of you, I grew up believing that adults wouldn’t or shouldn’t do anything for you unless you asked nicely. If you were whiny or demanding, you didn’t get what you wanted. However, if you just changed your tone and your word choice (even if you still felt whiny or demanding), you were a hell of a lot more likely to get your way.

(When I type it out like that, it sounds like we’re just training our kids how to be manipulative. I mean, we call “please” the Magic Word, for Pete’s sake!)

When I first became a parent, and when my son first began demanding instead of requesting (with foster care, there’s often that “honeymoon period” when everyone, including the parents, is on their best behavior), I felt it was my duty to require pleases, thank-yous, and an overall respectful tone. After all, I didn’t want my new son–who was already thirteen when he came to us–to grow up to be a total asshole.

But, in the time since, I’ve changed my policy on that, as well as pretty much everything else I thought I knew about parenting. Now, as much as possible, I try to say yes to my son’s requests and meet his demands, even when he doesn’t say please, even when he’s disrespectful, even when I’m busy, and even when the request is outrageously ridiculous.

If you were to observe the way my son seems to command me around the house, you’d probably think that he’s in complete control and is taking advantage of me. Perhaps you’d think I’m afraid of him getting angry or withholding love if I say no. At the very least, you’d call me a pushover or a welcome mat.

That’s where you’d be wrong though.

My son doesn’t control me with his demands; I control myself and choose to meet his demands. My son doesn’t take advantage of me; I freely give advantage to him.

I am completely capable of saying no to my son, and I often do, even when I know I really ought to say yes. Although I may look like a marionette with my son manipulating the strings, the reality is that I still have complete autonomy in every situation.

When a child makes a demand, they are expressing a perceived need, even if that perceived need is really more of a want. This can be difficult for parents to see when nastiness or ungratefulness accompany the demand, but it’s important to recognize that they’re making that demand because there’s something they feel they lack and they believe you can help them with that.

We’re much more forgiving of demanding behavior from infants. Babies cry when they need something. We don’t require them to say please or thank you or use a respectful tone before we meet their need; we just meet the need. This is because we understand that making polite and reasonable requests is not a skill that babies have.

Older children who come from troubled backgrounds can lack many important skills, such as the ability to request things of adults in a respectful manner. However, when these older children express their needs in a way that doesn’t make us feel good, we often refuse to meet their needs until they express themselves according to our standards.

If you’re raising a child with a history of abuse or neglect, I hope there are alarm bells ringing in your head.

According to the cycle of attachment (see below), children attach to their parents when the child expresses a need and the parent meets the need. Ideally, this attachment is built and fortified during infancy, when a baby cries and the parent soothes the baby by meeting its needs.

attachment+cycle+crop

Children who have been adopted or are in foster homes at an older age still need to attach to their new parents according to the same cycle. However, it seems to me that we’re less willing to meet those needs if a child isn’t able to express them in a way we deem socially acceptable.

Please understand that I hate it when my son makes demands of me in a disrespectful manner, and it takes all my strength to meet his needs anyway because I feel like he’s trying to control or manipulate me.

It’s in these moments that I have to ask myself a crucial question: What’s more important: that my son expresses his needs in a way that makes me feel respected, or that my son has his needs met consistently and learns that he can trust Dad to take care of him?

It’s usually game-set-match for me after that.

As foster/adoptive parents, I believe that it’s our job to meet our children’s needs (and perceived needs) as much as possible, regardless of their ability to communicate their needs to us respectfully. This is a critical way to build attachment with our children.

Of course, there’s a time and a place for teaching kids how to express themselves respectfully and also how to handle being told no, but these should be secondary to teaching our kids that they can trust Mom and Dad to meet their needs.

Like I mentioned above, this requires us to give away some of the control that should otherwise be rightly ours. Most parents would maintain that you don’t have to go above and beyond to meet your kids’ demands if they’re being brats about it. You totally have the power to say no to any request that is not made respectfully.

But for kids who struggle with attachment, this may not be the best course of action. These kids need parents who will give away control for their kids’ sake. If you’re raising a child like this, don’t think of them as demanding brats who are just trying to control you or manipulate you into giving them what they want; think of them of sweet babies expressing their needs as best as they can.

For what it’s worth, the more I’ve focused on meeting my son’s needs regardless of whether he expresses them respectfully, the more he’s been saying “please” and “thank you.” I can’t guarantee that the same will happen with your kid, but I believe that there’s power in showing love to someone beyond what we might otherwise think they deserve. That’s what giving away control is all about.

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One thought on “Rethinking Control, Part 5: Giving Away Control to Meet the Needs of Children with Attachment Difficulties

  1. this is a very insightful post and I think it will help me view my three little foster kiddos in a different light. Thank you!

    Like

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