When a child has been neglected or raised in an orphanage, oftentimes nobody was able to respond to those cries (or did not respond consistently) and that child learns to self-soothe and rely only on themselves. They do not learn to rely on or trust a parent or a family. For some kids, this can lead to extreme self-reliance where they view others only as a means to satisfy a want or need, and they manipulate others to get what they want. Trust is a two-way street; it is earned and learned and it is the foundation of healthy relationships.
When our sons (who were 2 ½ and 7 ½ years old at the time) first joined our family, Jayden (7 ½) quickly grasped the concept of family and immediately bonded with his daddy (it took a little more time to bond with me and his sisters). Wesley (2 ½) on the other hand was mistrustful, self-reliant and would immediately resort to kicking, scratching or biting if he did not get his way.
He pulled away from our touch, and was not comfortable with eye contact. If we told him “no” for any reason, he would turn to the next person and act incredibly charming and sweet, until or unless that person told him "no" too. He would even turn to a complete stranger in a store, lighting up his charming smile and reaching up to be held, if I would not give him the candy he pointed to in the check-out line. Wesley was using the survival behavior that had served him well in the orphanage, but it did not work well within a family. We needed to earn his trust, and he needed to learn to trust.
We arrived home from Ethiopia in early December (two years ago) and immediately visited family and friends for the holidays. We quickly realized that those visits were confusing for Wesley, who still didn’t recognize us as his parents (we were simply another set of care-givers in a long line of care-givers) and he suddenly had a host of people anxious to meet him, and willing to do whatever he wanted. They were prime targets for manipulation and it made it easy for him to reject his parents who sometimes needed to correct his behavior or say the dreaded “no”.
Recognizing what was happening, we hunkered down after the holidays and “quarantined” our family so we could teach Wesley to trust and rely on us. There are many books that go into great detail on methods of “attachment and bonding”, and one of the things that worked really well for us was simply “touch” – deliberate and consistent touch.
Initially, he would push away from a hug and was uncomfortable being cradled or being held with his body against mine while being rocked. Now, he doesn’t want to get in bed without being cuddled and rocked (facing me), even if it’s just for a few minutes. In the morning, when he gets dressed, he climbs onto my lap, wraps my arms around him and says, “I like to be warm.” Those early days of regular and deliberate touch have created trust, reliance and love, and he has become such a sweet, affectionate and obedient little boy that relishes love from his family and accepts instruction and correction.
Jay sometimes shakes his head in amazement as Wesley reaches for his or my hand at the table during dinner, just because he wants to hold hands and be touched. It’s such a difference from the little boy that first joined our family. When we take a walk, he wants to hold hands, and sneaks little kisses on the wrist and then looks up at me with a huge grin.
Early on, whenever Wesley was corrected or told “no” we could see him become enraged and we knew the kicking or biting was about to start. Knowing how effective touch was for him, I started trying to distract him from anger by putting my hands on his face, crouching down to his level, turning his eyes toward mine, and talking to him in a quiet voice. Over time, we could visually see him relax and manage his frustration and angry feelings as soon as I put my hands on his face and looked him straight in the eyes.
Now, he uses the same gentle technique on me when he wants my full attention – and it works. We have earned his trust, and he has learned to trust.