God created us to connect. If that is true, then why are so many of us terrible at connecting? What many of us don’t realize is that a lot of our ability to connect with others is either enhanced or hindered in the first couple of years of our lives.
The way a parent, especially a mother, interacts with her baby while in utero, the weeks following birth, and throughout the baby first months will often come naturally. I think every new parent feels ill-prepared and inadequate when they bring a newborn home. However, all you need to do is watch how people respond when they see a tiny baby. Grown men even will begin babbling in some unknown language as they shower a baby with loving attention. Women line up to take turns holding and rocking the baby. Everyone wants to jump into action to meet every need when the baby cries the slightest whimper.
All of these actions create connection. We now know that this connection creates healthy brain chemistry. Every time a child encounters someone who meets their needs, positive synapses connect across their brain. The child feels safe and can explore their ever expanding world.
But what happens when a baby, whether in the womb or after, doesn’t receive this kind of nurturing attention? What if something even worse happens and that baby or older child experiences trauma? If a baby or child endures a stressful pregnancy, a difficult delivery, abuse, neglect, or even abandonment, then the brain chemistry takes on a much different path.
Instead of a child feeling safe and willing to explore their environment, this child interacts with their world in a constant state of fear. That alert part of their brain, or the amygdala, is over-developed and is easily triggered into a response of flight, fight, or freeze. This is how most, if not all, children that come to families through adoption or foster care tend to act.
Parenting a child that constantly reacts to their world with some kind of fear can exhaust and confuse a parent. The child’s behavior often pushes a caretaker away making it harder for the parent to connect with this child. But connection is exactly what the child needs more than anything.
A child whose behavior pushes you away is a child who needs connection before anything else.
Kelly Bartlett—Encouraging Words for Kids
“But doesn’t connection before anything else simply excuse bad behavior?” That is the common question when one learns about connected parenting. The approach seems too permissive.
Here is the reality. When a child, or anyone, is controlled by the fear part of their brain, attempts to correct misbehavior will only feed the fear behaviors—meltdowns, outrage, fighting, running away, or just shutting down.
The intent of connecting first isn’t to excuse the behaviors, but is instead to create a safe place for that child to receive correction. Sometimes they also need empowering. I wrote about this in depth in this blog post—Taking a Closer Look at Empowerment.
When we focus on connection, we help our children learn the following (from The Connected Child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family):
- Learn to trust
- Discover his voice
- Learn to self-regulate
- Understand his own preciousness, knowing they have value—opposite of shame
In my book, Foster and Adoptive Parenting: Authentic Stories that Will Inspire and Encourage Parenting with Connection, I share stories from my own journey, and some other families, to connect as a parent. I am vulnerable as I make many mistakes, and a few successes as I work toward building trust and attachment with my son. Here are a few things that I share in the book:
- Understanding, Recognizing, and Responding to my child’s fear
- Securing your child’s attachment
- Establishing a safe haven for your child
- Balancing nurture and security
There is something that each of us wants more than anything—even more than the air we breathe: Connection.
Curt Thompson, M.D.—Anatomy of the Soul
Kenneth A. Camp
I am a longtime Austinite. Married my beautiful wife over 25 years ago. Adopted our son September 2012. Currently a writer and loving it. Previous jobs and careers include project management, missionary, and pastor. I enjoy sports (both watching and playing), traveling, reading, digging in dirt and hanging with my friends and family. Read more from Kenneth at KennethACamp.com.