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News & Views - Oct, 1997 Issue #48 

By: Dr. Elizabeth Kohlstaedt, Clinical Director
Intermountain Children’s Home
Helena, Montana

(By permission from the author, reprinted from Fine Gold, ICH’s newsletter.) 

To understand the philosophy of treatment at Intermountain Children’s Home, it may be helpful to explain the process of attachment for an infant, and how this affects the rest of a child’s life. Infants are born unable to exist in the world without the protection and safety of at least one adult. From birth, the child is primed to figure out who that adult will be; to identify one face, to respond to one voice and to prefer the specific smell of his mother. By 4 months of age an infant has become the “child of a specific mother”. It is through the relationship with her that he learns about the world and himself. 

The more consistent and attuned the mother is to the infant’s needs, the more content the child feels. He does not have to cry to be understood or spend long periods in distress. He comes to feel capable of being heard and believes that the world is safe. When the mother is available consistently to meet the child’s needs and is cared for enough herself to put the child’s needs above her own, the child will come to trust her responsiveness and his own capacity to deal with the world. 

As a child begins to physically move away from his mother, he continues to rely on her when stressed, ill, tired or scared. The more consistently the mother has been available during these times of “refueling”, the less the child needs her and he can internalize this sense of safety. With confidence, he will venture off on his own, make friends, learn and explore. This relationship of trust in a specific person and eventually in himself is the process of attachment. This child is described as being securely attached. 

What happens though, if during the first two years of life the mother is absent, the child is moved frequently to different caretakers, or is beaten, neglected or reacted to with rage? An entirely different belief in himself and others develops. This child learns that the world is unsafe and that he is incapable of figuring out the rules. He comes to believe that no one will respond to his needs consistently. Fearing he is in danger he learns to be on constant guard and to take care of himself rather than rely on an inconsistent mother. 

Like a securely attached child, the damaged child will base all subsequent close relationships on this first relationship. He will not trust. He will attempt to fend for himself by stealing, lying, hurting before he gets hurt, and will be consumed with frustrated rage and revenge. Because he is used to having his own needs neglected, he will be unaware of what he or others truly feel or need. He will not be aware of having hurt others and cannot feel empathy. This child lives in fear and does not venture out to learn, grow or love, because he is busy protecting himself. He may act superficially nice in order to get something, but deep down he trusts no one. This is how children often arrive at Intermountain Children’s Home. 

Our challenge is to present this wounded child with an environment in which care and nurture are difficult to resist, to confront behaviors which resist that care, and to teach corrective behaviors which will enable the child to develop mastery over his environment so that he believes he is capable and the world is safe. 
(Next issue - The Process of Healing.) 

Copyright © 1997, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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