I have spent countless hours preparing eloquent presentations of the attachment process and what could go wrong with this process for parents. I speak about the beautiful and dynamic interplay between child and caregiver through those first moments of life and into early childhood that create and prune connections within the brain. I educate about how this process creates a loving, reciprocal, and emotionally insightful individual in the best of circumstances; that our brains are set to receive this developmental process, but are not preprogrammed to function in this way in the absence of a healthy reciprocal relationship. I then work to very carefully validate the experience of disappointment, heartbreak and even horror when trying to parent a child whose attachment process has been disrupted by abuse, neglect, or parental mental illness.
I almost always fall short of my lofty goal to educate, validate, and spark hope for change with families that have been battered by this thing called Reactive Attachment Disorder. I believe at least part of the blame lies in the grossly inadequate diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder. There are a range of descriptions for attachment styles among individuals – each representing its own unique experience of give and take within the care-giving relationship. However, when describing a care giving relationship that has gone awry due to an equally large range of experiences, we have but one diagnosis with two different descriptors. It is no wonder that many feel invalidated by a description that does not even seem to scratch the surface of what it is really like to live with a child whose brain has been fundamentally altered by his/her early experiences of abuse and/or neglect.
Whenever science fails to help me and those I serve to understand a process and in doing so, build hope, I tend to look elsewhere. For me, elsewhere can mean the natural world, poetry, art, or spirituality. This is where the butterflies come in. Have you ever thought about how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly? I mean, really thought about what it is, exactly, that happens within the chrysalis? Neither had I. Actually, when I did think about it, I assumed that the caterpillar body simply sprouted wings within the chrysalis and … poof … butterfly emerges. This is not the case. When a caterpillar enters a chrysalis most of its body dissolves into unappealing goo. Many cells burst. Muscle fibers melt. There is not much left that resembles the original caterpillar save some microscopic bits that will serve to start the formation of the butterfly.
This can be likened to the experience of many who care for children who have been neglected or abused. That small child, much like a caterpillar, is functional and adaptive to their current environment. A child very quickly learns how to survive in an environment that might be scary, unpredictable, and dangerous. A child will learn to become resourceful in a home where food is scarce which can mean stealing food, squirreling food away in hiding places within the home, or even drinking from the toilet. A child will learn to become instantly pleasing to adults who might lash out with violence if provoked. A child will learn to become a caregiver to younger siblings. A child will learn to lie or manipulate to produce a situation in which they will experience less emotional pain. These things can be learned even if not specifically taught, as a child will engage in behaviors that soothe their chaotic internal experience.
When such a child enters a relatively calm, emotionally contingent environment their previous adaptations no longer bring the same result. Most often, before that child engages in significant change, he or she will tend to employ more of the same strategies with greater intensity. The stories I hear from families about their children hoarding or gorging on great amounts of food or smearing feces or urinating around the home are examples of increasing intensity of previously adaptive behaviors.
It makes me think about the unappealing mess of goo that the caterpillar decompensates into within the chrysalis. It is unknown why the caterpillar must almost completely dissolve before it turns into a butterfly, but it seems as if this is a necessary process. I am beginning to wonder if the same is true for these children labeled with Reactive Attachment Disorder. I am beginning to wonder if this unappealing, disheartening, grueling process that we all fight against would take on a different meaning to all involved if we saw it as a part of the process of transformation. These painful external behaviors are actually potential signs of the painful and difficult process of altering pathways within the brain. These children are, perhaps, caterpillars thrust into a butterfly’s world and asked to fly prematurely.
I want to end with an additional, fascinating thought. If you were to be able to see beneath a caterpillar’s skin, what you would find are the very beginning buds of butterfly wings hidden within its body. These buds remain intact through the dissolving process within the chrysalis. You see, despite what we all saw as a caterpillar and maybe even despite everything the caterpillar knew about what it was, its body always knew it had the potential to be a butterfly. In fact, it always possessed all that was necessary to realize its potential. All it needed was the wisdom of those around it to provide a safe place to allow it to engage in the mysterious and often messy process of transformation.
Thus in the struggle to rationally and scientifically understand Reactive Attachment Disorder, perhaps this alternate view of transformation within the natural world can help those who parent these children find comfort or hope, if not precisely an understanding.