The Role of Compassion in Attachment

I thought my nine-year old daughter and I were in a good space.

“Mommy. Watch me do my gymnastics.”

I “ooohed” and “aaahed” as I watched her twirl and twist her body in ways I could only imagine doing. She soaked up my attention and beamed. Our half hour together felt blissful. But then, her mood changed.

After multiple bedtime warnings, it was time:

“Time for bed,” I said, easing myself off my chair.

“Carry me. Carry me,” she pleaded.

“Not tonight, Sweetie. Mommy’s back is sore.”

“I hate you, B****. You’re the worst!”

Her words hit a nerve, and I disengaged.

“You can put yourself to bed.” I turned away and walked towards the kitchen. She stormed to her room. Here we go again, I thought as I began washing the supper dishes. Please, please, please go to sleep.

She reappeared 15 minutes later. Her eyes blasted darts at me. “I hate you so much. Fat ass. I never even wanted a mom like you. You’re my fake mom.” And on she went.

Attachment takes work. Playing, attuning, and connecting in moments of good behaviour is easy. Staying connected in moments of undesirable behaviour—not so much. In fact, without compassion, I find it nearly impossible.

Compassion enables me to understand my child. It motivates me to do whatever it takes to stay connected when I’m exhausted and would rather walk away. It compels me to take the action necessary to heal her wounded heart.

Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t mastered this skill, but I’m learning. Practicing compassion and staying connected in ugly situations is an ongoing battle for me. Here are three insights I’m learning as I go.

  • Behaviour is a Symptom

My pre-adoption preparation course, Pathways, taught me that behaviour is a symptom. In retrospect, I realize that my daughter’s outburst was prompted by feelings of rejection when I refused to carry her to bed. She needed me to stay engaged with her. I could have said, “Let’s play a game. I’ll count how long it takes you to run to your bedroom.” I rejected her again when I left her to put herself to bed.

My daughter’s hurtful words were like a reactionary mechanism to shield herself from the rejection she felt. She spewed them in a desperate attempt to cushion her heart from the pain. She “pushed” me away.

Pausing for a moment during a tough situation helps me recognize the need behind the negative behaviour. That’s when compassion flows through me, and I’m better able to handle the situation appropriately. 

  • Remember Your Child’s History

Child development expert Dr. Karen Purvis says that children from hard places have brains that are wired differently. She says they may be “haunted by overwhelming feelings of being unloved.”

This rings true for my daughter. Her need to feel loved runs so deep and so wide that it’s hard to meet it. When she feels rejected, then, her brain goes directly into high stress mode. Remembering this, fills me with compassion.

  • Compassion Must Move to Action

Compassion alone is not enough. Dr. Karyn Purvis writes that compassion must move us to action. In my situation, appropriate action after my daughter got mad could have included reflecting on her feelings, attending to her needs, and remaining physically close.

Jesus also desires us to act on our compassion. He describes a story of a man who was stripped of his clothes, beaten, and left half dead alongside a road. Some people walked by the man but a Samaritan took pity on him. The Samaritan’s compassion led him to bandage the man’s wounds and take him to an Inn where the people there took care of him until he returned.

The next time when things go awry with my daughter, I will not walk away. I will do what it takes to remain connected with her until she calms down. This kind of compassion, rooted in action, goes a long way to strengthen her attachment to me.

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