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The Steel Box With a Velvet Lining

by Nancy Thomas

Parenting children that have emotional special needs is very different from parenting children who do not. When we have a new child coming into our home, many of us feel that our love will erase all their early childhood trauma, and fill their heart to overflowing with joy. Unfortunately, that beautiful dream all too often becomes a horrible nightmare.

Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) have ‘enclosed’ their hearts in a ‘cold brick vault’ and fight endlessly to deny access to those who truly love them. They believe that love hurts, and they want nothing of it. So, the parenting required involves very tight structure and powerful nurturing. Dr. Foster Cline calls this “the steel box with a velvet lining”. The steel box represents the very tight structure these children must have in order to test the limits repeatedly. When they find us, as parents, strong enough to keep them safe (because we have passed all their ‘tests’ with an A+) they can begin to feel safe. The first thing these children must have in order to begin the healing process is a feeling of safety. They do not get a feeling of safety from ‘wimpy’ parents ‘bending over backward’ trying to make the child happy. They get the needed feeling of safety from ‘powerful’ parents standing strong for what is right – expecting respect, teaching responsibility through chores – and expecting the child to make the parent happy with the child.

The “velvet lining” that Dr. Cline refers to is the powerful nurturing. The words “I love you” often ‘strike terror’ into these childrens’ hearts. The same forms of nurturing that we use with an infant must be used with these children – no matter what age – in order for them to feel our love. The fine art of parenting is defined here. Each parent must find the perfect balance for each child. Too much structure/not enough nurturing, and the parent becomes ‘militaristic’ and ‘dictatorial’. It’s hard for a child to bond to a drill sergeant! Too much nurturing/not enough structure and the child will not feel safe enough to trust and to bond. Would you want PeeWee Herman or Arnold Schwarzenegger on your side if you felt the world was an unsafe place? The size of your ‘steel box’, the strength of the ‘steel’, the volume of the ‘velvet’ must be in the right balance.

These children’s hearts are filled with the rage left from their infancy. When we combine powerful parenting with effective attachment therapy these children can heal. They can become loving, giving, and responsible. Our job as parents is to provide the opportunities for each child to be the best that they can be. The child’s job is to use those opportunities to grow and become healthy. Some children take the opportunities and use them–others take them and waste them. I learn something new from every child, every day. And, from each parent, each day. I learn the most from my failures. We don’t need to be ashamed of making mistakes. One great thing about making mistakes when you’re working with a child with RAD is that they will repeat the behavior so you get another shot at it! This job is never boring, is it? I love watching the children heal. It’s better than winning the lottery!

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