As a caregiver, having thoughts like, “I don’t like my child” can feel alarming. These thoughts are frequently followed by feelings of shame and judgment. Having those thoughts more than once can lead to a cycle of self-shaming, and can often contribute to developing feelings of hopelessness in caregivers.
When attempts at parenting with empathy, compassion, and cultivating joy are met with withdrawal, avoidance, or defensiveness, it is common for caregivers to begin to feel as though their parenting is ineffective. When this diminished reciprocity is present in the parent-child relationship for sustained periods of time, this can elicit feelings of failure, and sometimes rejection.
While this is a complicated and difficult way for caregivers to feel, this is not a sign of a character flaw, and is certainly not an invitation for judgment about the capacity to parent. There are reasons this parent-child dynamic shows up that are rooted in how a child’s brain develops in the context of early life trauma, including separation trauma.
Exposure to trauma in utero, at birth, and during early life has been shown to have profound impacts on brain and nervous system development. Subsequently, trauma can cause individuals to experience difficulties across cognitive, physical, behavioral, emotional, and relational dimensions.
When trauma occurs within interpersonal relationships, for example in the separation of a child from a birth parent, or when abuse or neglect is experienced in relationship with a caregiver, a child may develop a global belief that others are generally not safe. This presents a complex challenge. Healing must happen within safe relationships, yet a child may have developed skillful ways to prevent relationships from happening for self-preservation.
Healing must happen within safe relationships, yet a child may have developed skillful ways to prevent relationships from happening for self-preservation.
The term blocked trust has been used to define this phenomenon, where a child’s early life experiences result in the development of a fear response that protects the child from accepting or receiving care. This fear response is involuntary, and is an anxiety-driven attempt that seeks to avoid the potential of rejection by suppressing the potential for experiencing joy. For a child in blocked trust, experiencing joy or delight may bring up feelings of anxiety, or fear of developing hope or expectation for these positive experiences.
Some examples of ways blocked trust might manifest:
- Readiness to defend self, reactivity toward others
- Hypervigilance to environment and to other’s actions
- Focus on the negatives, inability to attend to or notice positives
- Disengagement from others, hesitance to trust
- Minimal interest in learning or trying new things
- Focus on objects, hoarding, fixation on food, refusal to share with others
- Avoidance of vulnerability and denial of sadness
- Withdrawal from others or avoidance of closeness in relationships
- Assumption that they must meet their own needs/care for themselves, refusal to accept help
- View peers/siblings as competitors due to a belief that there is not enough care or love to go around
As humans, our brains are wired for connection. When parenting a child experiencing blocked trust, it is understandable that a caregiver’s own brain may also start to move toward self-preservation in an effort to protect from the impact of rejection. A caregiver’s own history of being parented, and experiences of loss, abandonment, or rejection, may also contribute to or exacerbate this protective response.
A caregiver’s own history of being parented, and experiences of loss, abandonment, or rejection, may also contribute to or exacerbate their own protective response.
The term blocked care has been used to describe this protective response in caregivers where a child’s blocked trust leads to a caregiver’s suppression of caregiving. Similar to children experiencing blocked trust, parents experiencing blocked care are experiencing a stress response that causes them to disengage from caregiving as a way to protect themselves from the difficult feelings of disconnection.
Some examples of ways blocked care may manifest:
- Parent feels that they are in survival mode
- Disengagement emotionally, depleted sense of empathy or compassion
- Feelings of apathy toward child
- Focus on behaviors, rather than a focus on understanding the underlying meaning of a behavior
- Viewing behaviors as bad or selfish
- Defensive or reactive responses to child rather than proactive or responsive approaches
- Difficulty keeping an open mind, feeling frustrated or defeated when things (e.g., consequences, strategies) don’t work
- Focus on the need to correct behavior versus need to connect
- Decreased feelings of efficacy, judgment of self as not good enough parent
Helping a child move out of blocked trust and into secure relationships requires that caregivers are able to remain in a compassionate and empathy-based mindset when parenting. To do so, parents in blocked care also require the same compassion and empathy for themselves and from their supporters.
Caregivers can benefit from engaging in a therapeutic process or peer support where they feel able to openly speak about their experiences without judgment or shame, allowing them to develop a more compassionate perspective of their child’s behaviors and their own responses. Further, when caregivers engage in exploring and developing an understanding of their own early life experiences of being parented, this often contributes positively to their capacity to build secure attachment relationships with their children.
When caregivers engage in exploring and developing an understanding of their own early life experiences of being parented, this often contributes positively to their capacity to build secure attachment relationships with their children.
Strategies for parenting with empathy and from a place of compassion:
- Be curious. Explore with an open mind what is happening for your child, and support your child in cultivating curiosity about their inner world and experiences.
- Be playful. Seek out and enjoy moments of delight or joy. Prioritize moments of relational connection over conflict. Start with small moments, and be sure to notice them when they happen.
- Be connected. Offer empathy and validation for the difficult emotions your child is experiencing. Reminders that adults will remain present and connected, even in the face of difficult emotions, help affirm for a child that their distress is not too much for caregivers.
- Be aware. Recognize when feelings of rejection arise internally. Work to avoid personalizing them by noticing these behaviors are a response to misplaced mistrust. Identify and desensitize reactions to tipping point moments, so you can stay in connection.
- Be your own caretaker. Strengthen your capacity for relaxation and recuperation. Seek out opportunities to care for yourself and do this regularly. Notice your own feelings and make space to care for them.
- Be in community. Seek the support of others who offer empathy, compassion, and understanding without judgment.
When blocked care is present in a family system, it can feel incredibly challenging to make change. Be kind with yourself and your child—they are worthy of love and connection, and so are you. If you’re looking to build supportive relationships to lean on, BPAR offers a number of resources for caregivers, including ongoing parent support groups.
Written by Darci Nelsen
Boston Post Adoption Resources