Attachment Disorder- The "I Don't Care" Disease
When children say “I don’t care,” it can mean many things. When uttered (with or without words) by children with an attachment disorder it conveys intense feelings of hurt and shame. “I don’t care” is their attempt to cover up the wound even while pointing to it. What the words really mean: “This is where you start – right here!”
Step One: Honor the child’s “I don’t care” for what it is. Do not see it as an attack or a rejection, see it as their effort to push away feelings they cannot tolerate by cloaking themselves in indifference. Expect them to fight back if you threaten their coping strategy by use of force or consequences. Pleading with them to be “reasonable” pushes them deeper into isolation, and often into more abusive behavior toward parents, weaker siblings and peers. What they desparately want, and at the same time are terrified of, is connection and love. Understand and appreciate how their terror and lack of trust dominates.
Step Two: Help them recognize the difference between authentic emotional response and pretense. Their “I don’t care” strategy compels them to pretend they are happy and loving. They may be full of hugs and kisses, but these are just acts they mimic. They do not know what genuine loving relationship feels like because they are too busy self-protecting. Their substitute for genuine emotion is rage. It looks like real anger, but is really just a way to hide feelings of rejection and shame. It is critical to show them, by example, what healthy, authentic and genuine emotions (including anger) looks like. Engage with them in healthy spontaneous emotional exchanges. If done right, these become powerful teaching moments.
Step Three: Join with them in a genuine relationship- one in which they can feel valued and needed. Join does not mean “invite,” join means join. Their dis-attachment compels them to push away offers of relationship before they can cause anticipated hurt or rejection. For healing to occur you must be both committed and vulnerable, willing to risk hurt and rejection if you are asking them to do the same. But (and this is critical), they must feel your vulnerability as coming from a place of stength, not weakness or neediness. Let them know their hurt is your hurt, that you firmly believe it will be overcome, and that together you and they will get to a better place. One way to show them you are committed, vulnerable and strong, is to join with them in going to a counselor for as long as it takes to get better. Then find a counselor who believes in the power of a healing relationship.
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John Olesnavage, Ph.D.