Helping adopted children develop secure attachment using Family Attachment Narrative Therapy (FANT) – An Interview with Denise Lacher
Denise B. Lacher, MA, a licensed psychologist, is Director of Attachment Programs at the Family Attachment and Counseling Center of Minnesota. Denise joined the Center in 1994 after obtaining her Masters degree in psychology and has presented nationally on the subject of attachment. She has extensive training in attachment theory and the treatment of attachment disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Here, she answers questions about the new second edition of her book, Connecting with Kids through Stories: Using Narratives to Facilitate Attachment in Adopted Children, co-written with Todd Nichols, Joanne May and Melissa Nichols.
What is it about stories that makes them so effective in working with children with attachment difficulties, and how did you come to develop the narratives you discuss in your book?
Stories are universal and used by every culture to teach history, traditions and values. Hearing a story, seeing the picture in your mind’s eye, feeling the emotions and experiencing sensations activates the listener’s brain in much the same way as an actual event. This allows the experience of a story to have a similar impact as the real act. Through this medium, utilizing the power of metaphors, parents have the opportunity to “redo” their adopted child’s life.
Our journey really started when an adoptive parent commented, “I wish I could rewind the tape on this kid and start his life all over again.” That statement led to a story about what it could have been like and should have been like for that child – re-doing the narrative of his life. Later we called the story a “claiming narrative”.
After seeing the deplorable conditions in government-run institutions while on a church mission trip, that same parent later established a children’s home in Jamaica. I had no idea what I was getting into the first time my husband and I visited the home. When our children got older, they joined us on our trips. We painted, tiled floors, cooked, did laundry and cleaning and more recently I did some therapy, taught parenting classes, and taught their staff to use stories with the children they cared for on a daily basis. My co-workers Joanne, Todd, Melissa and Connie have also worked in children’s homes; here in United States and in Central America. The work was challenging and exhausting but also confirmed that stories could be used to help children in any situation.
From your personal experience, is there a particular example of a child with attachment difficulties who responded to a story when other types of interventions didn’t make an impact, or had a negative impact? Can you please “tell the story” of this successful case-study with our readers?
Many families contact our clinic after having tried other therapies and interventions without success. They are recognizing that there is not one therapy technique or one parenting method that is going to work with all kids with attachment problems and histories of trauma. Most find success when they begin to rely on their own knowledge of their child instead of professionals and books that promise that their way is the one that works. There is no guarantee that any one therapy will work, including Family Attachment Narrative Therapy (FANT). I believe the key to its success with so many families is that in this methodology, parents are the agents of change and healing. A couple of examples might help clarify this point.
Adopting two young children from another state was an answer to prayer for John and Rachel who had been unable to have biological children. But after a three day drive back to Minnesota, they were already wondering if they had made a mistake. Cory, age five, and his sister Anna, age six, fought with each other the whole way home. Once home they were bouncing off the walls from the moment they woke up to when they finally fell asleep. They destroyed every toy they were given, defied even the simplest request, and refused to go to their rooms or take a time out. The school called almost every day because Cory had pushed or hit another child. Anna would leave class to go to the restroom and just disappear. They could not sit still, disrupted the class and were quickly alienating their peers. John and Rachel read book after book and tried everything they could think of doing. Although John and Rachel thought they had been well prepared for adoption, they quickly realized that they needed help. They chose an experienced therapist but after a few months of play therapy, things were no better at home. Their county provided an in-home therapist but they found that they had to educate her about adoption and attachment issues and they just rolled their eyes when she suggested a sticker chart. Desperate for a quick fix for their children’s behavior problems, John and Rachel chose our intensive program. Through the process of telling claiming and trauma narratives, they discovered the meaning of Cory and Anna’s behaviors. John and Rachel’s view of Cory and Anna changed almost overnight as they made the connection between their behavior and their early history of neglect. They had sometimes been left alone for days at a time. When adults were around, it was loud and chaotic. Cory and Anna had no clue how to be part of a family. John and Rachel started from scratch, teaching them basic hygiene, manners and social skills through stories, demonstration and constant reminders and supervision. They structured the morning and evening routine and structured the weekends to increase their feelings of safety and security. Eventually they changed schools, finding a school with smaller class sizes that was willing to work with parents to accommodate Cory and Anna’s needs. The behavior did not change overnight and there were still many days when they thought they wouldn’t make it, but a year later, much to their surprise, life felt normal and even peaceful. They are even thinking of adding to the family again.
The above story illustrates how important the discovery of the child’s model can be to change problem behaviors. But stories can also have an immediate impact:
Parenting the sixteen-year old son of her adopted daughter, one grandmother was close to sending him back to live with his birth mother. He had every service the county offered: respite, a personal care attendant, an individual therapist and in-home skills worker. This grandmother knew that if he went back to her daughter, he likely would not finish high school and probably end up in his mother’s gang, but she had younger children in the home and could no longer live with his verbal and physical aggression. In our intensive program, she based many of her trauma narratives on the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling. Sitting every day with his eyes closed, she thought he heard every word but could not be sure. She was amazed when he started helping around the house without being asked and even gave her a few hugs. Needing a break from the intensity of the trauma stories, she completed a funny and successful child narrative about a little white haired grandmother that snuck into her grandson’s room to paint his long fingernails a bright shade of red. Eyes closed as usual, he smirked… BUT went home and cut his nails without an argument. The intensive work did not create the perfect kid. There were lots of days when he was his old surly self, but the aggression never approached previous levels.
The book features guidance on how to individualize stories to the child’s needs. Why is this important?
The key to the success of FANT is discovering the unique internal working model of each child. When a caregiver understands the meaning of their adopted child’s behavior, whether it is related to past trauma or developmental needs, the story can be customized to each child. It has been our experience that an individualized story has a greater impact on the listener.
You have just carried out some substantial updates to the book. What can readers look forward to in this new expanded edition?
Over the years many parents have asked us to provide examples of our therapeutic stories. Some just need something to get their creative ideas flowing. Others enjoy nightly story times but sometimes just don’t have the energy to make one up. This edition provides many more story ideas and a new chapter containing full length stories. In addition, we’ve updated the research on attachment, trauma and development. Finally, parents of newly adopted children often struggle to attune to the child and discover what works to help the child regulate their emotions and behavior. This updated edition provides new ways of looking at regulation problems, ideas and resources.
How has the book been used by professionals since the first edition was published? What particular guidance does it hold for them?
Connecting with Kids through Stories, along with other resources like our DVD and study guide, is used by clinics and agencies to coach parents in using narratives to connect, heal and teach their foster and adopted children. Providing both basic information for those just beginning to work with adopted children, and more advanced information and techniques for those parents and professionals, this book has been used as a manual for discovering the child’s unique internal working model and developing healing narratives.
In the book you caution against professionals overshadowing the importance of parents. How are parents the primary agents of healing and change?
In my opinion, no professional can match the parent’s intimate knowledge of their child’s history, everyday behavior, emotional state, needs and abilities. I could meet with a child every week for years and not know them as well as the parents – even if he has only been with them weeks or months. It is that level of attunement and knowledge that makes stories successful.
You and your co-authors work at the Family Attachment and Counseling Center in Deephaven, Minnesota, USA. Can you tell us about the Center and the work you do?
So many people picture our center as a big treatment facility. The truth is we are more like a small family. We have been friends for years and have shared laughter, tears, and of course, stories. I truly love going to work every day. Who wouldn’t? Each day I get to listen to stories that are moving, clever and fun. It is so rewarding to watch parents master this powerful tool and renew hope for their family.
Finally, a strong message in the book is that stories have the power to change behavior and lives. Which stories have had the biggest impact on you?
That’s a tough question for someone that has a book stacked on just about every flat surface of my house because the book shelves are full! I have books that I have read over and over again since I was a kid (Lord of the Rings), and ones that have inspired a lifelong fascination with science fiction and the stars (A Wrinkle in Time). Safely Home is the book that led me to working in orphanages overseas. So many books had an enormous impact on me at different times in my life. But the book I open most often, and have used until the binding and the pages fell off, is the Bible.
Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.