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The Great Behaviour Breakdown (GBB) – A Biased Review

The Great Behaviour Breakdown (GBB) – A Biased Review - Atlas Green 611824 Unsplash

I’ve recently completed the first two days of the four day parenting course for adopters called The Great Behaviour Breakdown and I’m blown away already. 

What follows is a brief and entirely subjective interpretation of the course’s teachings with copious amounts of apologies to its practitioners. 

To be basic about the course, it’s based around parenting children who have suffered trauma, in our specific case the trauma of separation, but other trauma layers too. 

We don’t know whether there was trauma in utero in our case, but that’s also part of the teaching or should I say learning; that trauma may happen in the womb and the impact that has on attachment, development and self-worth can be as troubling as anything that happens post-birth.

 Without providing too much detail (for fear of getting it wrong!), a number of things amazed me about this course. 

Firstly, that it (or perhaps an abridged version of it) is not a compulsory part of the pre-approval adoption process or at least compulsory in the weeks leading up to introductions post-matching/approval. That I think would have saved us a lot of feeling adrift when our children came to us, might have saved us from making mistakes that may have actually inhibited their attachment and development, mistakes for which we have to consider ourselves blameless for the most part – we just did not have the insight that GBB provides. But for the authorities – WHY NOT? Since starting the course it strikes me that there are and have been so many adoptive parents just like us with good hearts and the best of loving intentions floundering about needlessly.

Secondly, but related, it made me feel very guilty. I was not expecting this. It made me feel guilty for all the times I’ve inadvertently triggered a dampening of our children’s self-esteem, when I’ve ignored or been vocally irritated by a behavior the source of which I did not understand or considered “naughty” or “manipulative” or “defiant”. But it also makes me feel very upbeat about the future for us and our children, for our relationship, for their development, and that’s priceless.

 Thirdly, it has reiterated to me very forcefully that parenting children with trauma, even if you cannot see or feel the effects of that trauma at the specific moment in time, is not the same as parenting those without; that actually maybe our own parents and siblings and those in our support network should also be sent on the course in order to understand that actually there’s a reason we do things differently and that no, it’s not ok to proffer contrary parenting advice or to tell us we should just add more “discipline” into our children’s lives. Or that “send them to their room to think about their behaviour” or “put them on the naughty step and leave them there until they say sorry” is actually the worst thing we could do, is not “teaching” them anything and in fact is at best confusing and at worst harmful; that “time out” is the exact opposite if what’s needed, which is “time in”. 

 Fourthly, and this is so simple but so powerful, that if we are not “in relationship” with our children (feeling connected and attuned), then absolutely nothing positive is going to happen.

I could go on and on. 

Suffice to say that I cannot recommend the course highly enough (even though I’m only halfway through it) nor recommend its presenters, Zach Gomm and Denise Golding more highly.

The course is funded for those who qualify (and adopters do), so do watch out for information on dates and available places from the WAF team. Oh, and the lunch provided is delicious!

Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash

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  • R

    Infants only a few days old can record long term memories. “Infants do not think but they do process emotions and long term memories are stored as affective schemas” (Geansbauer, 2002). An infant separated from its first mother will record a memory of that event. Memories of this nature are Further complicating the adoptive family system is a memory process that is common called preverbal memory representations and they have a unique quality that must be understood by adoptive parents. “Infant memories are recalled in adulthood the same way they were recorded at the time they occurred. It is difficult possibly impossible for children to map newly acquired verbal skills on to existing preverbal memory representations” (Richardson, R., & Hayne, H. 2007). An older adoptee who recalls an emotional memory will experience it the same way it was felt as an infant. Adoptees can have troubling memories that they cannot identify in words. This means that they cannot understand what they are feeling and without a vocabulary they cannot even ask for help. This leads to a cognitive /emotional disconnection. “Children fail to translate their preverbal memories into language”(Simcock, Hayne, 2002).
    An adopted child will learn from his family that he is wanted, loved, belongs, and that they will never leave him. His emotional memories will trigger fears that are exactly the opposite. An adopted child can know he belongs but feel isolated. He can know that he will never be abandoned but feel that he will. He can know that he is whole but feel that a part of him is missing. He can know that he is loved but feel that he is not. This incongruence between thoughts and feelings becomes the foundation of poor attachment; problem behaviors, power struggles, poor academic performance, and attachment regulating behaviors mystify parents. The struggle to bring thoughts and feelings into coherence can be a lifelong task for adopted children. It doesn’t have to be this way.

    Implicit Memory and Adoption
    How to change what the child feels and create a secure attachment
    Robert Allan Hafetz MS MFT

    Adopted children have implicit memory resulting from the adoption process. Placement in foster homes can add to these memories. Implicit memories are created by experiences that have enough emotional intensity to shape the child’s beliefs, expectations, behaviors and feelings about a specific event in their current lives. “How the child responds to a situation is not caused by circumstances but by viewing current circumstances through the lens of unconscious implicit memories. The projection of the past into the present.”( Ecker, 2011). The adopted child’s view of the adoptive family today is seen through the experience of implicit memory from the past.
    Other manifestations of implicit memory: Undue attention seeking, power struggles, withdrawal, anxiety, sadness, shame, low self-esteem, feeling isolated or disconnected. This is not a cognitive or thinking process; this is an emotional response to current events filtered through past experiences. Implicit memory is long term doesn’t fade with time and is as powerful today as the moment it was created. David Brodzinsky and his colleagues at Rutgers, in studying the development of 130 adopted children, found that adoptees are psychologically indistinguishable from nonadoptees only until the age of 5 or 6. Then the ramifications of adoption start to dawn on them. I want to stress that this is a normal reaction to being adopted and is in no way part of a mental disorder. Adoptees are often diagnosed with attachment or behavioral disorders when they are responding to painful implicit memories.
    What this means when you adopt a child is that implicit memory is a barrier to creating a secure attachment, and providing optimal development for the child. The good news is that these implicit memories can be changed by “rewiring” the child’s brain or changing the structure of these memories. By combining old therapeutic concepts with knowledge from current neuropsychology we can address the child’s behavior with an understanding of how memory is recalled, experienced, and reconsolidated back into the brain.

    Summary:
    1. The problem behavior is caused by non conscious emotional knowledge held in right brain implicit memory.
    2. Behavior persists by current constructions of reality formed in the past.
    3. Change occurs through experience not cognitive insight (reading books, talking), verbal therapeutic intervention, or medication.
    4. Cognitive insight follows from rather then leads to these experiences. Children do not need verbal skills or analytical insight to benefit from these experiences.
    (Adapted from Bruce Ecker, Depth Oriented Brief Therapy)
    The Process
    When an implicit memory is triggered the child experiences the emotion as if it has just occurred. Anything can trigger a memory, attachment behaviors, birthdays, seeing another family that resembles one another, movies, music, death of a pet etc. What we see are problem behaviors such as, undue attention seeking, power struggles, withdrawal, opposition, tantrums, poor academic performance defiance, ADHD like symptoms, etc. What is occurring in the child’s mind is a re-experiencing of memories from the past as if they are occurring today. These are normal survival responses created by the trauma of maternal separation, or multiple placements in foster homes. These are attachment related events and will create attachment related triggers in the adoptive family. When the child recalls the memory the synapses unlock in the moment of experiencing it (when the child is misbehaving). In this moment of unlocked synapses we now know that this memory can be changed or rewritten, but only in the moment before the behavior stops and the memory goes back into storage (reconsolidated).
    What this means for parents is that when our children are at their worst behavior we have an extraordinary opportunity to enable them to heal themselves. It is also a time when parents are stressed, having their buttons pushed, tired from working, or just had enough of this crazy behavior give me a break. Adoptees will provoke you to see how authentic you are by your behavior not your words. They watch your nonverbal expressions very carefully and they must be consistent.
    All behavior is goal directed nothing occurs randomly.
    What parents must do
    Since emotional change occurs only through experiences the task of the parent is to create an experience when in the moment of the problematic behavior while the memory is unlocked. The experience must be concurrent with and in contradiction to the memory. For example when the child is experiencing fear of attachment, or feels disconnected and isolated, an experience that contradicts that memory must be created. The parent must create an experience in which connection to the family is secure and makes the child feel wanted and loved. The child must experience this on an emotional not a cognitive level. The child must feel securely attached and loved because knowing it will not change the implicit memory. The experience creates a juxtaposition experience that contradicts the memory. When he child’s memory expresses anxiety triggered by feelings of disconnection, loss grief, isolation, or fear of attachment, the current attachment experience must be secure, and unconditional. Both can’t be true which puts the mind in conflict. The human mind must make sense out of dissonance and will modify the implicit memory before it goes back into storage. Eventually through the experience of a warm loving accepting attachment experience the child will develop a secure bond with the parents.
    All behavior is goal directed, purposeful.
    Bring the implicit memory out into the open by asking the child are you afraid, do you feel alone, etc.
    1. Validate the child’s emotions; it’s OK to feel that way. This deescalates the conflict.
    2. Align with the child reach the goal together
    Communicate with eye contact, touch, hugs (ask first), body posture, facial expression, vocal tone, be present in the moment. You must say I love you without the words. Nothing creates attachment better than by being in the moment when the child is in pain targeting the parent.
    3. Encourage, Say I believe in you.


  • Anna

    Thank you. I so agree! Beautifully put! GBB changed our lives as well. For the muuuuuuuch better. And yes it is about learning. Life long learning.

  • Paul Parker

    Does anyone have any information about when this course is next taking place in London?

  • Angela

    I'm pretty sure there is one in Hackney in September. You'd be best off contacting your social worker to enquire about attending and to see if there is one closer to you.

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