Attachment, Trauma and the Brain

Attachment, trauma and the brain Dr. Levy.jpg

Attachment, trauma and the brain.

[This article was originally published on March 21, 2017 by Terry Levy, Ph.D., B.C.F.E. and can be found on LinkedIn]

In utero and early attachment experiences significantly affect the wiring of the brain, because the young child’s brain grows more than at any other time in life, and relationships shape the developing brain. Compromised attachment and traumatic stress trigger an alarm reaction, altering the neurobiology of the brain and central nervous system. Traumatized children and adults often have impaired wiring in the brain’s limbic system and altered levels of stress hormones, resulting in anxiety, depression, and self-regulation problems. Effective treatment and therapeutic parenting can rewire the limbic system and reduce the biochemistry of stress.

The infant’s brain, especially the limbic region, is an “open loop system,” because it relies on attuned and nurturing input from attachment figures for healthy growth and development. Relationship experiences in the early stages of life are most important in shaping the development of brain and behavior.

Brain development in infancy is “experience dependent;" the baby’s brain, specifically the limbic system, relies on sensitive and attuned care from attachment figures for healthy growth and functioning. Early attachment experiences play an essential role in shaping the architecture of the brain and building connections between parts of the brain. Chronic stress associated with lack of safe and secure attachment can impair the formation of brain circuits and alter levels of stress hormones, resulting in emotional and biological dysregulation, anxiety and depression.

Brain development begins two weeks after conception and continues most rapidly during the first three years of life. Our brains are basically social in nature. Prenatal stress produces increased norepinephrine (arousal and agitation) and decreased levels of dopamine and serotonin (depression, anxiety, emotional dysregulation). Brain circuits are being created rapidly in the first year of life, and are largely determined by the quality of the infant–caregiver relationship and the level of stress. Babies are right-hemisphere dominant, responding primarily to preverbal and nonverbal emotional communication—facial expressions, eye contact, touch, tone of voice, and feelings of love, security and safety. The infant’s right brain and the attachment figure’s right brain are attuned during moments of connection. This is called “limbic resonance," and is the fundamental building block of secure attachment. This also leads to the child’s ability to self-regulate and to the formation of the child’s core beliefs ("internal working model"). The sensitive and loving parent and caregiver calms and soothes the baby’s emotions and stress response, and over time the child learns self-regulation. Early experiences of secure or insecure attachment are encoded into the implicit (preverbal and unconscious) memory systems in the limbic brain, and become mindsets and expectations that guide subsequent behavior (e.g., attachment figures are safe or unsafe, accepting or rejecting). Studies have found that infant attachment security predicts self-control when children begin their school years.

Chronic and toxic stress can impair the proper development of brain circuitry, resulting in anxiety and self-control problems. Several brain regions are involved in the ability to learn self-control skills. The prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, is involved in attention and organizational skills, including following rules, suppressing impulses, reasoning, and decision making. The orbitofrontal cortex, located behind the eyes, is involved in decision making and reward, especially when the decision involves delay of gratification (google the “marshmallow test”). The anterior cingulate receives messages from various brain regions and regulates cognitive and emotional responses. It is involved in controlling behavior in challenging situations and adjusting behavior when a strategy is not working. These brain regions develop normally under conditions of safety and low to moderate stress, but development is impaired when there are high levels of stress and interpersonal trauma (attachment disorder).

Research and clinical experience have shown that an effective way to activate the neurobiology of attachment in the limbic systems of traumatized children and adults is to utilize the "Limbic Activation Process." This is basically the same strategy that humans have been using for millennium, and is biologically programed into us for the purpose of creating attachment. This is a therapeutic experience that provides the social, emotional, mental and physical milieu for the release of neurochemicals of attachment (dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin). It increases feelings of safety, calmness and security. Our brains are programmed for attachment and love, and this therapeutic experience awakens these feelings between parents and children and adults couples. Research has shown that physical closeness and affection, such as safe and loving touch and hugs, reduce blood pressure, lower stress hormones, increase oxytocin, and promote calmness, trust and secure attachment.

Dr. Levy is the a licensed clinical psychologist and the director at Evergreen Psychotherapy Center/ Licensed Clinical Psychologist.

The Adopted Child: Trauma and Its Impact

Adopted child trauma & impact www.relavate.org

The Adopted Child: Trauma and Its Impact

Adopted at the age of six months, Joseph was a fussy and sometimes hard to soothe infant. Feeling as though this was just normal infant difficulties with the adjustment of adoption, Pat and Robert paid it little attention. When Joseph reached the age of two and began to bite the other children in daycare, they chalked it up to the dreaded two-year old stage of which everyone assumes to be okay. Though the biting never quite ceased that year, with a few modifications, Joseph made it through the year. The teachers raved about how smart he was. By the time he was six, the increasing duration of the school day seemed almost more than he could bear. Sometimes screaming for hours at a time, Joseph would do no work and then would spend the remainder of the day in isolation. Prone to striking out when others attempted to soothe him, Joseph had now grown accustomed to attempting to runaway from the school personnel when his behavior would escalate. On many occasions this would lead to Joseph being restrained by the security guards, principal, or coaches. Eventually Joseph began to stack up a list of schools attended and suspended from. By the time Joseph had hit the 5th grade, his increasingly violent outburst coined with outward defiance had gained him two different stays at local residential treatment centers. Not knowing where else to turn or what else to do, and after failed attempts at therapy, and more than eight psychiatric medications had proved of little benefit other than causing Joseph to appear “zombie-like,” Pat and Robert felt their only other option was to send Joseph to a boys boarding school.

[This article was written by Bryan Post of the Post Institute, November 6, 2016]

Unfortunately, the above story is not an uncommon plight that adoptive parents face. Though not always leading to a disruption or out-of-home placement, many adoptive families struggle for years to create the peaceful family of which they had dreamed. Regrettably, one of the main barriers preventing such family harmony is one of the least understood when it comes to understanding the plight of the adopted child. The barrier is trauma.

Whether adopted from birth or later in life, all adopted children have experienced some degree of trauma. Trauma is any stressful event which is prolonged, overwhelming, or unpredictable. Though we are familiar with events impacting children such as abuse, neglect, and domestic violence, until recently, the full impact of trauma on adopted children has not been understood.

What Science Is Now Revealing

Scientific research now reveals that as early as the second trimester, the human fetus is capable of auditory processing and in fact, is capable of processing rejection in utero. In addition to the rejection and abandonment felt by the newborn adoptee or any age adoptee for that matter, it must be recognized that the far greater trauma often times occurs in the way in which the mind and body system of the newborn is incapable of processing the loss of the biological figure. Far beyond any cognitive awareness, this experience is stored deep within the cells of the body, routinely leading to states of anxiety and depression for the adopted child later in life.

Because this initial experience has gone for so long without validation, it is now difficult for parents to understand. Truth be told, the medical community still discounts this early experience. Nevertheless, this early experience is generally the child’s original trauma. From that point forward many more traumas may occur in the child’s life. These include premature birth, inconsistent caretakers, abuse, neglect, chronic pain, long-term hospitalizations with separations from the mother, and parental depression. Such life events interrupt a child’s emotional development, sometimes even physical development, subsequently interrupting his ability to tolerate stress in meaningful relationships with parents and peers.

An important aspect of trauma is in recognizing that simply because a child has been removed from a traumatic environment, this does not merely remove the trauma from the child’s memory. In fact, stress is recognized to be the one primary key to unlocking traumatic memories. Unfortunately for both the adopted child and family, the experience of most traumas in the child’s life is that the traumatic experiences typically occur in the context of human relationships. From that point forward, stress in the midst of a relationship will create a traumatic re-experiencing for the child, leading the child to feel threatened, fearful, and overwhelmed in an environment which otherwise may not be threatening to other people.

10 Keys to Healing Trauma in the Adopted Child:

1. Trauma creates fear and stress sensitivity in children.

Even for a child adopted from birth, their internal systems may already be more sensitive and fearful than that of a child remaining with his biological parents. You must also consider the first nine months in which the child developed. These early experiences as well could have major implications.

2. Recognize and be more aware of fear being demonstrated by your child.

Be more sensitive and tuned in to the small signals given such as clinging, whining, not discriminating amongst strangers, etc. All are signs of insecurity which can be met by bringing the child in closer, holding, carrying, and communicating to the child that he is feeling scared, but you will keep him safe.

3. Recognize the impact of trauma in your own life.

One of the single greatest understandings parents can have is a self-understanding. Research tells us that far more communication occurs non-verbally than verbally. Understanding the impact of past trauma in your own life will help you become more sensitive to when your reactions are coming from a place other than your existing parent/child experience. Re-experiencing past trauma is common when parents are placed in an ongoing stressful environment.

4. Reduce external sensory stimulation when possible.

Decrease television, overwhelming environments, number of children playing together at one time, and large family gatherings. When necessary that these events take place, keep the child close, explain to him that he may become stressed and he can come to you when needed.

5. Do Time-In instead of Time-out.

Rather than sending the stressed out and scared child to the corner to think about his behavior, bring him into to you and help him to feel safe and secure. Internally, this will then permit him the ability to think about his actions. Though time-in is not a time for lecturing, it will allow your child an opportunity to calm his stress and then think more clearly. Another effective key is to let the child decide how much time-in he needs.

6. Do not hit traumatized children.

Doing so will only identify you as a threat. The biblical verse spare the rod, spoil the child speaks to the raising of sheep. A rod is used to guide the sheep and the staff to pull him back into line when he strays. Hitting children, just like sheep, will cause them to become frightened of you and in many instances to runaway or hit back.

7. There is never enough affection in the world.

A very simple technique for time is the affection prescription 10-20-10. Give a child 10 minutes of quality time and attention first thing in the morning, 20 minutes in the afternoon, and 10 in the evening. Following this prescription of time has proven to have a great impact on the most negative behavior.

8. Encourage an IEP in the classroom to develop an understanding of the child’s stress and fear.

This may assist in addressing such vital areas as homework, playground, peer interaction, lunchtime, and physical education. All are common areas of reduced structure and increased stress.

9. Educate yourself regarding the impact of stress and trauma on families.

Try not to scapegoat your child for their difficulties, but rather take responsibility for creating the environment necessary for healing his hurtful experiences. There are many resources available. A few of note are: www.postinstitute.com, www.bryanpost.com, www.childtraumaacademy.org (Dr. Bruce Perry’s organization), www.drdansiegel.comwww.mindsightinstitute.com (Dr. Daniel Siegel), www.oxytocincentral.com and www.child.tcu.edu (Dr. Karyn Purvis)

10. Seek support.

Parenting a child with trauma history can take its toll on the best of parent. Seek out a support system for occasional respite care, discussing of issues, and the sharing of a meal. Such small steps can go a long ways during particularly stressful times.

In closing, never forget that you are a great parent. During times of stress you won’t always feel like it, but both you and your child were meant to be together. Your child will teach you far more about yourself than you may have ever realized without him. Give yourself time to refuel, connect, and communicate. And finally, a secure parental relationship is the single greatest gift you can give your child. When the parental relationship is secure this will permit the child a foundation to grow from.

9 Ways Children Benefit From Secure Attachment

secure attachment www.relavate.org.jpg


Babies need a secure attachment for many reasons including to survive and grow, to become individuals and to thrive in relationships. 

Though many still focus on behavior in child rearing—perhaps because it’s something we can physically see—the evidence to parent with an emphasis on establishing secure attachment in children is too significant to ignore. 

[This article was written by Kent Hoffman. The original can be found in Pro PsychCentral.]

The following points make the case for why we should emphasize secure attachment in parenting, and have been adapted from my recent book, Raising a Secure Child:  How Circle of Security Parenting Can HelpYou Nurture Your Child’s Attachment, Emotional Resilienc and Freedom to Explore which I co-authored with Glen Cooper and Bert Powell. 

1.Secure attachment inoculates children against toxic stress. 

If attachment is in fact an insistent, primal drive, imagine how stressful it must be to have it regularly thwarted. The stress of unmet attachment needs can certainly manifest in a child’s behavior, but research tells us that it can also derail children’s mental, emotional, social and physical growth development. 

The kind of stress that starts in infancy when the pressures of being a helpless newborn is not eased by a parent’s comfort has been called “toxic stress,” because it creates pathways in the brain the keep the child on high alert for danger, making it difficult to concentrate on learning. 

2. Security keeps children on a healthy developmental track as they grow.

The stress of unsent attachment needs can burden a child not just in infancy but throughout growth. A landmark 30-year study at the University of Minnesota initiated in the mid-1970s found long-term patterns between secure attachment and specific aspects of development. 

The Minnesota researchers found, for example, that children around grade 4 who had a secure attachment history had fewer behavior problems when their families were under major stress than those who did not. They also found links between insecurity and later psychological problems. Children whose parents were emotionally unavailable for comfort had more conduct disorders in adolescence and children whose parents resisted letting them explore were more likely to have anxiety disorders as teens. 

The study also found an association (though not as strong) between both types of insecurity and depression—the children felt either hopeless and alienated or helpless and anxious. 

The developmental path is filled with tasks for your baby to do, skills to learn, capacities to develop. Attachment plays a critical role in many of them. 

3. Security paves the way for children to learn to regulate emotions. 

Obviously, babies can’t handle the intense and baffling experience of emotions all by themselves and experts agree that a major goal of having a reliable parent or primary caregiver is to get help with infant distress and angst.

First, the parent or caregiver regulates the baby’s emotions from the outside—soothing her cries, singing lullabies, smiling gently at her, rocking her and so forth, As Baby learns that someone can help make difficult feelings acceptable and manageable, she increasingly turns to that caregiver in times of need and this helps her start to learn to soothe herself. 

Ultimately, when all goes according to developmental plan, the child learns to regulate her own emotions. She’s also learned that she can turn to others for coregulation throughout life when she needs to. And the ability to coregulate emotions is a big part of intimacy later in life. 

Being able to regulate emotions frees the child to go about the business of learning and growing and prevents the dangerous buildup of cortisol, promoting physical health, too. 

4. Security helps children establish a healthy sense of self. 

It might seem paradoxical that we gain a strong sense of self only in the context of others. But how can a baby recognizee that he is an individual person without becoming aware that there is an “I” and a “you” in this “we”? 

Secure attachment to a caring adult gives babies the support they need to become separate individuals by not asking them to deal with the confusion and distress of being alone and helpless. When a parent responds sensitively and warmly to a child’s earliest needs, the self is formed with every interaction. 

It is in the first relationship that a baby’s individuation is cultivated, and it’s in all the rest of our relationships that we continue to develop throughout life. When attachment is secure, all the psychological capacities of the growing child are nurtured to form a coherent self—one where the individual’s memories and self-image make sense with the history that helped form them. 

5. Secure attachment frees the mind to learn. 

Children who are brought up with enormous stress, due to lack of comfort, among other necessities, are so busy preparing for danger that they can’t concentrate. Conversely, when children feel safe and supported, learning takes care of itself. 

A secure attachment is the first social connection that helps your baby start learning: The parent serves as a secure base from which the child can explore; trust in the parent makes it easier for secure children to seek assistance with learning from parents; fruitful, pleasant interactions between parent and child obviously facilitate exchange of information; and through attachment, children develop a coherent sense of self and others that enable them to think clearly and regulate their thought process efficiently. 

6. Security leads to confidence, which leads to self-reliance. 

As a species, we’re not meant to be independent to the point of isolation or utter self-sufficiency, but we won’t live very long if we can’t become fairly independent. Just as it might on the surface seem paradoxical that we need an “other” to develop a “self,” children who can rely on an adult from birth will be able to rely on themselves when they get older—particularly because they will know when to seek the counsel or comfort of a trusted other. 

Of course, the converse is also true: Children without a secure attachment can end up having trouble relying on themselves when they’re older, or they can end up unable to rely on anyone butthemselves

7. Secure attachment is a foundation of true self-esteem. 

Self-esteem has become a controversial concept. Not long ago, many parents and other adults dealing with children believed that self-esteem came from ensuring that children didn’t feel inferior to others: a gold star for everyone! Just for showing up!

But conventional wisdom has held that it’s competence, actually, that feeds self-esteem. At this point it probably won’t surprise you to read that secure attachment is the foundation for confidence and other attributes needed to develop competence. 

When a parent is there for us a lot of the time, we get the message that we must be pretty deserving. If when a baby cries his mother consistently shows up to soothe him, mom is essentially sending the message that “I am here, and you are worth it,” from which the baby can conclude, “You are here, and I must be worth it.” 

Secure babies start life with the big advantage of already knowing that when nothing makes sense in the world, there is someone who thinks they’re worth being with—no matter what. 

Lastly, the idea that low self-esteem increases stress seems self-evident. We want our children to feel good about who they are and what they can do and not be wracked with envy or relentless competitiveness to prove their self-worth. 

8. Secure attachment sets kids up for social competence.

Relationships are key to health and happiness in all the ways that these conditions can be measured. The idea of social competence encompasses all the ways we can benefit from the social parts of our lives: intimacy, mutual support, empathy, and getting along in all the domains of life, from school to work to home and community. In fact, social relationships affect a range of health outcomes, including mental health, physical health, health habits, and mortality risk. 

9. Security makes way for better physical health. 

Speaking of health, physical development depends on a matrix of complicated factors, owing from both nature (genetics and other biological influences, like illness) and nurture. Secure attachment has been linked with better physical health, although the pathway between the two isn’t well-defined. 

What we do know is that supportive interactions with others benefit immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions and reduce wear and tear on the body due, in part, to chronically overworked physiological systems engaged in stress responses. These processes unfold over the entire life course, with effects on health.

So if attachment enhances social relationships as we know it does, and social relationships promote physical health as we know they do, then we can guess that attachment may promote physical health too. We do know that the psychological immunity from secure attachment reduces the wear and tear on the body that causes all kinds of disease. 

Our approach has helped parents across the world raise secure children, but don’t take our word for it; see what one mother had to say about how our book supported her. 


Adapted with permission from Raising A Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting Can Help You Nurture Your Child’s Attachment, Emotional Resilience, and Freedom to Explore by K. Hoffman, G. Cooper, and B. Powell. (New York: Guilford Press: 2017).

The bad news: trauma can be inherited. The good news — so can resilience

Trauma can be inherited, so can resilience www.Relavate.org


We tend to understand where our physical traits come from. We may have our mother’s eyes or our father’s chin. But when it comes to personality traits, we tend to think of them as our own. Psychologists go one step farther. They see things like anxiety or depression stemming from personal experiences which shaped us. Some studies however reach back even farther, are in fact passed down from parents or even grandparents.

[The original article is found on BigThink by Philip Perry]

Neurosis, anxiety, an adventuresome spirit, can these be inherited? That was the question on the minds of two researchers back in 1992. Then molecular biologist and geneticist Moshe Szyf and neurobiologist Michael Meaney, both of Montreal’s McGill University, met after a conference and had a few beers in a nearby bar. They started discussing inheritable traits, and Meaney theorized that certain emotional traits could be passed down through genes inside the brain. Szyf though skeptical was intrigued.

DNA inhabits the nuclei of cells. Since the 1970’s, scientists had wondered what tells each cell to transcribe certain genes and discard others. It was found that molecules in the methyl group earmarked certain genes, tagging them for transcription. Because of the discovery of these methyl groups and their position, each sitting beside a corresponding gene, the field of epigenetics was born. The Greek prefix epi meaning over from. At first, it was thought that epigenetic changes only occurred in the fetal stage of life. Over time, scientists discovered that changes in diet, exposure to certain elements in the environment, and other encounters also changed our DNA.

  Artist’s rendition of DNA methylation. By Christoph Bock (Max Planck Institute for Informatics) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Artist’s rendition of DNA methylation. By Christoph Bock (Max Planck Institute for Informatics) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

What Prof. Meaney hypothesized was that a parent who experienced a trauma could have certain changes in their brain which might lead to epigenetic changes that were passed on, inhabiting the neurons of their children’s brains or even their grandchildren. That rumination bore an entirely new field, behavioral epigenetics. That means if you had a parent or grandparent who lived through a genocide, war, saw someone murdered, or who suffered a different trauma, say at the hands of an abusive or neglectful parent, you carry traits for the emotional impact in your genes.

A grandfather who was neglected as a child for instance, may have experienced depression, and so passed that predisposition onward. It works in the positive sense too. If your grandfather had loving, nurturing parents, you get a genetic boost in the psychological and behavioral sense. How far does this epigenetic influence go? It’s pretty hard to parse out, even for scientists.

Meaney was able to prove that certain emotional traits were passed down by studying female rats and their pups. He and colleagues gathered data reaching back to the 1950’s. Those baby rats handled by researchers, for as little as five minutes a day, during the first few weeks after birth, were calmer and less stressed than those who were never handled. Meaney and colleagues found this was not due to human handling.

Instead, mother rats were more likely to groom their pups after humans had touched them. They also tended to give them more room for suckling. This extra attention led to better adjusted pups. Meaney showed that the more attention an infant rat received, the lower their stress hormone level in adulthood was. He said, "What we had done up to that point in time was to identify maternal care and its influence on specific genes.” It was after this experiment that Meaney met Szyf. 

The pair conducted an array of experiments. They began by selecting highly attentive mother rats and those who were neglectful. The offspring of neglectful mothers were more anxious and easily startled. Researchers took the offspring of these rats in adulthood and examined their brains, specifically the hippocampus. This is the area that has to do with stress, anxiety, and the formation of memories.

Those who had neglectful mothers had observable changes in the methylation of the genes there. These changes produced more glucocorticoid receptors, which interact with the stress hormone. More of them means a higher sensitivity to stress. Those with diligent mothers did not display such changes.

Next, Meaney and Szyf took a group of pups raised by neglectful mothers. They injected their brains with a drug called trichostatin A. This removes methyl groups. None of the skittishness seen in their mothers was found in this group. Their brains were once again examined, and no epigenetic changes were found. “It was like rebooting a computer,” Szyf said.

In a 2008 study, the pair found that neglectful mother rats had fewer estrogen receptors in their brain. When their female offspring matured, this resulted in fewer estrogen receptors in their brains, which led to neglect of their own young. Meaney and Szyf had discovered what is now called postnatal inheritance, or epigenetic changes from the environment that are written into our DNA, and then passed down to the next generation. These two scientists have published 24 papers on the subject since.

Next, the researchers moved on to human subjects. In a 2008 study, Meaney and Szyf examined the brains of those who committed suicide, and compared them with those who had died for other reasons. Among the suicidal, neural genes in the hippocampus showed excessive methylation. Since their brains were so methylated, researchers concluded that suicidal subjects must have been abused as children. This could be why someone who had neglectful or abusive parents must struggle to overcome the trauma they endured. Methyl groups in their neural genes bind them to feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, malaise, or worry. Of course, due to ethical concerns, examining the brains of living humans is out of the question. Professor Szyf however has located signs of epigenetic methylation in blood samples.

In one experiment, Szy and researchers from Yale recruited 14 Russian children brought up in an orphanage, and 14 others raised by their parents. Each gave a blood sample which was examined. Orphans had far more methylation than those who were raised by their parents. Areas of the brain important for communication and brain development were most affected.

The study concluded that separation from biological parents causes early stress that effects the person’s genome, long-term. This in turn could explain why adopted children may be more susceptible to damage from harsh parenting styles, on the part of adoptive parents. Study co-author, psychologist Elena Grigorenko wrote, “Parenting adopted children might require much more nurturing care to reverse these changes in genome regulation.”

The most exciting revelation was from a study last year out of New York’s Mount Sinai hospital. 32 holocaust survivors and their children had their genes analyzed. A methylation tag was found in a stress-related gene in parents and children alike. “The gene changes in the children could only be attributed to Holocaust exposure in the parents,” said Rachel Yehuda, lead researchers on the study.

More research must be done to understand the processes involved. How epigenetic changes are passed on from parent to offspring still remains Unknown. Though we may despair that our parents or grandparents trauma lives on in us, Prof. Yehuda says other, related methylation tags may make us more resilient, which could be passed down too.

Some researchers take it a step further. It could be that many or even most of our emotional and psychological tendencies, whether we are intellectual or tactile, communicative or quiet, emotional or stoic, forgetful or possess a perfect memory, might all arise from epigenetic changes passed down from our ancestors. What’s more, this breakthrough could lead to big changes in how we treat psychiatric conditions. Big Pharma and small biotech startups alike are already hunting for compounds, hoping to launch the next generation of drugs for psychiatric disorders, ones that are more effective, with very few, if any, side effects.

Church leaders – Stop hurting and start helping single parents!

 Church leaders - Stop hurting and start helping single parents

Church leaders - Stop hurting and start helping single parents

Church leaders – Stop hurting and start helping single parents!

Within the past few months, I’ve been told about how churches are handling single parents (namely mothers) and their “rebellious” child.  The approach is similar to what my wife and I experienced when we were challenged by the behaviors of our adopted child who has Reactive Attachment Disorder. We did not understand why she would think and act the way she did, nor did we know what to do. The elders in one church had their "tough love" approach, which was abysmal. In fact, quite harmful. You can read part of our story here.

What have I been hearing regarding these mothers?  One pastor commanded a mom to control her active little son who is restless during Sunday school. Spank him until he behaves. If she did not spank him then the pastor would until the kid straightened up. A similar report came from a married parent. Another church is threatening to discipline a mom for not keeping her child under control.  Still, other churches are putting policies in place to “deal with” rebellious children. (These policies are not to be confused with those that safeguard children against sexual abuse).

What these actions indicate is that the elders are hell-bent on applying traditional, authoritarian methods of force.  The key idea is control – as near total control as possible. The actions also suggest that these leaders are ill-equipped to counsel or shepherd the mothers and their children.  What’s worse, they are approaching these family dynamics from a judicial position instead of a pastoral one. What I mean by this, is that they believe the best way to tackle the behaviors of “problem” children is through laws, regulations, and punishments. In the name of discipline, they approach the family like finger-waiving judges who will punish the sinners rather than approach them as compassionate shepherds who come by their side to bear their burden and offer legitimate counsel and support.

These type of church leaders need to stop hurting the families and start helping them.  And please do not give me the old “discipline is to restore the sinner” argument when you enact punitive measures before you have exhausted every reasonable means for discipling the family with mercy, grace, truth, and love. 

How dare I say this?

First, leadership is supposed to build up, not tear down

A church’s leadership authority is given to pastors, elders, and deacons for the purpose of building others up and not for tearing down (2 Cor. 13:10).  Tearing down a mother or her child is abusive. It is what leaders do when they lord it over others.  Go here to read what the Bible says about abusive church authorities.

Legalists and modern day Pharisees focus on rules and regulations as the means to fix others and mold them into their box labeled holiness.  Such Pharisees overemphasize obedience and conformity. They use tactics to pressure or manipulate the parents and children to comply with their man-made standards.  Instead of being tender, they are rough. Rather than showing kindness, they are mean. They are supposed to be very patient yet they are intolerant.  This is how they hurt single parents. This is how they tear down these families.

Second, the Bible is very clear how church leaders lead

The Bible is clear and defines for us the manner in which church leadership exercises God’s delegated authority.  Here are five ways:

1.   Church leaders are to lead from a motivation of love (John 21:16) through love (John 10; 13:31-35).  Colossians 3 spells out how this love is manifested – by being tender, kind, humble, and longsuffering!  Should there be any question about the way church leaders are supposed to love these parents and children, they should examine their hearts and actions against 1 Corinthians 13.

a. They must lead through love by making appeals to repentance and faith. These appeals are from love for Christ’s sake (Philemon 8-9).  Before making any accusations against the parent or child, what the leadership must make clear is how the person is sinning according to explicit commands in the Bible.  These commands are not leadership preferences, pastoral expectations, or even church policies.  And most certainly not the demands from Mr. Grumpy Dumpaton or Mrs. Pesty Nasalsnot.

Even if the mother or child is obviously sinning according to God’s Word, God calls upon the leadership to lovingly confront, counsel, and encourage them toward repentance (Matt. 18:15-16; Gal. 6:1-2; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24-25).  This takes place long before they come down with disciplinary measures.

b. The leaders must also lead with compassion for distressed sheep (Matt. 9:36; Mk. 6:34; Jas. 5:14).  It is quite distressing to be a single parent. Further, when children are stressed, they act out or misbehave.  It is compassionate to grant mercy and grace, to work with the mother or child with an enduring patience and demonstrable acts of kindness.

2. Next, church leaders must lead sacrificially. They are not to sacrifice the mother or child on the altar of arrogant leadership. Deacons, elders, and pastors must be willing to lay down their lives for the sheep (John 10:11,15). How? With a servant’s heart (Matt. 20:25; Lk 22:26).

To have a servant’s heart is to mimic Jesus Christ who humbly took upon himself the role of a slave for the sake of his people (Phil. 2). Church leaders are to serve more and more like Jesus Christ the perfect Servant (Matt. 20:25-28; 23:11-12; Mark 10:43, 44; Luke 22:26-27; John 13:1-20; 2 Cor. 3:10; 1 Tim. 4:14-15; 6:11; Tit. 2:12; 2 Pet. 1:4).   To avoid confusion on what it means for a pastor and other leaders to be God's slave, examine this study.

3. Church leaders are called to lead with a watchful care for the mother and child who are members of God’s flock (1 Tim. 3:5; Heb. 13:17).  They oversee helpful, tangible ministries to the family. This includes finding ways to provide for basic needs (1 Cor. 12:25; Gal. 6:2), finding wise and godly counsel for any area of their lives, while pairing a Titus 2 type woman with the mother and daughter or a godly man or a team of men to mentor the son. 

4. Then, church leaders lead while guarding themselves and the church (Acts 20:28) against abuse, neglect, and other wickedness. This requires defending these mothers and their children’s reputations, protecting them against abusive ex-spouses, or guarding them against their enemies.

5.  Finally, deacons, elders, and pastors are to be examples of our benevolent Great Shepherd (1 Pet. 5:3 cp. John 10).  After all, church leaders are called to model Jesus in every conceivable way (2 Cor. 12:18; 1 Thess. 2:10-12; 1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Pet. 5:3). 

Often, in churches where the leadership is law-centered, manipulative, controlling, or abusive, it is not the single parent or the child who needs to repent and by faith change to become more like Jesus. It is the leadership. In the nearly fifty years with churches, my observation and experience say such men do not change. This is not to deny that God can change them.  I just have never seen it.

So what do I advise these single parents and children do?  If church leaders do not stop hurting single parents and their children, the parents should escape that toxic place and flee to a God-honoring, Christ-filled, gracious and nurturing church with leaders who are intentional about helping them for their good and for God’s glory.

In another article, we will address how church leaders and the local church can help single parents and their children.


PostScript

If you are a single parent involved in a church that you believe is hurting you and your family more than helping, then seek out someone outside of the church. This person ought to be someone you trust, who is Christ-like and wise.  If you are unable to find such a person, then feel free to contact us.  We will see what we can do to help.