If something scary happens to a baby (BABY of any age–1-day-old to 3-years-old) like being taken suddenly from the mother and given to another person who is definitely not the mother, the brain goes into survival mode and the baby becomeshypervigilant, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. For most of these babies, thehypervigilance becomes the norm for life. “Felt safety” is the only cure, and getting that is extremely hard. Eventually, getting safety in an adoptive home is possible, but “felt safety” is harder, like creating a sculpture out of water–extremely elusive.
Hypervigilance can look many different ways in our kids. In my house both of my children had to know what was going on in our house at every moment. They inserted themselves into everything. When they were very young, I couldn’t clean the toilet without an audience. By the way, this did not make them excellent toilet cleaners either. I could barely pee alone.
Today, my son is 5″10″, 17.8-years-old, and still popping out of his room the minute he hears me move about the house. He comes rushing in my direction to ask a question; to tell me something random; to get food; to check on the dog; to get a hug; sometimes he can’t think of a reason and just stands awkwardly right behind me. Every day when I get home from work, the second he hears the garage door open in the basement, he runs down the stairs toward my car. He cannot help himself. His need to know persists. Before I get home he looks out the window for me dozens of times. He isn’t scared, per se, he is anxious and hypervigilant.
I feel sad for the level of anxiety he carries that makes him so alert, on edge, and intrusive with his presence. I used to feel badgered to death by little nips, but that is long over. Now I feel more for him, for his internal life, for his lack of “felt safety” despite how safe he has actually been for the past 15 years.
He takes medication and neurofeedback for his anxiety. He copes by deep breathing and thinking skills. I sooth him with hugs when he finds himself near me for no apparent reason. His brain has 10 or so more years to fully develop. I am hopeful that continued support in this way will lead him, ultimately, to a “felt sense of safety” in his own mind and body. I am hopeful.
Ce Eshelman, LMFT
Believe that change can happen and it does.