Karyn Purvis: Real Hope and Help for Healing

(Today I am live-blogging conference sessions at the Together For Adoption Pre-Conference.)


The speaker is Karyn Purvis, author of the book The Connected Child. More resources including videos are on the Empowered To Connect website.

Adopting a child is not the same as bringing home a child by birth.  New adoptive parents ask: “Thanks a lot- you’ve got me into this—now what do I do?”

Purvis says: “I tell parents, I have a word of knowledge. Parents who are living with the child are the experts.”

In her work she sees many families who’ve lost joy in their journey. She wants to equip parents ahead of time, so that parents can respond appropriately when they see behavior. There is a point of impact in an adoption.  From the point of impact a spiral begins, up or down. If we do a better job preparing parents to respond appropriately, ahead of time, the family can have a positive spiral towards healing.

When you’re riding horse and want to stop, you pull the reins back. If you pull too hard, the horse backs up or bucks. The same thing happens with children. Parents get so eager to extinguish problem behaviors that they overdo correction. Purvis has seen children literally being driven into psychosis by too much over-control attempted by parents. The good thing is that children are forgiving when we get back on track.

If we truly want to be supporters of adoption, we must call people to foster and adopt with INTEGRITY. Prepare them. We can’t smooth over the difficulty. Adopted children have hurts that nobody should have.

And yet there is hope.  What we know from science can inform families. Purvis says she “loves it when science gives us a little glimpse of God.”

Purvis says she has “never seen a child who could not come to dramatic levels of healing.” Kids yearn to connect. However, the most tender-hearted kids, when not able to connect, become most aggressive and are worst behaved.

Karyn Purvis did a camp for kids that turned into an international project. In a week of high nurture activities, kids made unprecedented advances in behavior. After a week at camp one mother reported: “My child, home 3 years, trusted me enough to fall asleep in my arms for the first time ever.”

There is hope.

And there is great need.  Embattled mothers are at high risk for auto-immune disease. Women were made for nurturing relationships. When mothers are rebuffed, they break down. The church needs to be a safe place for struggling families.

How could trust occur in a week at these Purvis summer camps? It is because an environment was created that MET unmet needs. “recovery of function recapitulates development of function”. Recreate optimal environment—think of a good mother nurturing her infant, responding when he cries, meeting his needs  –and brain turns back on.  Components of a nurturing environment:

• Sensory rich

• Eye contact

• Food every 2 hours

• Touch

Do activities with deep connection. And remember that parents have 12 words that kids hear. After that, they just sound like the adults in Peanuts cartoons.  Ask your kids for eye contact: “Let me see those great eyes.”  Get kids to work with you, while respecting their space. Be willing to compromise, but keeping asking for connection.  Once kids feel safe, they will start talking a blue streak. The “attachment” part of the brain is connected to the communication part of the brain. The brain will activate with proper stimulation.

If sensory processing channels don’t mature, child can’t mature emotionally. Sensory is part of connection and relationship. But most important is relationship. Tools alone don’t bring healing.

All development proceeds in this order: cephalocaudal, then proximal, then distal.  (basically: brain, core, extremities.) You’ve gotta deal with brain first. If needs were not met inside the brain of the child, they can’t model positive behavior on the outside.  It is not about sanctioning bad behavior—Purvis believes in having zero tolerance for disrespect and disobedience. But connection is the only way to reach the child and definitively deal with bad behavior.

Your goal should be: Help heal this baby (whether an infant or a teen).  We shouldn’t give the child the message: “you’ve gotta look better, you’ve gotta do better, you’ve gotta be better.”

The parenting modeled by an adoptive family can’t look like everyone else’s. A child with good healthy attachment can be parented successfully in a wide range of ways.   The more hurt a child is,  the narrower the range of  parenting that will be effective.

People see kids of a certain age and expect a certain behavior—but it won’t necessarily look that way in an adoptive family. Keep in mind that even very young kids can mask fear. Parents need insight that builds compassion, so they won’t just attack behavior. We need to understand what is driving behavior or we will never create a healing home.

Children’s art has been found to be very indicative of their emotional status, and their feelings about their family.  It can be admitted into court hearings as evidence. For example, if a child draws himself in a box, he thinks he has to protect himself from danger—that is always a sign of trauma and fear.  Long necks in drawings indicate a deep need for each other.  Figures that are floating without feet on the ground is a sign of no sense of foundation. A figure that has no hands and feet means the child feels powerless.

Challenging children take a toll on the whole family. Bio kids in a home with struggling kids will actually draw more distorted family pictures than the foster or adopted kids. Kids know they are loved by time, attention and value on a daily basis.  And often time and attention is being pulled away from the healthy kids to deal with the less healthy ones.  Well-attached kids do have more more resources to deal with this.  But that doesn’t mean they are immune to the effects.

Kids have to have a voice. Parents have to have a voice. Shared power is important in the attachment relationship. Everyone needs to feel safe.  Parents need training to make it work for everyone. We can help any child come to dramatic healing. But it won’t happen in a vacuum.  We need to minister to families with integrity. We need to teach people to be proactive about behaviors, while still ministering to children with great compassion.


  1. Can not wait to hear more details – sounds like a wonderful conference!!!

  2. Hey Mary, I think you’ve done a great job blogging what she said (I was there! LOL!).

    It really was a wonderful day.

    I didn’t see you there, but maybe I’ll get a chance to say Hi tomorrow sometime!

  3. Thank you so much for sending this info our way!

  4. Fabulous!!! Wish I was there with you, Mary. Hugs!

  5. Wow. This has me wondering if I should even be considering adoption. There are some things in there that I knew but some big ones that I didn’t. I guess I’m just wondering how you do this with your family still intact when it’s over.

  6. “Embattled mothers are at high risk for auto-immune disease.” Can you tell me more about this? Did Karyn say more about it? Do you know anywhere that I can read more about it? I have two friends who have both adopted and both are facing mysterious auto-immune diseases.

    • Celina, Long term stress exhausts the adrenals and makes a woman’s body more prone to break down. It is a highly unnatural thing to love a child who repeatedly rebuffs you and is non-reciprocal in the relationship….