Trauma, Attachment, and Healing

Article written by Brenda Scheffler, LCSW (Lead Therapist for Reactive Attachment Disorder at Youth Home, Inc.)

As I sat down to write this article, I was flooded with memories. Most of those memories are of very stressful and overwhelmingly challenging experiences. Most of the challenges were due to the severe emotional and behavioral difficulties that my children were dealing with as a result of the severity of early trauma and attachment issues.  Some of the challenges were due to the lack of support and understanding from the “systems” in place to help youth and families like ours.

My husband and I were therapeutic foster parents for about 7 years, and then we adopted two boys. One of them moved in at age 7 and the other at age 15. I could write pages on the horrific experiences that they had before they moved in with us. I could write pages on the negative experiences that we had while raising them. Those experiences aren’t what kept us going – kept us committed, though. What kept us going was our faith, our belief in the healing process, and knowing how deeply they needed us to work through the depth of what they had gone through.

I remember when my 7 year old said, “me thought no one would ever love me.” I can’t imagine being 7 with that belief. What a sense of worthlessness and hopelessness that belief would create. That’s just one of the many beliefs that these children hold that lead to some of the maladaptive behaviors that they show. My sons are both adults now. They have made tremendous strides in their lives. They are both loving, securely attached, and family oriented. I know that’s not the experience that everyone has, though. Despite our best efforts, some of these youth remain detached and not able to fully participate in what it means to be a family. That doesn’t mean that they don’t benefit from the love and stability that they’ve been given.

When infants have a safe, nurturing and protective environment, they learn to develop trust and reciprocity in relationships, which lays the foundation for future relationships. This foundation helps them to develop self-control, regulate their emotions, and develop empathy in relationships as well as appreciation and gratitude. It helps them develop a healthy self-identity, sense of self-worth, and to have improved resiliency in coping with life stressors.

When infants are not provided this protective environment, such as those who have experienced prenatal drug or alcohol exposure, abuse or neglect, or have been exposed to chaos or violence in their environment, they are at risk of developing serious problems throughout their development. Children, between the time of conception and age three, are particularly vulnerable because their brains are developing at a rapid rate. This is the stage of development when basic trust in the parent-child relationship is either formed or unformed (even damaged).

Trauma at this stage of life can create attachment trauma. A child can be removed from an abusive or neglectful environment and placed in a new one that provides for their safety and well-being, but the attachment trauma persists. Children may not have a cognitive memory of the trauma, but the trauma remains embedded in their brain and has impaired their development.

Some of the symptoms of a disrupted attachment are:

  • Negative beliefs about self, parents, the world.
  • Needy, clingy or pseudo-independence.
  • Resistance to being parented (oppositional, defiant, controlling, manipulative).
  • Lack of self-control, very impulsive.
  • Lack of cause and effect thinking.
  • Difficulties in developing and maintaining peer relationships.
  • Lack of empathy, remorse, compassion, and reciprocity in relationships.
  • Superficially engaging and charming.
  • Aggressive and destructive behaviors.
  • Create chaos when things are calm.  Sabotage success or relationships.
  • Difficulties with trust, intimacy and genuine affection.

When adults have not healed from their early attachment traumas, they risk lacking the skills necessary to in turn develop secure attachments with their children, thus creating a multi-generational impact from attachment trauma.

The behaviors of a child impacted by attachment trauma will vary from child to child, and those with more severe emotional/behavioral difficulties can create significant stress in the family. At times, family members (parents & siblings) suffer from secondary trauma as a result of this. Despite the challenges these behaviors present, focusing on the behaviors will not result in healing (or positive change). Their behaviors are not ignored, but addressed through the context of relationships. This means looking at the triggers of the behaviors, evaluating the unmet needs of the child, and developing interventions which address the underlying causes of the behavior. It means taking a step back and asking “I wonder why…” What is the unmet need or fear driving the behavior? What new experiences in the relationship does the child need to alter those belief systems? What skills are necessary for the child to learn in order to have more positive relationships, regulate his/her emotions, to feel loveable and worthwhile, to development an adequate sense of self?

Addressing the needs of a child with attachment trauma can be a difficult journey. Healing involves:

  • Therapy that addresses attachment trauma – focuses on the parent-child relationship. Many parents have described to me how some therapists have only added to their lack of self-confidence and shamed them due to not understanding attachment trauma.
  • Parenting from a trauma informed care perspective – addressing unmet needs/undeveloped skills and enhancing trust in the parent-child relationship.
  • Creating a structured environment that provides for the safety and stability of the entire family.
  • Having a support system for everyone in the family with therapy, support groups, respite care, engaging in activities that bring joy, exploring activities that promote self-care, and other means of support through the community. 

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