A recent study of childhood trauma found that 25 percent of their sample (ages 9 through 16) had experienced at least one potentially traumatic event in their lives. This study was continued five years later and 68 percent of participants had experienced a traumatic event by age 16. Exposure to these events is occurring at near epidemic rates and something needs to be done.
Trauma is an experience that poses a real or perceived threat of death or serious personal injury. These experiences can vary from person to person, as the same event may be processed differently by different people. A minor car accident may elicit distressing symptoms, such as flashbacks and nightmares, in one person, while another is barely affected.
When we think of traumatic experiences the most extreme typically come to mind: violent crime, abuse, and natural disasters. Much of what we focus on would be referred to as attachment trauma, which is a disruption in a relationship between child and caregiver through adoption, foster care, death of a parent, or divorce. It can also result from a parent engaging in chronic physically or emotionally abusive behavior towards a child, being extremely emotionally unavailable, or severely inconsistent in his or her responses to the child.
Children differ in resiliency and perception, just like adults. If a child has a biological sensitivity to certain stressors or has experienced excessive or intense stress, his or her response may be more severe. In general, children who experience attachment trauma have difficulty forming secure, meaningful relationships with others. This can apply to their foster or adoptive parents, extended family members, friends, and romantic partners later in life.
These children are often described as “oppositional,” “defiant,” “acting out,” and “difficult.” Depending on the extent of their early experiences, these children may be in a constant state of fight-or-flight. They live in a constant state of panic and are ready to fight, flee, or freeze at the drop of a hat. These children tend to have significant difficulty self-regulating and are sometimes referred to as “dysregulated.” Their emotional reactions can be extreme, inconsistent, or inappropriate, leading to misdiagnoses of ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder.
Adults who have experienced attachment trauma may have difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships with peers, partners, family members, and even their children. Attachment style can be transmitted from generation to generation through ongoing parent-child interactions. Parents may benefit from processing their own trauma history with a therapist and can implement attachment-sensitive parenting strategies to promote a healthier connection with their children.
Through years of research, clinical practice, and trial-and-error, some effective strategies have emerged for working with kids with attachment trauma. Unfortunately, not all professionals are educated in this area and ineffective practices are still being utilized, which was one of the reasons Project Bond was founded.
Parent education is crucial to the success of these children, as parents are responding to their behavior and emotions on a day-to-day basis. Individual and/or family therapy is helpful in assisting the child in processing his or her trauma history and developing healthy coping skills. Therapy can help the parent and child enhance their bond and work towards a more secure attachment. All individuals working or having extended contact with this child should be educated on attachment trauma and how to approach and support him or her. This includes school staff, medical professionals, extended family members, and substitute caregivers (i.e. babysitters, nannies, day care staff). A team approach can make all the difference to future outcomes.
Attachment Trauma Experts
Daniel Hughes, Ph.D. developed dyadic developmental psychotherapy, which is based on attachment theory and trauma research. He has worked to build secure attachments between many children and their families over the years and currently trains clinical staff in his treatment. Dr. Hughes has numerous publications, including Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Troubled Children and Attachment-Focused Parenting: Effective Strategies to Care for Children.
Daniel Siegel, M.D., author of one of our favorite books, Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive, has been a pioneer in understanding the impact of trauma on the brain. His focus is not only on child development, but how our childhood experiences impact our perceptions and behavior throughout the lifespan. Additional publications of Dr. Siegel’s worth checking out include Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain and Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation.
Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., founded the ChildTrauma Academy in Texas, which is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of children who have experienced trauma through service provision, research, and education. He has conducted his own research on and worked with high-risk children who have experienced neglect and trauma. Dr. Perry developed the Neurosequential Model of treatment, which takes into account developmental and neurobiological needs and strengths. He has several publications, including The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healingand Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential and Endangered.
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For more information, check out these posts:
Who’s Who in the World of Trauma?
The Scope of Trauma
When Kids Don’t Get There: Reactive Attachment Disorder
The Call to Bond
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly