Trauma & Attachment
Trauma is a sensory experience in which the individual feels as if their life were in danger or if their personal integrity or well-being was significantly threatened. The tricky thing about trauma is that it is based on the INDIVIDUAL’S experience of the event and doesn’t even have to be directly experienced. A traumatic event that happened to a loved one, that was witnessed, or observed in news media can result in a trauma response just as if it directly impacted the person. When a child experiences trauma, their sense of safety and the rhythm of life can be disrupted and they can end up with significant changes in their behavior, thinking, emotions & behavior. These changes can lead to difficulties in multiple life areas.
Attachment refers to the parent-child relationship and disrupted attachments are relationships between a child and caregiver that can be very complicated. Attachment styles and disruptions are also found in adult relationships and can also be quite complicated. Attachment disruptions are a common difficulty associated with trauma, loss, or difficulties within the parent-child relationship. Children who are placed in foster care and are adopted may come with significant attachment disruptions that complicate the parent-child relationship and make caregiving very challenging. Fortunately, children and adults can learn skills that enhance the parent-child relationship and heal the traumas the child has experienced.
Negative Impacts of Trauma & Attachment Difficulties
Children who have experienced trauma & attachment disruptions can experience difficulties in relationships with parents, foster/adoptive parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and adults. These difficulties can range from mild relational anxiety where the child is clingy & pre-occupied with the others or disconnected & hard to engage. However, some children experience greater disruptions in which they become bossy, aggressive, and difficult to manage. Knowing the impact of trauma and attachment difficulties is crucial for effectively connecting with a child to avoid triggering their anxiety, detachment, or defensive aggression.
Behavioral disruptions in children with trauma & attachment disruptions are commonly mistaken for defiance or disrespect. Due to their experiences, particularly with relationships trauma, some children are very quick to become aggressive in a manner that they believe is necessary for self-protection. However, the behavior is rooted in preserving their personal integrity or safety rather than being defiant or rude. Unfortunately, standard behavioral interventions sometimes trigger these behaviors and create a negative cycle between the child and a parent or teacher. Effective relationship based skills to correct difficult behaviors are necessary for overcoming the defensiveness some of these children live with on a daily basis.
Trauma and attachment disruptions directly impact the child’s ability to regulate emotions and cope with difficulties. As a result, these children can become quickly “dysregulated” when triggered. The dysregulation may cause a child to cry easily, withdrawal from others, or attack others either verbally or physically. Typical strategies of regulating emotions and coping with adversity are sometimes not enough for these children. The original experiences of trauma & relationship difficulties have to be addressed so that the child has new & different experiences. These new experiences in which the child may feel safe in the context of a relationship of be able to master their experience provide the building blocks for greater emotional regulation and healing.
Negative View of Self, Others, & the World
When a child experiences repeated traumas or chronic difficulties in relationships, their perception of self, others, and the world can significantly change. The child may adopt a self-concept that they are unwanted, unloved, or unlikable which filters into every relationship they have with others. The child may become withdrawn, argumentative, or aggressive with others. Bullying behavior typically has its roots in a negative perception of self and others resulting in a shut-down in emotions and negative behavior toward others. These difficulties may not appear until the adolescent years when all the brain pathways laid down in childhood flourish. The result can sometimes be a shocking change related to peer group, self-expression, interests in risky or negative sub-culture, and challenging behaviors. Therefore, it is crucial to address these changes in thoughts, mood, and cognition during childhood and teen years to prevent further negative self-evaluation and poor life outcomes.
Children and teens who experience trauma & attachment disruptions typically have difficulties with academic achievement. Some children with high intelligence and academic skills can find solace in their studies and find academic achievement a source of resilience and strength. However, more commonly, children who are dealing with trauma have difficulty concentrating, processing information, memory, and problem solving. Many times, children of trauma are misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) because the variation in their levels of arousal, high and low, can mimic the symptoms of ADD. Therefore, they may have gaps in memory or variation in skills & abilities that are confusing to parents and teachers. Often times, the child who exhibits low arousal (hypoaroused) is overlooked because their behavior isn’t disturbing other students. However, these children struggle academically just as much has children with high arousal (hyperarousal). In addition, children of trauma typically vacillate between high and low arousal states throughout the day. Classroom strategies and interventions can offset these difficulties by addressing the self-regulation and creating a safe learning environment for a child impacted by trauma.
Long-Term Health Consequences
When a child experiences trauma and attachment disruptions, there can be long-term health consequences including cancer and heart disease. In addition, it is common for children of trauma to engage in high-risk behaviors such as smoking, alcohol, and drug use which further increases health risks. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study followed 17,000 people and found that difficult experiences in childhood lead to increased risk of negative health outcomes. Therefore, supporting a child in their daily life to effectively cope with traumatic experiences is crucial for long-term health & well-being.