Child Abuse Awareness Month: Early Trauma And Attachment

April is Child Abuse Awareness Month, so I am thinking a lot about my own work with children who have been affected by abuse and/or neglect. As you can imagine, in this field we come across too many.

I am hoping to address this topic in several posts this month, but I want to start by answering one of the most common questions people have regarding treatment for abused and neglected children.

“If the kids are too young to remember the trauma or abuse, then what can you really do to help them?”

This question of course implies that the child was very young when the trauma occurred. It’s true that kids who are removed from their abusive or neglectful homes before the age of 3 may not have memories of their tragic beginning. However, their experiences up to that point have played a huge role in forming their perceptions of the world (trust in people, for example), their ability to regulate their emotions, and even developmental delays. In other words, these children often have problems with their¬†cognitive, social, and emotional development as a result of their early environments, not necessarily because of their memories of the experience.

Reactive Attachment Disorder

Babies who are not able to form a healthy attachment with their caregiver (primarily the mother) will have a difficult time forming healthy attachments throughout their lifetime and may be diagnosed with an attachment disorder, known as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).

Most children I work with who are in foster care or adopted have RAD. I’m sure many parents have heard that the first year or three years of life are the most important. Well, this is one of the reasons. When a baby cries and no one comes to them, or if a baby never receives affection and attention, they learn that the world is not dependable and people cannot be trusted to meet their needs. The result of this can take on a couple of different forms. Some children form attachments with anyone and develop unhealthy (and even unsafe) boundaries with others. Other children decide not to form attachments at all. Either way, this affects them well into adulthood, not to mention all the years in between.

For individuals and families who are considering adoption or foster care, I strongly suggest gaining as much knowledge and understanding as you can. Too often, I work with foster parents or adoptive couples who were not prepared to handle the difficulties that MAY come when adopting a child. I truly believe these issues are addressed more quickly and with more patience when the parent is ready and armed with information.

For more information on RAD, visit these links:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Mayo Clinic

Zero to Three National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families

A Trustworthy Mentor for Your Adolescent

trustworthy-mentorBeing a therapist to so many adolescents and pre-adolescents has given me a unique opportunity that most parents never experience. I am privy to information about the inner lives and social lives of these kids during what some people consider the most difficult times of growing up.

The teen and pre-teen years are riddled with self-identification, hormonal changes, and social pressures that most of us would not return to in a million years, even if there are some good memories sprinkled here and there. As their therapist, it’s my job to determine when a parent needs to be made aware of certain circumstances and when maintaining confidentiality is in the best interest of the teen. This is a struggle for parents sometimes, but I have found that most often they are comfortable (and even relieved) in knowing that their teenager is in good hands. I take this as a compliment when they have confidence in my judgement, and I value this confidence and trust, from both parents and kids.

However, not all kids are in counseling or need to be in counseling. Does this mean an adolescent is not facing a difficult personal decision or social pressures they feel they cannot handle? Absolutely not. No matter who they are, they will face some very challenging circumstances during these years. And unfortunately, they may find it too difficult to come to a parent for help. Even when they have a great relationship with a parent, sometimes kids worry about disappointing their mom or dad. Other times, they overestimate their maturity or ability to handle the problem.

I recommend that parents encourage their adolescent kids to foster a relationship with another adult that the parent trusts, such as a godparent, grandparent, or close family friend. Give them permission to confide in this person in the event they feel they cannot talk to their parents. The purpose of this is so that the teen has a safe person to turn to and the parent also feels comfortable their child is in good hands. Many times, this trusted adult can help the child tell their parent about the situation by being a source of support and can guide them in making better choices.

My final note on this topic is to always continue to build and maintain a positive and healthy relationship with your teenager, because ultimately, you want them to confide in you for guidance and support. As a parent, I want more than anything to have close relationships with my son and daughter. Experience has taught me though that this doesn’t mean they will tell me everything going on in their lives, especially during their adolescent years. For parents who have raised a teenager or two, I am always wondering, how did you do it? I would love to hear your comments!