The 10 Most Common Myths about Attachment & Trauma

The 10 Most Common Myths about Attachment & Trauma

There is so much that society doesn’t understand about attachment and trauma. People don’t “get it” when it comes to how a child can be traumatized, how a child reacts to trauma, and how difficult it is to help a child heal from early childhood trauma. The importance of forming healthy attachments and what can impede attachment are also generally misunderstood. Below are the Top 10 Myths ATN finds are common when discussing attachment and trauma:

MYTH: 1 – Problems with Attachment Rarely Happen/Aren’t Real

FACT: Because popular literature has declared Reactive Attachment Disorder as “relatively uncommon”, attachment problems are quickly dismissed as rarely occurring and therefore, unimportant. While it may be true that attachment problems are rare among emotionally healthy children raised by biological parents where no abuse, neglect or other trauma has occurred, tens of thousands of children do not live in that situation. Among children who have been traumatized, having difficulties attaching to their primary caregiver (parent) is much more common. The truth is that little research has been done on RAD or how childhood trauma impedes attachment to quantify this, but what initial research shows is that this is a much more widespread problem than is generally believed:

  • Among children who have experienced abuse, neglect or both, 87-95% show an insecure attachment. Crittenden, P.M. (1988), Relationships at Risk. In J. Belsky & T. Nezworski (Eds.), The Clinical Implications of Attachment (pp. 136-174). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • And how many have experienced abuse or neglect? According to a 2006 CDC study 1 out of 50 infants under one year old in the U.S., based on reports of maltreatment submitted to Child Protective Services (CPS). CDC Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, Vol 57, No. 13, pp 336-339 http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5713a2.htm.
  • Researchers identified attachment disorders in nearly two thirds of children in foster care and 20% of those living in homeless shelters. Boris NW, Wheeler, EE, Heller SS, Zeanah CH (2000). Attachment and Developmental Psychopathology. Psychiatry. 2000; 63: 75-84.
  • Of the 1 million children in the US adopted internationally or through foster care, 15% (150,000) have severe behavioral problems contributed to attachment and trauma issues; another 30 % (300,000) show “some” attachment and behavioral problems worthy of clinical treatment. Keeping the Promise: The Critical Need for Post-Adoption Services to Enable Children and Families to Succeed. October 2010. The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

MYTH 2– Attachment and trauma issues only happen to adoptees and mostly international ones.

FACT: Trauma and attachment difficulties can happen to any children who are traumatized whether by abuse, neglect, medical pain that is not mitigated, in-utero stress, or breaks from their primary caregiver. These things can happen anywhere to any child in any economic or social situation. Adoption itself does not CAUSE trauma, although the way in which an adoption or foster care move often happens, with little regard for the child’s emotional wellbeing, can be traumatizing as well.

There is no such thing as a “good orphanage experience” because infants and young children need more nurturing and adult interaction than can be provided in institutions. But attachment difficulties are not confined to specific foreign countries or children adopted overseas. Problems also occur to children adopted domestically who have been through multiple foster care placements or even adopted at birth if the mother was under extreme stress. Even children living with their biological parents who were separated from their parents due to illness or other hardships are at risk. Unmitigated pain, invasive medical procedures, high levels of stress, witnessing violence can all traumatize a child and lead to attachment problems.

MYTH 3– She/he was too young to remember.

FACT: Those who believe that infants are blank slates are still espousing their theories. But pre-verbal emotional trauma runs very deep and is lasting—not unlike a physical disability. In fact, emerging research shows that trauma and the chemicals associated with a person’s reaction to traumatic situations (mainly cortisol) actually alter the brain’s physical make up and development. Since humans’ brains grow in a hierarchical fashion (each part building on the previous), the earlier that trauma occurs, the more devastating and lasting its impact. Developmental trauma creates emotional disarray equally as daunting and challenging as any physical disability.

MYTH 4– You can predict which children will be affected.

FACT: Although certain risk factors can be identified, there is no guaranteed way to identify which child will have Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) or even a lasting trauma response. Despite this prevailing attitude in the adoption world, you can’t pick the “correct” place to adopt a child from that will ensure the child has not been traumatized. In addition to strong prevention programs to end childhood abuse and neglect worldwide, what is needed is more awareness of trauma, its causes, and its lasting effects. For the adoptive/foster care community, it should be understood that ALL children in foster care or available for adoption are “at risk” for trauma and attachment problems, just by virtue of being in the system. A significantly increased emphasis on post-adoption services is most critical . Parent training, support and resources are paramount. These traumatized kids should not be ignored or stigmatized, and neither should the families who are raising them. Physically disabled children have significant support when they are adopted, and we are asking for no more than the same for our emotionally disabled kids.

MYTH 5– With enough love and support, they’ll grow out of it.

FACT: Sacrificial love is necessary to parent a traumatized child, but as a national network of parents of traumatized children we can attest to the inaccuracy of this statement. Other children with disabilities are not expected to “grow out of them”. Love is not enough. Other children with disabilities are given special accommodations and many go on to succeed. Emotionally disabled children deserve the same chance. If not, many may end up in mental hospitals or the criminal justice system, both of which are already over populated with adults who were traumatized as children. The social cost of ignoring the lasting effects of trauma and attachment disorders is significantly higher than providing more resources, training and support (post-adoptive services) to help parents help their traumatized children.

MYTH 6: Just call your agency for help.

FACT: Social service agencies are so overloaded and are focused on getting children out of the foster care program and either reunited with their birth families or available for adoption. Adoption agencies are in the business of getting a child adopted. Agencies are NOT currently focused on the children’s emotional health or the resources, therapies and support traumatized children need. Information on children’s histories, conditions, disabilities, etc. are paltry. One needs to look to other sources of evaluation before adoptions are finalized, and even then there is never a guarantee. What is needed is the assurance that if one does need special help because you’re parenting of a special needs kid, the help will be there.

MYTH 7 – Bad parenting causes these children to behave this way.

FACT: If a child had epilepsy and they had a seizure would you blame the parents for it? Yet, behaviors from traumatized children are very similar. Research indicates that trauma, especially pre-verbal trauma, distorts brain chemistry and impedes normal functioning. Traumatized children can be more impulsive, less able to self-soothe, more impacted by sensory input, and less likely to understand emotional cues of the people around them. These children often present as oppositional to their parents, and sometimes others in authority. And parents with no training and support are frequently overwhelmed by the child’s behaviors and may believe themselves to be at fault. The parents aren’t to be blamed. On the contrary, they should be commended for taking on such a daunting and draining challenge. Understanding the impact trauma has on attachment, and attachment has on emotional health is the starting place for therapeutic parenting of traumatized children.

MYTH 8– Other children have had bad things happen to them, and they’re fine.

FACT: Everyone has had bad things happen to them. Many of us have experienced tragedies, but usually in the context of a safe, loving family. In other words, if we were able to attach to our primary caregiver early on, and had an emotionally healthy world view, each of life’s tragedies was easier to bear and less detrimental to our emotional health. Having someone you’re attached to lessens the risk that traumatic events will cause lasting damage. But, each case is different. At ATN, we tell families that their children “don’t choose their traumas.” That means that what is traumatizing to one person in one situation, would not necessarily be to another person in the same situation. We cannot judge from our adult, emotionally-healthy perspective what is traumatizing to a child. It would be impossible to assess how a child is going to react. The child’s particular nature, their previous attachment history, their emotional sensitivities, their genes, their other disabilities—all these things play a role in how a child reacts to trauma. Even if we’re “fine” after bad things happen to us, trauma leaves some level of mark on all of us.

MYTH 9 – He/she seems normal to me.

FACT: Children with attachment disorders (specifically with RAD) often do not act anywhere near the same with others as they do with their parents. In fact, they can be very charming and polite with others. By its very nature, a disorder of attachment means that the child will have the hardest time feeling safe with the people trying to be the most intimate with him/her – the parents! If you know this child casually, you’re not a threat. To protect themselves from ever being vulnerable again, children with RAD tend to push intimates (i.e. parents, specifically mothers) away. This behavior can range from being annoying and frustrating to parents to full-blown violence and danger. In fact, a common profile of families living with a child who has RAD is that the parents will seem unexplainably angry or depressed and any other children in the family will seem withdrawn or exhibit negative behaviors themselves because of the constant pressure within the household. To a casual observer, the child with RAD can appear to be the “healthy” one until you realize what is happening inside the home. Family and friends of parents who have undergone a radical “personality change” after adopting or fostering a child, can help those parents by recognizing that there may be more going on in the home than meets the public eye. Helping these parents find attachment and trauma resources, like ATN, is crucial.

MYTH 10– They have special schools, programs, medications for that.

FACT: There are interventions, therapies and therapeutic parenting strategies that help heal traumatized children. None are a panacea and many are costly and require much hard work over long periods of time. Sadly, most educators, social services agencies and medical professionals know little about these interventions. There are no medications for trauma or attachment disorders. In some cases medications to help alleviate anxiety, reduce impulsivity or curb rages can help. But the underlying trauma isn’t healed with medications. This damage needs years of consistent therapeutic parenting, therapy and deep understanding of this disability. Parenting a traumatized child or one with RAD is probably the most challenging parenting a person can do. Schools, treatment programs, therapies, and interventions for traumatized children and their families are few and far between.

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