Attachment and Trauma – Part 1

In our society, a healthy attachment is thought to be one which encourages children’s growth and development, not just physically but intellectually.and emotionally also.

Attachments between children and their carers during the very early years of a child’s life are thought to be like a blueprint for how the child will grow up thinking about themselves, other people and the world around them. For example, certain experiences in a child’s earliest stages of life may leave a child believing that they are unlovable and bad, that other people don’t care for them because of their badness, or that other people can’t be trusted and that the world around them is a very dangerous and unpredictable place. To survive, these children believe they have to control everything that happens around them and trust no-one. Such children would experience difficulties in forming relationships with others as they grow up. They may also have behavioural or psychological difficulties which stop them from getting on at school.

They would have experienced what is known as a “compromised attachment”. In other words, they have experienced situations which have disrupted the usual process of bonding and attachment that occurs before a baby’s birth and in the first months of life.

Whilst there are many factors that can affect the quality ofa child’s attachment (and their later developnlent), one important thing that can have an impact, is whether a child experiences TRAUMA and how the child makes sense of that trauma to themselves.

Potential traumas include:
a)     Pre-birth and birth traumas, e.g. prematurity, emergency delivery etc.
b)     Extended or frequent separations from the mother, e.g. hospitalisations, SCBU, foster-care.
c)     Undiagnosed painful illnesses/conditions.
d)     Neglectful care by parents.
e)     Emotional, physical or sexual abuse.
f)     Parental difficulties which have an impact upon their care of their infant, e.g. own compromised attachments, mental health difficulties, substance misuse etc often producing inconsistent care of young children.

Some children and families cope well with traumas and these children appear to suffer no long-lasting negative effects on their development or ability to form secure attachments. However, those children who do appear to be adversely affected and most at risk of developing later behavioural and emotional difficulties are those who:

1    are most vulnerable due to genetic predisposition or pre-birth traumas.
2    experience repeated severe events or chronic traumatic situations, e.g. gross neglect, inter-familial abuse and/or extremely unpredictable, inconsistent parenting.
3    experience trauma early rather than later in infancy and babyhood.

Early trauma can therefore result in a child experiencing attachment difficulties. Children can show these difficulties through the following behaviours:

A.  Difficulties of behaviour/emotion
1.  Destructiveness
2.  Cruelty towards others (physical and verbal)
3.  Lying
4.  Impulsiveness
5.  Apparent lack of fear
6.  Difficulties in “cause and effect” thinking
7.  Poorly developed sense of right and wrong
8.  Concreteness of thought
9.  Speech and developmental delays
10. Excessive talkativeness
11. Abnormal eating patterns
12. Wetting/soiling
13. Preoccupation with violence/death/fire
14. Self-harming behaviours
15. Stealing

B.  Difficulties interacting with others
1.  Poor eye contact
2.  Indiscriminate affection
3.  Superficial relationships
4.  Clinginess
5.  Excessive, unreasonable demands
6.  Difficulties compromising
7.  Control issues
8.  Ability to play off others~ black and white perceptions of others as “goodies” or “baddies” and/or tendency to try to control others
9.  Inability to express/receive affection or praise

These behaviours in themselves can also be as a result of other difficulties. Therefore, just because a child you know shows one or two of these features does not mean they have attachment difficulties. However, a child who shows a number of these behaviours to a severe level (consistently and over a long period of time, with an early life history which indicates the possible presence of trauma), could be behaving in these ways because of severe attachment and relationship difficulties.

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