Children and Trauma

Working with children and trauma has become of primary interest to me over the past few years, as for the second time in my professional life, I have found myself in a position of working with foster and adoptive families. Most of the children being cared for by foster parents have been physically abused, or neglected for much of their lives. Many have been emotionally abused and some have been sexually abused. Almost all have had a series of moves, both with birth parents and then within the foster care system, which creates additional trauma.

In infancy and early childhood, as discussed in other articles, children are building attachment with primary caregivers based on the interactions they experience. Their brains are trying to make sense of who they are, how the world works and how they need to behave in order to thrive or simply survive.

Abused children, whether the abuse is emotional, physical, or neglectful, have made a blueprint for relationships and developed an internal belief system based on early life experiences that tells them, in most cases, things like “no one will be there for me, I have to take care of myself’, “big people will hurt you”, “when I am bad, people send me away”, and even “I am unlovable, I am a bad person”.

They will behave in ways that keep this belief system in place, as they truly believe that their survival depends on it. What looks like abnormal behavior to us is adaptive behavior for them. From their viewpoint this behavior is the only way they will survive.

When infants do not have nurturing, responsive care in the early weeks and months of their lives, the foundational building blocks of the brain are also impacted. Causal thinking – the ability to understand cause and effect, to plan and organize – is compromised.

Abused children’s basic sense of trust in themselves and in caregivers is lessened, as is their ability to learn delayed gratification. If you cannot trust that you have the power to impact your world, and cannot depend on others to meet even your basic needs, as you grow, it makes sense that ‘waiting’ for anything will be very difficult.

Many children being abused or neglected have no one in their environment who pays any attention to emotions, and often feelings are either ignored or invalidated. The result is children who have little ability to understand their own feelings, and thus do not develop another foundational brain building block called conscience development, which leads to empathy. If we cannot understand and process our own emotions we certainly cannot put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and feel what they feel.

Foster parents and other caregivers living with children who have suffered chronic trauma in the form of physical or other abuse, sometimes take the child’s behavior personally, and have difficulty dealing with some of the behaviors, especially aggressive behaviors. I have found in my work that when foster parents, adoptive parents and other caregivers begin to understand the attachment process and the foundational building blocks of brain development, and the relationship between children and trauma, they begin to have a deeper understanding.

With some knowledge of how to rebuild attachment and add to the building of the brain, in addition to some new behavior management tools they discover that they can have great impact on the children in their care.

This DVD contains in-depth information about attachment, brain development and children and trauma.