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 different forms. Some children form attachments with anyone and develop unhealthy (an even unsafe) boundaries with others. Other children decide not to form an attachment 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 have a foster parent or adoptive couple 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:

Reactive Attachment Disorder Video

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Mayo Clinic

Support Groups by State

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

Author: Kim Peterson, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Kim is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Clinical Supervisor, and Registered Play Therapist in Dallas, Texas.

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