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

Bringing Back Old Fashioned Play

“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple”

– Dr. Seuss

I though of this quote when I came across an article by Alix Speigel, Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills . This article touches on an important topic for all parents, which is the ever growing support on the importance of creative, “old fashioned” play. Please take a moment to read this article along with my post today.

Disorders like ADD and ADHD, childhood bipolar disorder, and Anxiety and Depression in children is reported to be at an all time high these days. While there is some controversy that these are over-diagnosed (which itself a topic for another blog post), it’s hard to deny that children today are struggling with issues surrounding poor impulse control, difficulty with emotional regulation, poor attention skills, etc. These are what we call “Executive Functions.” One of the current theories is that children today are not engaging in imaginative play, which researchers are discovering is a key component in developing executive functions. The types of toys available today, along with the electronics (tv, gaming systems, iPads) are what our kids are being exposed to and spending their time doing, rather than playing outside or using their imagination. A majority of people today think these latest and greatest toys and games make our kids smarter, but in fact, studies show just the opposite!

For those of you with preteens and teenagers, this information is still relevant. Rather than watching tv or game for 2 hours after school, have your kids journal, read, or build something outside. The possibilities are endless. Changing your expectations of them now, after the bad habits have formed, will be your greatest challenge. Start out slow, maybe requiring reading time for just 15 minutes a day. Suggest some fun activities you can do as a family. Get creative and make it a priority.

As a Play Therapist, I am encouraged by this growing research that supports the power of play in a child’s cognitive development. As a parent, I am relieved to know how simple it can be to create an enriched environment for my children to thrive and grow. We don’t have to spend a lot of money or stress that they don’t have the latest toy. Encouraging our children to play creatively with one another is one of the most important things we can do. Give them crayons, blocks, or a box and cheer on their imagination and zest for what the natural environment has to offer, rather than Mattel.

Here are some more articles on the topic I think you will find interesting.

Q&A: The Best Kind of Play for Kids

Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control

New York Times: Taking Play Seriously

Reasons to Get Moving!

I slept really well this weekend and even had more energy today and realized it was because I got to workout this weekend! Many people are familiar with the benefits of exercise on their physical health, but research shows just as many benefits to a person’s mental health as well. These benefits are both immediate (after the first session of physical activity) as well as long term. Exercise is a natural way to feel happier, less stressed, and improve your relationships. Not only is exercise good for your health, but it’s good for your kids too. So take a brief moment to read on, then grab a water, and get your body moving!

Depression: When a person exercises, their body releases endorphins, which are the chemicals in the body that lead to positive feelings. These positive feelings are said to be similar to those felt by morphine, the body’s natural pain killer, and are often referred to as the “runners high.”

Stress: When we are stressed, our body is in a “fight or flight” state and releases cortisol (sometimes called our stress-response hormone). If the body remains in this state over a long period of time, significant physical and psychological health problems arise. Exercise allows the body to return to a relaxed state and lowers those cortisol levels, therefore reducing stress.

Anxiety: Exercise has been shown to decrease anxiety in the same manner as it reduces stress. Regular aerobic exercise, such as biking, running, or swimming, has been found to be the most beneficial for reducing anxiety.

Sleep: Exercise increases the amount of time a person sleeps, and also leads to a more restful, higher quality, of sleep.

Relationships: Since people who exercise enjoy greater psychological health and are less stressed and irritable, their relationships benefit tremendously. This includes relationships with their significant other, children, and even co-workers!

Brain functioning:  Exercise triggers the release of serotonin in the brain, which improves a person’s mental clarity. And since they are more rested and not stuck in a “fight or flight” state, they are more alert and show a greater ability to focus on tasks.

Self-Esteem: Exercise just makes a person feel better about themselves. Their body will look and feel better and a person’s self-perception improves.

Finding time to exercise is one of the most difficult things for me and most people to do, especially as we gain more responsibilities in life. But as you can see, it is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves and for our families. Remember what I always say, you are a role model for your children! You want them to take care of themselves as an adult? Then you have to model good self care 🙂 Happy Exercising!

Brain Rules for Baby

After having my first baby, I checked out the audio book for Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. I loved it so much, I went out and bought the hardback. Now that I am pregnant again, I’m reading the book again! It presents current research on brain development for children under 5 years of age, starting with prenatal development. As parents we hear so many old wives tales about what is good for our kids and what is not. This book looks at some of those rumors and presents the research on the topic. I know, just the word RESEARCH is putting you to sleep. I wouldn’t recommend this book unless it was interesting enough for you to flip through and take a few ideas from. For example, did you know that babies who watch TV before the age of 2 have low IQ scores than those who do not? This includes the Baby Einstein videos! After some further research myself, I also found this was backed up by the American Pediatric Association. There is a ton of valuable information in the book. Just like any other source out there, take the information and apply it for what you know is right for your own baby and your family. That’s how I look at things.