There is nothing quite like the bond shared between children and their parents. This loving bond begins from the very moment of birth.
When an infant cries out and a parent hurries to soothe the child, the child learns that the adults in their life provide safety and comfort. A parent will assuage their child’s fears over and over again, reinforcing the relationship and building trust in what is known as the Attachment Cycle. The child grows to learn that they have a voice and that their needs matter, which makes the world seem like a safe place. They also learn that adults provide comfort and love, which leads to healthy attachments based on trust.
Neglect Can Lead to Unhealthy Attachments
Unfortunately, for children who did not experience a nurturing relationship with adults from a young age, they instead associate adults with untrustworthiness and develop their own coping mechanisms to deal with fear and discomfort. These coping mechanisms can include negative behaviors, such as outbursts, meltdowns, and harm to self and others.
Indeed, neglect can be just as damaging as abuse. According to UNICEF, the early childhood years from birth to the age of eight are formative years for developing intelligence, personality, and social behavior, with the first two years being particularly crucial. For a child who is neglected by caregivers or cycles through multiple foster homes or an orphanage, it is only logical that they would develop a worldview in which adults cannot be relied upon for safety or comfort. Thus, a child with developmental trauma disorder (DTD) is not acting out to provoke their caregivers; they are simply acting out of a sense of self-preservation in a seemingly cruel and unforgiving world.
Unhealthy Attachments and Brain Chemistry
Many parents who adopt children with attachment challenges expect that showing consistent love to their child can undo the factors that lead to unhealthy attachments. Although parents work hard to communicate to their child that they are in a safe environment with loving caregivers, the neglect from early childhood has already been internalized.
According to the TBRI model, one can think of the brain as being separated into two parts: the Downstairs Brain and the Upstairs Brain. The Downstairs Brain is fully-formed when the child is born. It serves as the foundational, primal part of the brain. The Upstairs Brain is the part of the brain that allows children to think, regulate emotions, and make good choices.
When a child is exposed to repeated trauma throughout childhood, the Downstairs Brain is exercised. Like a muscle, it grows stronger. Repeated exposure to fearful experiences means that the Downstairs Brain is excessively active, so the child is in a constant state of fight or flight that overrides the messages from the Upstairs Brain. Because the child’s brain is hyper vigilant and in a constant state of survival, their brain chemistry is altered. Because the nervous system has not developed properly, behavior issues may stem from sensory processing difficulties
What to Expect when Adopting a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder
For children with RAD/DTD, traditional parenting techniques do not have the desired effect. Children with RAD/DTD are often also diagnosed with coinciding disorders or misdiagnosed. These disorders include, but are not limited to ADHD, ODD, mood disorders and bipolar disorder.
Early childhood trauma affect(s) the child’s perceptions, thought processes, and reasoning and decision-making skills. They may have difficulty understanding consequences, may be destructive towards property, animals, or people, and may have reactions that don’t match up with the situation, such as laughing when feeling scared.
Respite, parent coaching, in-home services, and shadowing are all means we utilize in helping families work towards healthy attachments. Understanding what your child is going through and learning methods for addressing negative behaviors and reinforcing trust is essential for the healthy development of children with RAD/DTD. With help, you can overcome unhealthy attachments to achieve a relationship based on trust.