We all enter the world ready to attach because this is how we get our most basic and primary needs met. The human infant, like other high functioning mammals, is completely dependent on their primary caregivers to get all of their needs met—survival, safety, food, shelter, stimulation, comfort. For us to understand where some of our children’s most challenging behaviors come from we must first realize just how much neglect and trauma affect every aspect of a child’s development. We are social-emotional beings with an innate need to connect and form meaningful attachment relationships. Every interpersonal skill required for us to be successful in creating and sustaining these relationships must be learned.
Trauma and the Developing Child
Trauma, neglect, and multiple disruptions in attachment relationships have a significant negative impact on a child’s ability to learn appropriate interpersonal skills. In fact, many children who have had these experiences develop defensive strategies to avoid interpersonal relationships. The relationship challenges then result in them remaining in high states of chronic distress where they are unable to get their most basic and primary needs for connection and attachment met. It is important to note that it is through the primary parent/child attachment relationship that children become pro-socialized. Humans have an extended childhood in order to maximize social, emotional, cognitive, and conscience facilitating experiences for each developmental stage of the child. Learning pro-social skills—how to get along with others, how to have empathy for those in distress, how to manage one’s own distress, how to take turns, how to live in community with others, how to share and show compassion—are all critical experiences that shape a child’s neurobiological development.
So what happens when children miss critical, sensory-rich, pro-socializing experiences? What often occurs when children have chronic and/or prolonged exposure to traumatic distress, multiple disruptions in attachment, neglect, interpersonal violence, institutional care, or maltreatment? Simply put, we see increased anti-social behaviors. It is imperative for both parents and professionals to clearly understand that children exhibiting anti-social behaviors like hitting, lying, stealing, hurting animals, manipulating, and defiance are giving a window into their early life experiences—experiences which would probably overwhelm you with terror and pain if you actually had to feel what the child felt during their suffering.
If left unresolved, complex childhood trauma and developmental trauma will often work their way into the next generation. We know that 75 percent of perpetrators of child sexual abuse report to have themselves been sexually abused as children (van der Kolk, 2005). Data tells us that most interpersonal trauma on children is perpetrated by adult victims of childhood trauma and neglect (van der Kolk, 2005).
Experience Is the Architect of the Brain
Anti-social behaviors occur when children have been deprived of thousands upon thousands of sensory-rich, pro-socializing experiences that they would have received through primary parent/child attachment experiences. The young child’s brain is experience dependent. The actual wiring of the brain’s circuitry is occurring through these numerous sensory-rich experiences with the primary attachment figure. The human brain is both malleable and mutable, such that its structural organization reflects the history of the organism (Luu and Tucker, l996). In essence, experience is the architect of the brain. This is true whether or not those early life experiences happen to be positive, responsive, and nurturing or negative, violent, and traumatic.
For young children exposed to chronic states of distress in which their most basic needs for safety, attachment, and nurturance are not met, the result can be catastrophic for the developing self. These children may have both social-emotional skill deficits as well as neurobiological effects that have shaped the young brain to be trauma-reactive. Unmanageable distress for the infant and young child exposes their neurobiological system to increased levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which subsequently exposes their sensory system to being easily triggered into a dysregulated state. As a result, a simple directive or demand (“It’s time to do homework!”) can easily overwhelm a trauma-reactive child who has minimal ability to regulate her neurobiological states once triggered.
Anti-Social Behaviors as Survival Strategy
It is against this backdrop that we can more insightfully understand our children’s complex behaviors related to their history of deprivation, trauma, pain, and suffering. Lying, stealing, hoarding food, lack of empathy, and aggression are common behaviors for children who have experienced trauma. Traditional parenting interventions and techniques seek to change children’s behavior through principals of loss/punishment. For non-traumatized children, using punishment and emotional distance (such as time-outs or grounding in their room) to change a child’s behavior is effective. It is primarily effective because the child is attached to the parent and the parent is using years of attachment history to motivate the child to change.
For children with early chronic neglect and trauma, these traditional principals of loss/punishment and emotional distance will be ineffective. The child has missed critical developmental milestones that would have given him the social, emotional, and cognitive competencies to learn from consequences, punishments, or emotional distance. Trust and truth-telling are the foundation of loving familial relationships. For children with no experience of permanence, safety, and nurturance, anti-social behaviors such as lying or manipulating were often necessary and effective survival strategies. In addition, a child that is not securely attached to his primary caregiver will not be motivated to please his parent. In fact, the child could be motivated to frustrate or provoke their parent. Hitting, lying, stealing, and manipulating are quite common when children are defending themselves against attaching. These behaviors should be understood as a defensive strategy, a learned way of coping with terror and fright. For these children, attaching to their parent means flooding their sensory system with triggering sensations that feel overwhelming, disorganizing, or terrifying. It is important to note that children do not have insight into these triggers and dynamics; they are using defensive strategies to avoid more pain and distress.
Leading the Dance
What the child needs most in order to heal—a deep, meaningful, sustained primary attachment relationship—is the thing she fears the most. The inherent challenge for the parent who is parenting the child of loss, trauma, and multiple placements is that their traditional view of parenting (which is primarily based on the way they were parented themselves in combination with what is considered to be culturally acceptable) will be highly ineffective.
We are all social-emotional beings and we are deeply affected by the emotions of those around us. Most parents quickly feel exhausted, overwhelmed, or triggered by their child’s distressed states and maladaptive behaviors. Emotions are contagious. A child’s angry or hurtful behavior is often mirrored by a distressed parent. But the expression of parental frustration and anger in response to the child’s misbehavior has the effect of reinforcing the misbehavior. For the parent to begin to establish a meaningful, sustained primary attachment relationship with a trauma-reactive child, a new template must be formed. The parent must learn to lead a dance with the child that creates the primary parent/child attachment relationship, from which the child’s pro-social development can be nurtured.
As the leader of the dance, the parent must be able to set the affective tone in which a trusted, committed, permanent relationship can be established, and eventually, over time, create the context in which healing can occur. The most critical component of this intimate dance between parent and child is the emotional tone and intelligence of the parent. It is the emotion of the parent that the child is experiencing through their senses (facial cues, body posture, tone of voice, etc.). Parents with increased emotional intelligence are not just emotionally reacting to external stressors, but rather are able to model healthy ways of managing their own internal distress. For example a parent might say, ”Mom is frustrated right now, I’m going to take a few minutes to calm down before we talk about how we’re going to solve this problem.” The parent takes a walk, calls a friend, rides a bike, plays basketball, reads, journals, or asks “Can anyone tell Mom a funny joke right now? I really need a good laugh.” Here the parent is both leading the emotional dance and modeling healthy emotional coping strategies. This is effective because the primary way children learn is through imitation.
As the leader of the dance, the trauma-informed parent allows for missteps by the child who has never successfully danced in any “permanent” way. A child who has had too many changes of partners is a child who will have developed many defensive strategies to avoid further psychic pain and trauma. These children often prefer the dance of isolation to the continued suffering that occurs with the repeated rejection and loss of not having their primary attachment needs met.
A parent who is being nurturing and comforting might be met with anger and hostility from their child: “Get away from me! Leave me alone!” These missteps allow the parent to give voice to their child’s distress, acknowledging how painful, scary, and overwhelming learning the dance of attachment can be: “I know this is hard and that getting close is scary. I want you to know that I’m here for you.” Giving yourself and your child permission to make mistakes while you are both learning these complex dance steps is critical. Practice levity, forgiveness, and really good self care!
Since most parents have never experienced this amount of core trauma themselves, as they begin to intimately engage with their trauma-reactive child, the experience often feels overwhelmingly painful or distressing for the parent. This pain, though, can create a critical opportunity for parents to explore their own parenting history and style as they are now in the heat of the parent/child attachment dance. Personal intelligence and insight into one’s own mind, motivations, beliefs, and triggers are critical components to being able to lead the dance of attachment. As parents, many of our most impactful childhood experiences are encoded in implicit memory and are outside of conscious awareness. To further explore one’s own parenting style and history, check out Parenting From the Inside Out by Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell and Wounded Children, Healing Homes by Jayne Schooler, Betsy Keefer Smalley, and Timothy J. Callahan.
Teaching Pro-Social Behaviors
For the child with increased anti-social or maladaptive behaviors due to complex trauma, parents must make a paradigm shift away from traditional or punitive parenting strategies toward a style that uses attachment-facilitating interventions based on principals of addition and developmental need.
Developmentally, children must first have basic trust that their primary need for attachment, stability, safety, and nurturance will be met. To establish this basic trust, parents must use parenting interventions designed to add the pro-socializing, sensory-rich experiences the child needs. Through these experiences, children can learn social and emotional interpersonal skills that other children might have learned at much earlier ages. These interventions need to be both reactive (what the parent needs to do in response to the current behavior/situation) and pro-active (what the parent can practice with the child every day to add the pro-socializing experiences the child needs to learn self-regulation, impulse control, empathy, problem-solving skills, emotion recognition, regulation, and management).
For example, if my seven-year-old son consistently hits his younger sister when she takes his toy, how can I help him manage his aggressive impulses? First, I remove my child from the stimulating situation into a safe, non-stimulating environment and help him calm down. I have empathy for his distress and say, “It’s hard when someone takes your toy.” Once he’s calm, I ask “Are you ready to solve the problem with your sister? Do you need mom’s help to solve the problem?”
Children who do not regulate well and have missed critical developmental milestones will need the parents’ executive functioning to help them think through the social-emotional problems that occur in their daily interactions. If my son has missed thousands upon thousands of sensory-rich, pro-socializing experiences, of course he will hit his little sister when she takes his toy.
Next, I need to help him practice sharing, taking turns and learning what to do when someone takes something from you so that the lived experience of sharing and problem solving is integrated into his neurobiological system. All children need to be able to first regulate their emotions before they can access their thinking and decision-making skills. Since I know my son consistently struggles with being angry and impulsive, my pro-active strategy includes providing him with the sensory rich social-emotional experiences he needs to learn these critical relational and problem-solving skills. First I have to remember that he is not the problem! His aggressive, reactive, and impulsive behavior is the problem.
Traumatic memories are encoded and stored within the limbic structures of his brain. These same regions must be activated to create emotional arousal based on pleasure, excitement, and mutually enjoyable social interaction. I let him know that every day we’re going to have fun practicing what to do when someone takes your toy or makes you mad. The daily role play should begin with playful engagement—just me and my child playing with toys on the floor. Then I tell him to take my toy without asking. My responses vary from crying, to getting mad, to running way, to asking him to give it back. Here I simply want him to experience the range of choices and options that I have in deciding how to respond. I remain mindful that because he is trauma-reactive, he is not thinking through his choices; he’s simply reacting in a state of distress.
Next we practice Mom taking the toy from him, letting him know that the ultimate goal is for him to be able to put words to his feelings and tell me to please give back the toy. This targeted behavioral training is effective in improving social and emotional problem solving and conflict management over time. The practice is fun and experiential, and we take turns playing various roles. This allows the child’s sensory system to experience the pro-socializing behaviors that were missed at earlier stages and that are necessary to activate and change the limbic structures of his brain. In order for him to learn the give and take in all meaningful familial and peer relationships . . . social-emotional skill practice is required!
Using principals of addition and attachment-facilitating interventions will give my child the pro-socializing experiences he needs to heal, thrive, and become a productive member of society.
Allison Davis Maxon, M.S., LMFT is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of child welfare and children’s mental health specializing in Attachment, Developmental Trauma and Permanency/Adoption. She is the Executive Director of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and was the foster care consultant for the Paramount Pictures movie Instant Family. Allison is co-author and master trainer of Kinship Center’s ACT: An Adoption and Permanency Curriculum for Child Welfare and Mental Health Professionals, co-author and master trainer of Pathways to Permanence: Parenting the Child of Loss and Trauma, and creator of ’10 Things Your Child Needs Every Day’, a video training tool to strengthen Attachment. Allison was honored in 2017 with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute ‘Angels in Adoption’ award and is the co-author of Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency: A Guide to Promoting Understanding and Healing in Adoption, Foster Care, Kinship Families and Third Party Reproduction, Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2019.