In a perfect world, children will grow up feeling loved, cared for and protected. They will remain innocent of life's tragedy and will grow up unscathed by it. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Some children experience devastating trauma before they are even able to process the events.
If we define trauma as a overwhelming or distressing act that is unusual for someone to encounter, EARLY TRAUMA would be those events that occurs to a child between the ages of 0 and 6 years old. We are typically speaking of repeated trauma that happens numerous times over a period of time such as physical, mental or sexual abuse. Chronic Trauma can also occur in a child who lives in a dangerous environment such as a rough neighborhood, negligent conditions or a family where arguments and physical abuse happen often. Since the abuse can be repeated or prolonged, these children often live in a state of hyper-vigilance waiting for another episode of abuse to happen.
Because every person is different and our brains process actions in such a different manor, children can react in many different ways to Early Trauma. Anger can be present and acting out will likely follow and can produce rage in children. Some children may be sad and withdrawn, questioning why things happened and even startle easily expecting someone to lash out at them and be constantly fearful. Others can shut down completely and show no emotions at all, withdrawing into their own world and becoming detached from reality or dissociating.
Regardless of how it effects children the brutality they suffer will haunt them for a long period of time. The adults in their life are left to pick up the pieces. In many instances, these children are removed from their families due to the trauma and are placed into foster homes or adoptive placements. Sometimes other family members become primary care-givers and have to learn how to care for them in the aftermath of the traumatic events.
Chronic Early Trauma in many cases can also leave behind a child who becomes "attachment resitant". It is understandable that a child who has trusted their caregivers to keep them safe and meet their most basic needs and has had that fail will be less likely to trust any other care giver that comes into their life. They can also assign the anger or frustration that they have for their abuser out on the person who is now in the position to keep them safe. They can use this as a coping mechanism to not get close to another person and allow them to let them down or hurt them.
Since we have no idea how trauma will effect a child, it should be said that in some cases, the sheer act of adoption itself could be a trauma. Even children adopted at birth can experince a sense of loss that is so strong that it effects future relationships with care givers. These children have experienced loss and the way it is dealt with in their brain is beyond our understanding. It is understandable that an infant that has spent 9 months in their mother's womb would feel an organic attachment to her and her environment and if that bond is broken, this could have an impact.
A child who is exhibiting attachment issues may avoid eye contact, may have a “flat” affect where smiling is rare, doesn't reach out to be near to an adult, may not seem to notice when an adult leaves the room. They may also engage in self soothing behaviors such as rocking to comfort themselves as they have learned that others don’t fill that need.
Future relationships with these children can also be effected since the basis of building trusting relationships is broken. They may be developmentally delayed due to lack of interest or due to neglect. They will likely have problems relating to adults and even peers. Many other disorders tend to be comorbid Early Trauma such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Developmental Delays, Mental Retardation, BiPolar, Sensory Integration Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorders (Aspergers).
Impacts of Trauma
Anger problems – Anger could be expressed in numerous ways. It could be rages and tantrums or even manipulative, passive aggressive behaviors. These survivors may outwardly express their anger by giving very hard hugs disguised as kindness. Sometimes this anger comes out in destructive ways like destroying property.
Control issues – Most children who have grown up in a situation that was laced with trauma, need to feel as though they are in control. So many choices have been made for them that they try to cling to a shred of control so they don’t feel helpless. They can be defiant, oppositional, disobedient and argue constantly. These children are sneaky and demanding in order to get what they want.
Difficulty in showing affection – typically these children have difficulty in exhibiting genuine care for their caregivers. They are unable to trust fully, therefore showing affection with their caregivers is difficult (inhibited). The child may be extremely withdrawn, emotionally detached, and resistant to comforting. Children do not seek comfort from caregiver when sick or injured. They may also show inappropriate affection to strangers (disinhibited) and may seek comfort and attention from virtually anyone.
Avoiding touch – many children who have experienced trauma may flinch, laugh or get angry when touched. Due to the resistance to attach, touch can be perceived as a threat.
Lack of Conscience – these children may fail to show remorse for their actions. Their behaviors are seen as protecting themselves so guilt, regret and remorse is not projected. They may also engage in nonsensical lying and constant chatter.
Lack of Understanding Cause and Effect – They may not fully think through their choice to what the consequences of their actions may be, or not even fully connect the outcome with the initial decision. This may also lead them to blame others for their behaviors or their actions.
Parenting a child with early trauma or attachment resistance can be a roller coaster. Parents often feel frustration over how to help their child, anger that the child has to endure this difficult situation, exhaustion due to dealing with constant vigilance, anger, rages, and emotional swings. It is difficult to ask for help when you don’t even know how to help yourself. Parents feel completely and utterly alone much like the child is feeling. Parents appear angry, tired, either overly reactive to what the child does; or totally disconnected from the child. Siblings exhibit problems of anger, fear, and depression. The entire family is in a state of distress.
Each child encompasses their trauma differently, it is a struggle to find ways that work to help them feel safe and protected. Trying many different things and yet being consistent in our patience and understanding is key. Sharing our successes and failures is one way we can connect and empower other families to keep searching for healing.
You are not alone.