The Root of Attachment Challenges: Trauma, Trauma, Trauma!

Our earliest relationships create blueprints for all of our future relationships. These early experiences create the lens through which we view others. Every interaction that we have with another individual is influenced by our own personal past experiences.

attachmentMany children with severe behaviors such as chronic lying, stealing, aggressiveness, defiance, setting fires, bed wetting, poor parental relationships, etc., are increasingly being diagnosed as having an attachment disorder. Though having a label may initially give parents some relief in being able to identify the condition their child is struggling with, typically, it only creates a scenario for frustration, guilt, blame and resentment. Unfortunately, a diagnosis in the mental health profession is rarely a positive thing. No parent wants a child with a diagnosis because it implies some inherent defect of the child. To have your child labeled as having Reactive Attachment Disorder will typically not bring a parent any heightened sense of relief. We must begin to understand the children demonstrating such serious behaviors as the ones listed, among many others, have all typically experienced some degree of trauma. Historically, our understanding of trauma has been limited to the horrible experiences depicted in the media; however, trauma occurs in many more situations that we are not even remotely aware of. Especially as it regards small children, trauma can occur through the adoption process, foster care, loss of a parent, frequent moves or caregivers, prolonged illness, divorce, parental depression, automobile accidents, and the list goes on and on. We must understand that trauma is any stressful event that is prolonged, overwhelming, or unpredictable. When we have not had an opportunity to cry, talk, scream, grieve, and mourn a traumatic event, sometimes repetitively, that experience has the ability to impact us throughout the rest of our lives. When a traumatic event has occurred early in a child’s life, it can have an impact on the system responsible for helping him to handle stress, respond appropriately to fear, and form lasting attachments with others. This system is referred to as the regulatory system. When this system is impaired, it leaves the child stuck in a pervasive state of fear and easily overwhelmed by the seemingly mundane task of daily life. Rather than being disordered in attachment relationships, the child is extremely challenged in the presence of stress within any relationship.
The Influence of Early Relationships
Our earliest relationships create blueprints for all of our future relationships. These early experiences in relationships create the lens through which we view others. Every interaction that we have with another individual is influenced by our own personal past experiences. John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, espoused that the first three years of our lives establish the blueprints for all of our futurerelationships. Upon reflecting at the differences between my sister’s earliest relationship blueprints and my own, it is not difficult to determine that at even such an early age, she was already imprinted on a physiologic level to view human relationships as not safe. When we consider trauma in the lives of children it is important to realize that the majority of traumatic experiences occurring in their lives typically involves some aspect of human relationship. If a child has been abused, battered, or neglected by the individual that is supposed to love her most, then what would make subsequent relationships appear any safer? From infancy to adulthood my sister and parents struggled to be attached. The legendary attachment pediatricians, Marshall Klaus and John Kennel, inform us that attachment is the behavior of the child to the parent, and bonding is the behavior of the parent to the child. In the mental health profession, we have fostered an imbalance of influence. A child cannot develop attachment with a parent struggling to bond. Thus, unwittingly, an almost impossible task was set in motion between my sister and my parents. Regardless of the trauma issues that my sister carried into the family, my own parents equally brought their own. As you can imagine, the family experience, the experience I refer to as the ‘secret life of the family’ was not very attractive.

The Role of Stress in A Child's Life
Stress is a very natural and necessary aspect of who we are. We need stress just to live, but when stress becomes overwhelming or is not interrupted, it can damage not only family relationships, but it can also damage the brain. Looking back now I realize that I excelled socially, academically, and athletically. Internally, I struggled to live in a world I viewed as overwhelming. To compensate I lied, stole, cheated, manipulated, set fires, killed animals, and occasionally bullied other children. Because I was intelligent, many of the adults never had a clue. My sister, on the other hand, struggled both internally and externally. Externally, she failed socially, academically and athletically. There were frequent fights at home brought about by what my parents had learned discipline was to be like for all children. They didn’t understand that this child was different. They took it personally having a withdrawn and immature child who preferred playing with children far younger than herself. It wasn’t their fault or hers. Her only means of communicating her anxiety and depression was through behavior. Such communication repelled most and led to relationships being based in fear and rejection. My parents, with hopes of having the family they had dreamed of, felt insecure, hopeless, and overwhelmed by the task at hand. These children were difficult; at least one of them was anyway. And the other had his moments, but so much less frequently they thought. Our family lived and struggled each day. My sister continues to struggle, continue to live out those early blueprints and recurring negative relationships. I continue to struggle, yet have been able to put life into perspective, not by any personal remarkable efforts, but by having more positive relationships than negative ones. As my mother says, “We just didn’t understand.

Bryan Post, PhD

B. Bryan Post, PhD, LCSW is the founder of the Post Institute for Family-Centered Therapy based in Oklahoma, and is the author of "For All Things A Season", "Dr. Post’s New Family Revolution System", and co-author of "The Forever Child" series. He is an internationally recognized specialist in the treatment of emotional and behavioral disturbance in children and families. Dr. Post specializes in a holistic family-based treatment approach that addresses the underlying interactive dynamics of the entire family, a neurophysiologic process he refers to as, "The secret life of the family."

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