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When Trauma Exists in the Caregiver-Child Relationship

Written by Bridget Battistoni
on June 24, 2015

In 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near the capital city of Port Au Prince, Haiti. More than 1.5 million people were displaced, and 300,000 structures were severely damaged or destroyed. Some cities near the epicenter reported 90% of their buildings lost. The amount of devastation was incomprehensible. Five weeks later, Chile was struck by an earthquake 500 times more powerful than the Haitian quake, yet the damage and the death toll in Chile paled in comparison. Why was Chile able to largely withstand the violence, while Haiti crumbled?

According to experts, much of the destruction can be attributed to Haiti’s lack of building codes. Without sufficient regulations, builders used additives such as limestone dust and sand that produced substandard concrete and built structures without adequate rebar support making them vulnerable to collapse. It’s clear when structures with weak or non-existent foundations meet enough violence, they crumble.

Although not a perfect analogy, a helpful comparison can be made to infants who experience attachment-trauma. Attachment-trauma happens when over time a primary caregiver - the person the infant relies on for survival - becomes a source of danger through maltreatment such as abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Similar to concrete additives, relational trauma significantly compromises trust foundations of infants and children. Typically, the greater the magnitude of weakening, the greater the impact on the foundation.

When a child encounters trouble or needs help, the child instinctively elicits the help of their caretaker by crying and other strategies to gain their attention. When the caregiver responds with care and concern, the child becomes reassured and eventually returns to exploring their world. The child becomes confident that help is available if they need it. This confidence provides the security a child needs to process the massive amount of daily new experiences. Then, they are able to develop a range of skills, including the ability to regulate their body and emotions, to understand self and others, and over time, develop increasingly sophisticated cognitive, emotional and developmental competencies. (1)

But, when trauma exists in the caregiver-child relationship, the child’s developing brain has little ability to manage the contradiction. The contradiction quickly overwhelms their limited coping skills and redirects its energy from healthy development to parts of the brain associated with the fight, flight, and freeze survival responses. While this redirection of brain function helps the child survive, it often leads to developmental delays, hyper-vigilance, skewed perceptions of self and others, disconnection from their feelings, and other unhealthy coping skills. As they age, without positive attachment intervention, these reactive behaviors can become maladaptive and even crumble.

###Experts have identified three common responses to Attachment-Trauma: (2)

Avoidant-attachment

One reaction to attachment trauma is avoidance. With avoidant-attachment, a child expects rejection from a caregiver, so they actively avoid caregivers. They learn to suppress their natural desire to seek out comfort when frightened, distressed, or in pain. Children with an avoidant attachment may show no partiality between a parent and a complete stranger. As adults, they often avoid intimacy and experience little distress when a relationship ends.

Resistant-attachment

Preoccupation is another reaction to attachment trauma. With resistant-attachment, the child feels insecure. They tend to vacillate between seeking and resisting contact with a caregiver. There are often exaggerated expressions of attachment needs, including a preoccupation with attention from the caregiver and a reluctance to explore their world. When a caregiver departs, typically the infant or child becomes extremely distressed. As adults, they worry that others may not love them and can be easily frustrated or angered when their attachment needs go unmet.

Disorganized/disoriented- Attachment

With disorganized-attachment, the person is fearful of relationships and struggles to find a successful way of interacting with those they desire. When their need for emotional closeness remains unresponded to, and the caregiver’s behavior is erratic and unpredictable, they often become confused, dazed, frozen or use mixed strategies. They often have difficulty in regulating emotions and in reading social cues. As an adult, they may struggle to express love and affection and be unresponsive to their partner’s needs. If affection is withheld, they may be enraged and abusive.

Let me clearly state that not every person who has been trafficked for commercial sex has experienced attachment trauma. But, this disruptive, early childhood violence adds to the laundry list of vulnerabilities that increase the likelihood a person experiences exploitation. It is crucial that direct service providers understand and respond to this complexity by providing trauma-informed practices.

Trauma-informed practices consider potential impacts trauma has on a person’s worldview and coping strategies. It offers informed help to promote understanding and healing. It sees a person beyond just their specific traumatic experience by considering biological, relational, emotional, cultural, spiritual, and other influences. It takes a strengths-based approach to care that seeks to identify and utilize a person’s unique characteristics, skills, relational supports, experiences, and others assets. This care model’s primary focus shifts from problems or deficits to the inherent resources a person has which they can use to counteract challenges. It encourages service providers to take a cooperative role by increasing opportunities so that people can make informed decisions because it believes people are experts of their lives. Ultimately, it affirms the inherent dignity and equality of all people because they are image-bears of God.

  1. Schore, 2011
  2. The Impact of Trauma on Attachment Relationships; Jody Todd Manly, Ph.D. Clinical Director, Mt. Hope Family Center, University of Rochester