Skip to main content

Preventing Post-Traumatic Stress in Children Through Attachment

Let's talk about trauma.  What is it?  Our Trauma-Informed Systems of Care team at the Wichita State University Community Engagement Institute likes to define it as any event or experience that overwhelmed an individual's internal resources (or resiliency), leaving him feeling powerless or hopeless.  It can be a single event or a reoccurring event.  It can be life-threatening, frightening, stressful, neglectful, overwhelming, and more.  

Trauma is universal.  It is also deeply personal and individualistic.  What is traumatic to one person may not have any traumatic meaning for another.  The meaning, or story, that we create around life experiences impact all of us in different ways.  

This is particularly true for children.  When a little one experiences a traumatic event he creates a story around what that event means about his world, his family system, and himself.  These stories often dig themselves deep into the fabric of a child's psyche.  They are called internal working models.  The earliest stories that children make about the world are based firmly upon the attachment that they have to primary caregivers.  If a child's caregiver is responsive to his needs, smiles and coos, makes eye-contact, and is emotionally present, he develops a secure attachment.  This is called a secure base from which the child views the world and is able to explore his own place in the world.  He internalizes positive internal stories about himself such as, "I am valuable.  I am loved.  I am worthy."  

So what happens when there is a break in that attachment pattern?  What if the caregiver does not respond to his needs?  Or if the home is full of chaos, neglect, violence, and addiction?  So often, the child creates a pretty sad story about himself and his place in the world.  So think about these two kiddos:  If a traumatic event happens to the child with a secure attachment base, he has a foundation of resilience that will help him overcome some of the effects of the trauma.  Most likely, he will be able to bounce back a little better after experiencing pain.  The opposite is also true for a child without a comforting caregiver.

The good news, is that a child can develop secure attachment with any caring adult that has his best interest in mind.  For this reason, health care professionals, mental health providers, educators, faith-based youth workers, etc. are so critically important to a child's resiliency.

You may have heard about the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study conducted in the 1990s.  It was a partner study between the CDC and Kaiser Permanente.  They evaluated over 17,000 HMO members—wanting to explore the link between childhood trauma and later-life general health and well-being.  What they found was staggering.  Over two-thirds of those surveyed had experienced some kind of traumatic event in childhood.  One in five had experienced three or more traumatic events.  They also found a striking link between childhood trauma and later-life addiction, risky behaviors, mental illness, chronic disease, and early death (About the CDC, 2016).  

Child maltreatment is a serious social problem.  It can have long-term impact on a child's emotional, behavioral, social, and cognitive development (Moss, Dubois-Comtois, Cyr, Tarabulsy, St-Laurent, & Bernier, 2011).  It costs our country millions of dollars each year (About the CDC, 2016).  There is a link between children that experience trauma, insecure attachment, and developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) later in life.  Remember how children create stories about themselves based upon their attachment to caregivers?  Without intervention, those stories remain long into adulthood.  If a child believes that interpersonal relationships are dangerous, threatening, or unreliable, he carries those beliefs into adult relationships.  

But, trauma is not destiny.  There is a large body of research suggesting secure attachment as one of the key preventative measures against trauma symptoms as the child grows into adulthood.  Ogle, Rubin, & Siegler (2015) found that there is a correlation between PTSD diagnosis and attachment security.  Individuals that experienced insecure attachment patterns in interpersonal relationships were more likely to display hyper-vigilance, emotional avoidance, and flashbacks.  Individuals with secure attachment patterns were more likely to display less severe PTSD symptoms, more resiliency and coping, and overall less time spent in recovery.  

So what is secure attachment and how can it be utilized to prevent severe PTSD symptoms in children?  A secure relationship is one where the child feels that his physical and emotional needs will be met.  The adult is emotionally present to him, listening with compassion, respecting the child's emotion, engaging with him in a way that lets him know his needs are being heard.  The adult is able to see underneath the child's behavior to the deep need for safety and love.  Children want to know:  Am I safe?  Am I unconditionally acceptable?  Am I loveable?

As stated above, secure attachment does not have to come from primary caregivers alone.  Have you ever heard stories about children that survived abuse because of that one teacher that believed in them unconditionally?  Or about a child whose grandparent sent encouraging letters of support to help him through his chaotic home life?  Or in movies such as Good Will Hunting, Freedom Writers, The Blind Side.  A child needs at least one caring, sensitive adult whom believes unconditionally in his ability to overcome adversity and struggle.  A child need to know that someone thinks he is worth it.

This is how children survive, grow through, and grow from traumatic experiences.  
Just one unconditionally caring adult.

About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study. (2016). Retrieved June 24, 2016, from

Mosier, S., & Skidmore, B. (2016). Adverse Childhood Experiences Among Kansas Adults: 2014 Kansas Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (Rep.). Topeka, KS: Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

Moss, E., Dubois-Comtois, K., Cyr, C., Tarabulsy, G. M., St-Laurent, D., & Bernier, A. (2011).  Efficacy of a home-visiting intervention aimed at improving maternal sensitivity, child attachment, and behavioral outcomes for maltreated children:  A randomized control trial.  Development and Psychopathology, 23, 195-210.

Ogle, C. M., Rubin, D. C., & Siegler, I. C. (2015).  The relation between insecure attachment and post traumatic stress:  Early life versus adulthood traumas.  Psychological Trauma:  Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 7(4), 324-332.


Popular posts from this blog

I visited a Mosque. And went to church.

Today, our local International Rescue Committee organization hosted a solidarity event at the Islamic Society of Wichita while their members were gathering for Friday prayers.  We stood outside, held signs, and let them know that we are with them.  That we are forthem.

But before the event I met my new friend, Ratna, for a tour and some lunch in the well-worn gym.  I was running a little early so I sat by myself on the concrete fountain in front of the building.
It was a beautiful day.  The sun was warming me.  I could smell the food cooking.  A suburban in the parking lot said, "Girl Scout Cookies For Sale!" written in white shoe polish on the dark windows.

Pretty soon, Ratna pulled up in her minivan, tagged along behind by her 5-year-old son with his bright blue iPad and headphones.  He was watching a Pokemon cartoon and was humming along to the songs.  Skipping as he went.  Ratna smiled, hugged me, and led me inside for a tour of their worship space.

It was a beautiful b…

For my 40th birthday, I let go

It was my birthday present to myself. I decided to let go of the desire to have a healthy relationship with my mother. 40-years-old seemed right for me to make this decision.  I have debated it for years. I have been in a cloud of hope the past year, with my mother.  I always get frustrated at myself for being sucked into the cloud of hope.  The fog of delusion.  Damn but isn’t hope hard to surrender?!  I have always felt guilty about letting go.  I have always wanted to give it another go.  Try again.  Hope again.  Maybe she’ll change.  Maybe things will improve. But when another birthday went by with no call and no card, I decided to end my own agony.  I once heard that there was a woman who went to meet with the Dalai Lama.  She had experienced a ton of trauma in her life and she was worn ragged and thin.  After telling him some of her life story he looked at her with his sweet smile and asked, “Have you suffered enough yet?” Sometimes I ask myself the same thing.  Yes, I have suf…

Mindfulness and learning the art of non-judging

I started practicing mindfulness several years ago.  I don't do it religiously but it has become a practice that decreases my anxiety and helps me focus on positivity.
But there has been another outcome of mindfulness that I was not expecting.
It taught me the Grace of God.

One of the pillars of mindfulness is non-judging.  For me, this means that I am allowed to sit in the silence, focused on my breathing, and allow True Me to be me.  As many of the guided meditations will say, it is okay if the mind wanders away from time to time.  Without judging myself, I can simply notice it and bring my focus back to my breathing.

As I was contemplating this, I realized that this had carried over to many other areas in my life and that I was practicing self-grace and non-condemnation.
This practice was silencing my inner-critic.

"For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world  but that the world should be saved through Him." John 3:17 (NET)
No Condemnation

John 3:16…