Article

Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: How You Can Help*

  • Grades: Early Childhood, Infant, PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

The most important property of humankind is the capacity to form and maintain relationships. These relationships are absolutely necessary for any of us to survive, learn, work, love, and procreate. Human relationships take many forms but the most intense, most pleasurable and most painful are those relationships with family, friends and loved ones. Within this inner circle of intimate relationships, we are bonded to each other with "emotional glue" — bonded with love.

Each individual's ability to form and maintain relationships using this "emotional glue" is different. Some people seem "naturally" capable of loving. They form numerous intimate and caring relationships and, in doing so, get pleasure. Others are not so lucky. They feel no "pull" to form intimate relationships, find little pleasure in being with or close to others. They have few, if any, friends, and more distant, less emotional glue with family. In extreme cases an individual may have no intact emotional bond to any other person. They are self-absorbed, aloof, or may even present with classic neuropsychiatric signs of being schizoid or autistic.

The capacity and desire to form emotional relationships is related to the organization and functioning of specific parts of the human brain. Just as the brain allows us to see, smell, taste, think, talk, and move, it is the organ that allows us to love — or not. The systems in the human brain that allow us to form and maintain emotional relationships develop during infancy and the first years of life. Experiences during this early vulnerable period of life are critical to shaping the capacity to form intimate and emotionally healthy relationships. Empathy, caring, sharing, inhibition of aggression, capacity to love, and a host of other characteristics of a healthy, happy, and productive person are related to the core attachment capabilities which are formed in infancy and early childhood.

What Can I Do To Help Maltreated Children?

Responsive adults, such as parents, teachers, and other caregivers make all the difference in the lives of maltreated children. This section suggests a few different ways to help.

Nurture these children. They need to be held, rocked, and cuddled. Be physical, caring, and loving to children with attachment problems. Be aware that for many of these children, touch in the past has been associated with pain, torture, or sexual abuse. In these cases, make sure you carefully monitor how they respond — be "attuned" to their responses to your nurturing and act accordingly. In many ways, you are providing replacement experiences that should have taken place during their infancy — but you are doing this when their brains are harder to modify and change. Therefore, they will need even more bonding experiences to help them to develop attachments.

Try to understand the behaviors before punishment or consequences. The more you can learn about attachment problems, bonding, normal development, and abnormal development, the more you will be able to develop useful behavioral and social interventions. Information about these problems can prevent you from misunderstanding the child's behaviors. When these children hoard food, for example, it should not be viewed as "stealing" but as a common and predictable result of being deprived of food during early childhood. A punitive approach to this problem (and many others) will not help the child mature. Instead, punishment may actually increase the child's sense of insecurity, distress, and need to hoard food. So many of these children's behaviors are confusing and disturbing to adults. You can get help from professionals if you find yourself struggling to create or implement a practical and useful approach to these problems.

Interact with these children based on emotional age. Abused and neglected children will often be emotionally and socially delayed. And whenever they are frustrated or fearful, they will regress. This means that, at any given moment, a ten-year old child may emotionally be a two-year old. Despite our wishes that they would "act their age" and our insistence to do so, they are not capable of that. These are the times that we must interact with them at their emotional level. If they are tearful, frustrated, or overwhelmed (emotionally age two), treat them as if they were that age. Use soothing non-verbal interactions. Hold them. Rock them. Sing quietly. This is not the time to use complex verbal arguments about the consequences of inappropriate behavior.

Be consistent, predictable and repetitive. Maltreated children with attachment problems are very sensitive to changes in schedule, transitions, surprises, chaotic social situations, and, in general, any new situation. Busy and unique social situations will overwhelm them, even if they are pleasant! Birthday parties, sleepovers, holidays, family trips, the start of the school year, and the end of the school year — all can be disorganizing for these children. Because of this, any efforts that can be made to be consistent, predictable, and repetitive will be very important in making maltreated children feel safe and secure. When they feel safe, they can benefit from the nurturing and enriching emotional and social experiences you provide them. If they are anxious and fearful, they cannot benefit from your nurturing in the same ways.

Model and teach appropriate social behaviors. Many abused and neglected children do not know how to interact with other people. One of the best ways to teach them is to model this in your own behaviors, and then narrate for the child what you are doing and why. Become a play-by-play announcer: "I am going to the sink to wash my hands before dinner because " or "I take the soap and put it on my hands like this ." Children see, hear, and imitate.

In addition to modeling, you can "coach" maltreated children as they play with other children. Use a similar play-by-play approach: "Well, when you take that from someone, they probably feel pretty upset; so if you want them to have fun when you play this game, then you should try " By more effectively playing with other children, they will develop some improved self-esteem and confidence. Over time, success with other children will make the child less socially awkward and aggressive. Maltreated children are often "a mess" because of their delayed socialization. If the child is teased because of their clothes or grooming, it would be helpful to have "cool" clothes and improved hygiene.

Maltreated children have problems with modulating appropriate physical contact. They don't know when to hug, how close to stand, when to establish or break eye contact, what are appropriate contexts to wipe their nose, touch their genitals, or do other grooming behaviors.

Ironically, children with attachment problems will often initiate physical contact (hugs, holding hands, crawling into laps) with strangers. Adults misinterpret this as affectionate behavior. It is not. It is best understood as "supplication" behavior, and it is socially inappropriate. How adults handle this inappropriate physical contact is very important. We should not refuse to hug the child and lecture them about "appropriate behavior." We can gently guide the child on how to interact differently with grownups and other children ("Why don't you sit over here?"). It is important to make these lessons clear using as few words as possible. They do not have to be directive — rely on nonverbal cues. It is equally important to explain in a way that does not make the child feel bad or guilty.

Listen to and talk with these children. One of the most helpful things to do is just stop, sit, listen, and play with these children. When you are quiet and interactive with them, you will often find that they will begin to show you and tell you about what is really inside them. Yet as simple as this sounds, one of the most difficult things for adults to do is to stop, quit worrying about the time or your next task, and really relax into the moment with a child. Practice this. You will be amazed at the results. These children will sense that you are there just for them, and they will feel how you care for them.

It is during these moments that you can best reach and teach these children. This is a great time to begin teaching children about their different "feelings." Regardless of the activity, the following principles are important to include: (1) All feelings are okay to feel — sad, glad, or mad (more emotions for older children); (2) Teach the child healthy ways to act when sad, glad, or mad; (3) Begin to explore how other people may feel and how they show their feelings — "How do you think Bobby feels when you push him?" (4) When you sense that the child is clearly happy, sad, or mad, ask them how they are feeling. Help them begin to put words and labels to these feelings.

Have realistic expectations of these children. Abused and neglected children have so much to overcome. And, for some, they will not overcome all of their problems. For a Romanian orphan adopted at age five after spending her early years without any emotional nurturing, the expectations should be limited. She was robbed of some, but not all, of her potential. We do not know how to predict potential in a vacuum, but we do know how to measure the emotional, behavioral, social, and physical strengths and weaknesses of a child. A comprehensive evaluation by skilled clinicians can be very helpful in beginning to define the skill areas of a child, as well as the areas where progress will be slower.

Be patient with the child's progress and with yourself. Progress will be slow. The slow progress can be frustrating, and many adults, espsecially adoptive parents, will feel inadequate because all of the love, time, and effort they spend with their child may not seem to be having any effect. But it does. Don't be hard on yourself. Many loving, skilled, and competent parents and teachers have been swamped by the needs of a neglected and abused child.

Take care of yourself. For parents and other adults, caring for maltreated children can be exhausting and demoralizing. Adults cannot provide the consistent, predictable, enriching, and nurturing care these children need if they are depleted; it is important to get rest and support. Respite care can be crucial for parents, who should also rely on friends, family, and community resources.

Take advantage of other resources. Many communities have support groups for adoptive or foster families; as an education professional, you might help by suggesting some, or asking a school psychologist or other counselor to do so. Professionals with experience in attachment problems or maltreated children can also be very helpful. You too will need help; don't be afraid to ask for it. Remember, the earlier and more aggressive the interventions, the better. Children are most malleable early in life, and as they get older, change is more difficult. Take advantage of this time to make a difference in a child's life.

*Adapted in part from: "Maltreated Children: Experience, Brain Development and the Next Generation" (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, in preparation)

  • Subjects:
    Challenges and Overcoming Obstacles, Abuse, Fear, Feelings and Emotions, Early Social Skills, Psychology, Understanding Self and Others, Social and Emotional Development, Teacher Tips and Strategies
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