Understanding the long-term impact of early childhood trauma

Published by IACD here.

When Amias was born, I was totally and immediately infatuated with him. I breast-fed and co-slept. I almost never used a stroller or carrier – he was always in my arms. At his slightest whimper, I was there. When he was a toddler, Amias hated the bright Florida sunshine in his eyes. He would hold up a palm to shield his face as he rode in his car seat. When I hung a shade from the car window with suction cups, Amias knew for sure his mom would always take care of him, even if it meant “moving” the sun for him.

My adopted daughter Kayla didn’t grow up in this type of loving environment.

As a baby and toddler, Kayla would cry and scream to get someone’s attention when she was wet or hungry. Sometimes she was cared for. Sometimes she was ignored. Many times, she fell asleep still wet and hungry – having finally exhausted herself.

Kayla, age 3.

When we adopted Kayla out of foster care at three-years-old, she would scream for hours – literally hours – for seemingly no reason at all, no matter what we did in an attempt to comfort her. It was so severe a neighbor once pounded on our door and threatened to call the police and report us for child abuse. I really couldn’t blame him. I’d never known a child to scream for so long and for no reason.

Of course, though, there was a reason. We just didn’t know it back then.

Due to trauma during her early development, the lens Kayla viewed the world through was warped. It made even loving caregivers seem unsafe. Situations and people all appeared unpredictable. Kayla likely had no conscious awareness of this and she certainly could not verbalize it.

The Impact of Trauma

Leading trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk explains in his book The Body Keeps The Score that, “Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions.” Because a young child’s brain is vulnerable, chronic abuse and neglect during the earliest years changes the way the brain normally develops–the root cause of developmental trauma disorder (DTD).

DTD can have a wide range of negative effects of varying severity. For Kayla it has caused a math learning disability, relational and attachment struggles, attention deficits, poor impulse control and more. These are daunting challenges in themselves but, remember, her view of reality is distorted which further compounds these issues.

To put this in context, consider for a moment how your worldview – optimistic, pessimistic, faith-based, etc. – impacts everything you do. For better or worse, we all filter our experiences though the lens of our worldview.

Amias and Kayla are only three-months apart in age, but their lenses are completely different because of their differing early childhood experiences. Kayla is far more prone than Amias to being anxious in new situations, to thwarting close relationships, and to misreading people and their intentions.

Due to the differences in their early childhood experiences and development, Kayla faces far more obstacles than her brother.

For many children like Kayla, developmental trauma can be a powerful determinative factor that dramatically impacts the quality of their relationships, their education and vocation, and mental and physical health. They have a higher risk for substance abuse, problems in school and incarceration.

Because Kayla was born into a different environment, she is at a disadvantage compared to her brother.

Healing the Impact of Early Trauma

Over time, a healthy attachment with a consistent caregiver like an adoptive parent can help alter the lens through which a child with DTD views the world. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as changing out a pair of busted up, twisted, kid-sized sunglasses for a pair of top-of-the-line Ray Bans. If only it were as simple. You can think of the lens formed by developmental trauma as melted into a child’s cornea – that’s how deeply imbedded it is into the core of who they are.

“DTD falls on a spectrum. Some kids have more struggles than others. No matter the severity, however, the adults who raise them require extensive support of varying levels,” said the Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Too often, however, caregivers are blamed and shamed rather than supported. This lack of support often leads to a variety of problems, including divorce and adoption disruption. Effective early intervention is vital for these families.”

For children on the moderate to severe end of the developmental trauma spectrum, highly specialized treatment is required to heal. For kids who are on the milder side of the spectrum, like my daughter Kayla, families can often find success through outpatient treatment, obtaining 504s/IEPs and implementing therapeutic parenting strategies.

Kayla has been with us for over a decade now and we’ve fought for support along the journey. Although her world will always be distorted to some extent by her trauma lens, she’s thriving despite her challenges. My hope is that someday Kayla will be secure enough in our relationship to know I’ll always move the sun and moon for her too.

Raising a Child with Developmental Trauma

Published by Fostering Families Magazine (May/June 2019)

Three-year-old Devon, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, had big, chocolate brown eyes and was eager to please. His sister Kayla, 2, was feisty, with gobs of curly hair and dimples. During our pre-adoption waiting period, Kayla screamed for hours on end, seemingly for no reason at all, and couldn’t be consoled. I found Devon elbow deep in the toilet playing with his feces. At mealtime, he’d eat fast and furious then throw up all over the table. Once, I found Kayla hiding in the pantry and clutching a jar of peanut butter.

Despite all this, my husband and I jumped heart-first into the adoption. We understood these behaviors weren’t uncommon for foster kids. We believed all Devon and Kayla needed to heal was the love of a forever family.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple.

By referring to these concerning behaviors as “normal for foster kids,” it’s easy to lose sight of the why behind them. For example, Kayla was frequently left alone in her crib for hours as a baby. When she cried because she was hungry or wet, no one came. These experiences etched an innate sense of insecurity on her psyche. 

Devon lost his birth mother at 6 months when he was removed from her care and her parental rights were eventually terminated. His mind couldn’t understand, but his body absorbed the loss. 

Leading trauma expert Bessel A. van der Kolk uses the expression, “The body keeps the score,” to illustrate how the body remembers trauma with tragic, long-term impacts for kids like Kayla and Devon – even if they find a loving forever family.

What is Developmental Trauma?

Developmental trauma occurs when a child experiences chronic abuse or neglect before the age of 5. These are the years when the brain is developing rapidly and is particularly vulnerable. 

Trauma may disrupt a child’s sequential brain development, according to psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry. This can cause, for example, impaired cause-and-effect thinking and poor self-regulation. Their behaviors, emotions, and thinking are developmentally immature because they’re literally “stuck” at earlier developmental levels. 

Also, when a child experiences frequent activation of their fight-or-flight response due to abuse, their brains can be overexposed to the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, their fight-or-flight pathway may activate in even minimally threatening situations. Forrest Lien, executive director for the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, explains: “These children live in constant ‘survival mode’. They are hyper vigilant, do not trust others, and feel the need to control their environment at all times to feel safe. Therefore, they do not allow adults to parent them and cannot have healthy relationships.”

Devon and Kayla

Developmental trauma affects each child uniquely and its impact varies in symptoms and severity. The symptoms can include attachment difficulty, self-esteem problems, anxiety, sleeplessness and a lack of impulse control.

Kayla has overcome a math learning disability, has close friends, and is a creative and independent 15-year-old. However, the trauma symptoms haven’t disappeared entirely. She still sleeps on the floor instead of in her bed, and won’t eat in front of non-family members.

Devon, unlike his sister, falls on the moderate to severe end of the spectrum for developmental trauma. Now 17, he lives in a psychiatric treatment facility. He’s physically aggressive and has no close friendships. He has pending criminal charges for assault and will turn 18 with an 8th grade education. 

Early Intervention is Key

Like many foster and adoptive parents, I was unfamiliar with developmental trauma and didn’t know the warning signs. I only realized we needed professional help when Devon, at 9, karate chopped his adoptive little brother in the throat and pushed him down the stairs. Regretfully, those early missteps and missed opportunities exacerbated his condition. 

To determine if your child needs professional intervention watch for:

  1. Behaviors that don’t respond to discipline (particularly therapeutic parenting methods)
  2. Tantrums that last far past the terrible twos and threes
  3. Persistent struggles severe enough to interfere with home life, school, or friendships
  4. Feeling frightened for the safety of the child, yourself, or other children in the home

Trust your instincts and err on the side of caution. There’s no harm in getting a professional evaluation, while the cost of not getting help early can be devastating. If you delay, your child may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms including drugs, promiscuity, and self-harming.

Untreated developmental trauma can result in behaviors that cause kids to be expelled from school, institutionalized, or face criminal charges. Other siblings in the home are at high risk for primary and secondary trauma. Parents, especially mothers, may develop PTSD

This doesn’t have to happen. Your child’s future isn’t yet written. Early intervention can change their trajectory academically, vocationally, legally and relationally.

How to get help

The best place to start is with your child’s pediatrician – but be wary of the ADHD diagnosis they might dole out at first. While developmental trauma may cause attention deficits and poor impulse control, an ADHD diagnosis doesn’t tell the full story. Also, the stimulant medications prescribed for ADHD can exacerbate symptoms. Instead, ask for a referral to a psychiatrist for a comprehensive psychological evaluation and diagnosis.

Developmental trauma doesn’t currently map to any single diagnoses. As a result, your child will likely be given multiple diagnoses to fully cover their symptoms. These may include:

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Anxiety Disorder
  • Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (OD)
  • Sensory Processing Disorder
  • Developmental Delays
  • Learning Disabilities 

For a child with developmental trauma, these diagnoses are interconnected and need to be addressed in the context of the underlying trauma. For example, PTSD-like symptoms caused by developmental trauma requires different treatment than PTSD caused by combat according to Dr. van der Kolk. 

This is why it’s critical to engage clinicians who have experience working with traumatized children, foster kids, and adopted kids. Work with a psychiatrist to explore medication choices. Get an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) in place at school to ensure your child receives the services and supports to be successful.

Unfortunately, there are no quick or easy fixes to developmental trauma, but there is hope with early intervention. 

Love is critical, but it’s not enough

Devon with adoptive brother Amias

Raising a child with developmental trauma can be incredibly difficult and isolating. The more you understand your child’s trauma history, and learn about the science of trauma and therapeutic parenting, the better equipped you will be to help your child heal. Join a local or online parents support group (I recommend, The Underground World of RAD or Attach Families Support Group), prioritize your self-care, and consider seeing a therapist if you begin to feel overwhelmed.

“Love and time will not erase the effects of early trauma,” says Lien. “The best first step is to secure the child in a healthy family but that is only the beginning.”

Children who have experienced developmental trauma desperately need the love of a forever family, but love alone isn’t enough. Get professional help early, before the behaviors and emotions grow too big and overwhelming.

Surviving and thriving with RAD: In his own words

Jessie Hogsett was diagnosed with RAD at the age of 12 and grew up acting out of the hurt and trauma of his early childhood. Not only has he survived and thrived a childhood of horrific abuse and neglect, but he’s gone on to work in a treatment facility for troubled kids. Today he has a beautiful wife, five children, and a successful career.

Jessie understands the struggles of a child diagnosed with RAD in a way a parent alone never can.

His book, Detached: Surviving Reactive Attachment Disorder is an invaluable window into the psyche of a child struggling to overcome developmental trauma. His advice comes from personal experience and is invaluable to parents and clinicians alike.

Here’s a few gems of wisdom from Jessie:

  • You can’t walk forward if you keep looking backward. Keep helping your RAD child concentrate on the now and the near future. Keep reminding him he can do absolutely nothing about the past. Keep telling him he can do everything about the present and future though.
  • Tell him that taking responsibility for his actions makes him really powerful. After all, if he can create problems, then he can also create solutions. His choices determine success or failure. Blaming someone else for his problems saps his power because he has little or no control over other people. Tell him he can have a terrific future but it’s all up to him.
  • Drive him around to see the nicest house in the neighborhood. Tell him when he’s older, if he works hard, he could be living in that house, in that neighborhood, and enjoying a good life. tell him you can picture him growing up and living there surrounded by his own happy family.
  • Tell your child that you love him all the time. Even though love alone will never be enough to “cure” a RAD child, instilling in his mind every day that he is loved, will, over time, let him realize that someone does care for him. Keep telling him this even when you don’t get any response back and even if it seems he isn’t listening. He probably is.
  • Seek out comedies on TV, DVDs, and at the movies. Laughter alleviates stress and is clearly good for both body and soul.
  • When your child raises his voice to you, lower your voice. Speak to him in a calm reassuring “your behavior doesn’t phase me” tone of voice. He wants to hear what you are saying because he wants that attention. In order for him to hear you, he will have to lower his voice.
  • To build trust, tell the child the time frame in which you’ll be completing whatever you promised him you’ll do. Give yourself more than ample time so you can always do it within that time period.
  • Teach him step-by-step how to succeed at tasks. Write down the steps for him using numbers 1, 2, 3, etc.

These unconventional, practical suggestions are only a fraction of the 144 ideas included in Detached: Surviving Reactive Attachment Disorder.

Jessie is a huge asset to the parenting community and I’m looking forward to interviewing him soon. If there’s a specific question you’d like me to ask Jessie, please drop it in the comments.

Be sure to follow Jessie on social media for news and updates on his new upcoming book!

Find Jessie on Instagram or Facebook

Aging out of RTF into the real world – a dangerous proposition

J.D. spent his teenage years growing up in a residential treatment facilities. He celebrated his 18th birthday by walking out through those doors – free to make his own decisions and live life his way. Within days, J.D. was causing a public disturbance. Police were called. They told him to put his hands in the air. He laughed. He mimed a gun with his fingers. The officers open fire.

J.D. fell to the ground – dead.


For those of us who’s kids have spent years in residential treatment facilities (RTFs) – growing only more dangerous and violent – this story strikes like a death bell in our chest.

My son Devon has been bounced trampoline-style from facility to facility since he was 10. He’s been in these facilities because he cannot live safely at home. He poses a threat to himself and to his younger siblings. However, instead of getting better in these therapeutic settings, his behavior has become worse. 

Because of the polices of these facilities, Devon has committed assaults and serious vandalism with no consequences. 

  • He’s created thousands of dollars of property damage –  no consequence.
  • He’s made false allegations of abuse – no consequence
  • He broke a woman’s thumb – no consequence.
  • He stabbed a kid in the back with a pencil – no consequence.
  • He punched a girl in the back of the head – no consequence.

Unfortunately, this is how treatment facilities work. The underlying idea is if you consequence kids, that’s all you’ll ever do and they won’t be able to receive therapy. This is true, but on the flip side, what if the “therapy” the kid is receiving in leu of consequences does not help? What have they learned?

My son will turn 18 in a handful of months. He’s itching to leave and at one-minute past midnight he’ll bolt. He won’t have a high school diploma or have any job skills. Worse, he won’t understand that there are consequences in the real world. He’s come to believe that, with a bit of fast talking, he can turn any situation into a ‘therapeutic incident’ and deflect consequences. 

I’m sure that’s what J.D. thought too – before he was shot and killed by police. He expected them to beg him to calm down, offer him coping skills, and at worse drop him to the ground in a physical restraint. I have no doubt that J.D. did not understand the danger of his behavior.

For the safety of our kids, who will someday age-out of residential treatment and into the real world we must find a balance. I don’t pretend to know the answer and there are no quick and easy solutions to this problem. But here’s what I do know: Our kids must have effective treatment AND understand that their choices have consequences. 

My kids’ pediatrician told me this story. He personally knew this young man and the incident happened several years ago. 

RAD Symptoms – which are most common?

Parents of kids diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) are all too familiar with the symptoms. Anecdotally we often list food hoarding, violent outbursts, crazy lying, to name a few. However, there is little research on just how common each of these symptoms are.

The symptoms of RAD fall into three general categories – physical aggression, relational difficulties, and survival based behaviors. This is not surprising given the diagnostic criteria for RAD in the DSM 5. Kids with RAD have experienced chronic neglect or abuse before the age of 5 and did not form a nurturing bond with a primary caregiver.

But which symptoms are most common? To explore this further we collected data on 277 children and analyzed the results of the 236 who have been formally diagnosed with RAD.

The most common symptoms

Based on the survey results these are the most common symptoms for kids diagnosed with RAD.

  • “Crazy Lying” ….89%
  • Superficially charming …..89%
  • Damaging property …..86%
  • Poor boundaries …..85%
  • Stealing ….79%
  • Gorging/Grazing …..77%
  • Violent Outbursts ….77%

Crazy lying is the most common symptom, as many parents of kids diagnosed with RAD might have guessed. This can be as benign – though frustrating – as a kid claiming they had pizza for dinner when they had chicken. Unfortunately, it can also be dangerous. One survey respondents says her 9-year-old son has made continuous false allegations of abuse, to the point she and her husband are now now facing criminal charges. 

Being superficially charming is also a well known hallmark of the RAD diagnosis. One mom says, “I wish our child would treat the family as well as she treats strangers. They think she’s inspirational and cannot understand why she’s currently living in a treatment center.”

While it is disheartening to see these symptoms so common – over 3/4 of kids – it can be reassuring for parents to know they aren’t alone.

Aggressive symptoms

Developmental trauma can result in impaired brain development, depending on the time the trauma occurred. Many of these children have poor impulse control and are disregulated. In addition, chronic abuse they may have heightened their fight-flight response that activates in even minimally threatening situations. This can underpin many aggressive behaviors.

Out of the children studied, 94% exhibit some form of aggression. Here are the detailed results.

Damaging property86%
Violent outbursts77%
Physical aggression to mother71%
Physical aggression to siblings66%
Physical aggression to pets46%
Weaponizing bodily fluids39%
Physical aggression to others37%
Physical aggression to father26%

Worth noting:

  • The most common physical aggression is towards the child’s mother. This is expected because these children see their mother as the nurturing enemy. One mom says, “I survive by being numb to everything. I’m a shell of the person I once was, having no life or spark left in me. I honestly can’t think of one thing I enjoy doing anymore.”
  • The second most common physical aggression is towards siblings. They are often the overlooked victims of the disorder.

See also the results of my survey results on I-CPV (Intentional Child on Parent Violence).

Social Relational symptoms

Children diagnosed with RAD did not form a nurturing bond with a primary caregiver – typically a mother figure. As a result they struggle to know how to form attachments with others. They are often obsessed with their need for control – to combat what feels like an unsafe and unpredictable world – and view relationships as a means to an end.

Out of the children studied, 98% exhibit some form of social relational symptoms. Here are the detailed results.

Crazy lying89%
Superficially charming89%
Lack of boundaries85%
Inappropriate affection65%

Worth noting:

  • These children often have underdeveloped high-level brain functions. Their cause-and-effect thinking, for example, may be impaired or not “on-line.” This likely plays into the “crazy” lying symptomology.
  • These children have an innate sense of insecurity. They are afraid of authentic relationships and don’t know how to attach. They also may view relationships as a means to an end because their basic need to survive trump all.

These types of symptoms can be extremely challenging for the whole family. One parent says, “This has almost ruined our lives.  Our whole family has to go into therapy because of our son.  If it weren’t for the grace of God, we wouldn’t have a family.”

Survival symptoms

Kids with RAD have been neglected and abused. They may have cried in their crib when their belly hurt. Sometimes they were fed, but often they were hit or cried themselves to sleep – still hungry. For a young child who cannot process this, their body absorbs the trauma. They unconsciously learn that the world is unsafe and unpredictable and often their behaviors seem survival based.

Out of the children studied, 98% exhibit some form of survival based behaviors. Here are the detailed results.

Stealing79%
Gorging/Binging/Grazing77%
Potty Issues64%
Food hoarding57%

Worth noting:

  • Kids often hoard even when given free access to food. This behavior is often driven by unconscious food insecurity. Understanding this can help parents better address the behavior.
  • Potty issues may be developmental delays or due to neglect and abuse. Abuse and neglect can cause brain injury that results in developmental delays, and, for example, late potty training. Kids may also choose not to use the toilet because of PTSD type symptoms from abuse.

If you’re a mental health professional reading these survey results, please know how desperately these children need affordable, accessible, effective treatments. Many therapists disregard parents reports of these symptoms because they seem too extreme. These results prove they are not.

If you are a parent, I highly recommend The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting. It’s an excellent practical resource. Check out my review here.

Do these results jibe with your own experience? Drop a note in the comments to let me know.

RTF: A bad option, that’s sometimes the best option

My son Devon was 10-years-old when I dropped him off at a residential treatment facility (RTF) for the first time. I knew almost instantly it wasn’t going to work. They didn’t believe in consequences. School work was optional. With unlimited dessert and no rules, it was more like a summer camp than a program for kids with severe behavioral problems.

I called my sister for advice and my words came out with a sob, “He’ll see this as a reward.”

“I don’t care if it’s Disney World,” she said, without hesitation. “You have to get him out of your house. Nothing else matters right now.”

“But he’s going to get worse here–“

“We’ll deal with that later. Leave him,” she said. 

And I did.

Devon’s behavior had been growing increasingly unmanageable and dangerous over the previous 18 months. He was having violent outburst every day and the stress level in our house was toxic for everyone. My youngest son, who was 4, was especially frightened and would tremble with fear when he sensed Devon’s anger mounting. I was suffering from PTSD—even though I didn’t realize it at the time.

I’d been trying to get help for Devon for years. We’d tried outpatient therapy, intensive in-home therapy and partial hospitalization. He wasn’t getting better and I had no idea how to help him. I only knew what I was doing wasn’t working. 

As I’d predicted, Devon’s behaviors did become dramatically worse from the RTF. However, my sister had recognized what I could not – it was still the best option available to us. Unfortunately, if you’ve exhausted outpatient options and your child is becoming unsafe, it may be your only option too. 

Why RTFs don’t work

While an RTF may be the best – or only – option available, it’s important to have realistic expectations. These facilities are rarely effective for kids with developmental trauma disorder. In fact, they can exacerbate the symptoms, and here’s why:

1. The treatment is not specialized for developmental trauma. Your child will be placed with kids who have a variety of issues including anxiety disorders, eating disorders and PTSD. The coping skills they will learn – like taking deep breaths, playing with a stress ball and counting to ten – are not enough to heal the brain injury caused by developmental trauma.

2. The workers are under-trained, overworked and underpaid. Your child will work with a licensed clinician for therapy. Yet, the general supervision is typically provided by workers who have a high school diploma and on-the-job training. Our kids are very challenging to deal and the chronic understaffing and inadequate training results in inconsistent quality of care.

3. The staffing structure lends itself to triangulation. Because workers are rotated (and have high turnover) they are easily triangulated – especially against the therapist and parents. Unfortunately, your child is likely to gain a sense of control by behaving this way – a feeling they unconsciously crave – and will continue even when it sabotages their treatment.

4. The kids become institutionalized. In these facilities, your child will be exposed to and influenced by kids with sexualized behaviors, horrific language and physical violence. They’ll quickly learn the ropes and how to work the system to their advantage, for example, by making false allegations to retaliate against staff or peers. This is knowledge they’ll ultimately use to manipulate the staff and you as well.

RTFs are intended to teach your child how to cope and let them “practice” good behavior for when they return home. Yet, the artificial environment and behavior-based modification techniques do not help them to truly heal. 

“Kids with DTD learn to work within the external structure of residential treatment facilities. It doesn’t get internalized for them though,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Ultimately, most kids go back into their families and fall apart. Sadly, it’s oftentimes the only option for parents.” 

Sadly, unless you are able to send your child to a program that is highly specialized for developmental trauma, your child is unlikely to get better. 

When to consider an RTF anyway

Parents who are considering sending their children to an RTF often ask for my advice. It is a very personal decision and every child and family is different. However, the following are a few words of hard-earned wisdom I often share. 

1. Consider an RTF if your child is unsafe to himself or others. Remember to consider not only the physical, but also psychological well-being, of other children in the home.

2. Consider an RTF if you are at your breaking point. You cannot help your child when you are unstable yourself. An RTF may be the breather you need to regain perspective.

3. Consider an RTF if your child  engages in unlawful behavior. An RTF is likely a better option that juvenile detention where your child will get a criminal record and receive little treatment.

The decision to send your child to an RTF should be a last resort but you may be at that point now. You alone are not able to heal developmental trauma any more than you can set your child’s arm or cure his leukemia. The best you can do is access the best possible treatments available and support and love your child through the process. 

For us, an RTF was the best choice because Devon had become unsafe to himself and his siblings. And after years of giving it my all, I had nothing left to give. He’s now 17 and in his ninth RTF. It’s not the forever family I’d hoped for and not what any parents wants. Yet, it is often the best of the limited choices families like mine have. It is the best choice for us. And while my son doesn’t live at home, he’ll always be a part of our family.

First published by Institute for Attachment and Child Development here.

What I Wish People Knew About These Popular Social Media Quotes…

Everyday I see quotes like these on social media:

Behavior is not a kid being bad, it’s a form of communication.

My behavior is a symptom of my trauma, not willful non-compliance.

These types of sentiments garner thousands of likes, shares, and re-tweets. But for families like mine, they simply don’t ring true.

My son, Devon, has been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), a result of early childhood trauma. My husband and I adopted him out of foster care when he was 4 and prior to that he was neglected and did not form a close attachment with a caregiver. This is called “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading expert Bessel van der Kolk.

Kids who experience chronic neglect and abuse may begin to default to fight-or-flight mode in even minimally threatening situations. Developmental trauma can also disrupt the brain’s development causing impaired or under developed cortical brain functions including cause-and-effect thinking and abstract thinking. RAD is a common diagnoses for these kids.

I liken RAD to a tug-of-war. For example, Devon will become belligerent over anything from what color socks he’ll wear to if he’ll use a seat belt. His screaming fits last for hours – literally hours – and often include property damage and dangerous physical aggression. Devon treats every situation as though it’s life-or-death, in a desperate attempt to control the people and situations around him.

Are Devon’s extreme behaviors related to his developmental trauma? Of course. He’s driven by the unconscious trauma scars etched on his psyche.

His behavior IS communication.

His behavior IS a symptom of his trauma.

That doesn’t mean his behavior isn’t also willful.

Devon makes a choice when he refuses to buckle his seatbelt. He chooses to tip desks over in his classroom. He chooses to break windows and chase his siblings with a baseball bat.

Certainly, there are some disorders where symptoms are involuntary such as schizophrenia and alzheimer’s. However, RAD is a behavioral disorder. Control and anger issues are symptoms of this disorder.

Kids with RAD can be both unconsciously motivated by underlying trauma scars and willful. These two things can and do coexist. In fact, this is what makes parenting a child diagnosed with RAD so challenging.

Our child enjoys pushing our buttons because it gives them a feeling of control, which they unconsciously crave. That’s the underlying motivation and the pay off, but that doesn’t negate the child’s role in making a choice to engage in certain behaviors.

The idea that a person has no control over their behaviors is not healthy for anyone. I refuse to take away my son’s agency. If he has no control over his behaviors. then he has no hope for a better life and no hope for the future.

As a parent in the trenches, here’s my take on the social media quotes I listed above:

  • I recognize my son’s behavior is a symptom of his trauma, but also as willful non-compliance.
  • I listen to the communication behind my son’s behavior, but I also tell him his behavior is bad.

As I like to tell Devon, a sneeze is involuntary – stabbing someone with a pencil is not.

Let’s acknowledge that our children’s mental health is complex and nuanced. Let’s stop painting with such a broad brush. Causes behind our children’s behaviors aren’t always simple enough to be encapsulated in a snappy social media quote.

What happens when your child becomes violent … with you

Under my desk is an antique iron. It has been there since the day my mother hid it from my teenage son. That day, attempts to get him up had repeatedly failed. He was hungry but refused to eat, he became increasingly volatile until eventually he threatened to hurl the iron at my head.

I’d had enough objects thrown at me in the past to not take any chances. I ran out of the house and for the first time called the police. While I waited for them, my son punched through a window, the resulting cut narrowly missing his artery.

While some may find this shocking, for others it’s a familiar story….

Read the full story from The Guardian here.

Childhood Trauma Leads to Brains Wired for Fear

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Mediaa news collaborative covering public health.

Negative childhood experiences can set our brains to constantly feel danger and fear says psychiatrist and traumatic stress expert Bessel van der Kolk. He’s the author of the recently published book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

A  report by the University of San Diego School of Law found that about 686,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in 2013. Traumatic childhood events can lead to mental health and behavioral problems later in life, explains psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, author of the recently published book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Related: How two professors are helping children cope with violence

Children’s brains are literally shaped by traumatic experiences, which can lead to problems with anger, addiction, and even criminal activity in adulthood, says van der Kolk. Side Effects contributing producer Barbara Lewis spoke with him about his book. 

Barbara Lewis: Can psychologically traumatic events change the physical structure of the brain?

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk: Yes, they can change the connections and activations in the brain. They shape the brain.

The human brain is a social organ that is shaped by experience, and that is shaped in order to respond to the experience that you’re having. So particularly earlier in life, if you’re in a constant state of terror; your brain is shaped to be on alert for danger, and to try to make those terrible feelings go away. 

The brain gets very confused. And that leads to problems with excessive anger, excessive shutting down, and doing things like taking drugs to make yourself feel better. These things are almost always the result of having a brain that is set to feel in danger and fear. 

As you grow up an get a more stable brain, these early traumatic events can still cause changes that make you hyper-alert to danger, and hypo-alert to the pleasures of everyday life. 

BL: So are you saying that a child’s brain is much more malleable than an adult brain?

BK: A child’s brain is virtually nonexistent. It’s being shaped by experience. So yes, it’s extremely malleable.

BL: What is the mechanism by which traumatic events change the brain?

BK: The brain is formed by feedback from the environment. It’s a profoundly relational part of our body.

In a healthy developmental environment, your brain gets to feel a sense of pleasure, engagement, and exploration. Your brain opens up to learn, to see things, to accumulate information, to form friendships. When you’re traumatized you’re afraid of what you’re feeling, because your feeling is always terror, or fear or helplessness. I think these body-based techniques help you to feel what’s happening in your body, and to breathe into it and not run away from it. So you learn to befriend your experience. 

But if you’re in an orphanage for example, and you’re not touched or seen, whole parts of your brain barely develop; and so you become an adult who is out of it, who cannot connect with other people, who cannot feel a sense of self, a sense of pleasure. If you run into nothing but danger and fear, your brain gets stuck on just protecting itself from danger and fear. 

Related: Some Early Childhood Experiences Shape Adult Life, But Which Ones? 

BL: Does trauma have a very different effect on children compared to adults?

BK: Yes, because of developmental issues. If you’re an adult and life’s been good to you, and then something bad happens, that sort of injures a little piece of the whole structure. But toxic stress in childhood from abandonment or chronic violence has pervasive effects on the capacity to pay attention, to learn, to see where other people are coming from, and it really creates havoc with the whole social environment.

And it leads to criminality, and drug addiction, and chronic illness, and people going to prison, and repetition of the trauma on the next generation. 

BL: Are there effective solutions to childhood trauma?

BK: It is difficult to deal with but not impossible. 

One thing we can do – which is not all that well explored because there hasn’t been that much funding for it – is neurofeedback, where you can actually help people to rewire the wiring of their brain structures.

Another method is putting people into safe environments and helping them to create a sense of safety inside themselves. And for that you can go to simple things like holding and rocking.

We just did a study on yoga for people with PTSD. We found that yoga was more effective than any medicine that people have studied up to now. That doesn’t mean that yoga cures it, but yoga makes a substantial difference in the right direction.

Trauma-Informed Care: School Counselors Take On At-Home Trauma In The Classroom.

BL: What is it about yoga that helps?

BK: It’s about becoming safe to feel what you feel. When you’re traumatized you’re afraid of what you’re feeling, because your feeling is always terror, or fear or helplessness.  I think these body-based techniques help you to feel what’s happening in your body, and to breathe into it and not run away from it. So you learn to befriend your experience. 

5 lessons I wish I’d known when I first adopted a child with developmental trauma

My husband and I adopted Devon out of foster care when he was 3. Devon has complex developmental trauma disorder (DTD, commonly diagnosed as reactive attachment disorder). This often occurs when a child experiences chronic abuse or neglect early on and results in disrupted brain development. Adoptive parents like myself aren’t given a how-to manual for raising kids with a history of trauma. I very quickly found myself drowning with no life boat in sight.

This is why I’ve been working on telling my story through a memoir. I hope to educate others about the challenges parents like myself face and to raise awareness about the lack of treatment. Throughout the writing process, I relived painful memories. I grappled with guilt and many regrets. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 and I’ve learned a great deal through reflecting on my own story.

Here are 5 lessons I wish I learned earlier in the journey of raising Devon:
1. I should have given up and gotten help earlier.

For years, I tried to parent Devon on my own. But no matter how hard I tried, nothing worked. Unfortunately, those failures and missteps weren’t merely wasted time. They exacerbated my son’s condition, derailed our relationship and led to a decline in my own mental health. Meanwhile, my other children were living in a home that was highly volatile and unhealthy, causing them secondary trauma.

I often wonder how things might be different if I’d gotten help in the years before Devon was 10-years-old. Don’t get me wrong, writing my memoir also solidified my belief that most professionals aren’t versed in developmental trauma and few treatments are available. However, perhaps with support, my family could have avoided some of our darkest moments. Maybe Devon would have better coping skills and a brighter future. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the warning signs and had no idea where to find help.

2. I was worse off than I knew.

I stopped taking phone calls and opening my mail. My hair was falling out. I knew I was overwhelmed, frustrated, and depressed but didn’t realize I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the ongoing stress (see How Parents of Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder Develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). I was hanging onto the very edge of sanity by my chipped fingernails. Raising a child with a trauma background took its toll emotionally, physically, and spirituality. It irreparably damaged my marriage and relationships with family and friends.

When writing my memoir, I was shocked to realize just how difficult things were. I saw that there was a gradual shift from manageable to completely out of control. For example, at the time, I didn’t recognize when my son’s tantrums shifted to rages. My mental health was declining more than I realized and did not begin to improve until I started seeing a therapist and went on antidepressants. In retrospect, I realize I should have started taking care of myself far earlier than I did.

3. I could only change myself.

At the time, I was so sure I could “fix” Devon – but I was wrong. Early trauma can tamper brain development and requires specialized treatment. It’s like having a child with leukemia – you can feed them organic chicken soup, tuck them in with warm blankets and curl up beside them to read stories – but, you can’t treat the disease. For that, children need professional treatment. “Many people mistake children with DTD as typical kids going through a tough time or phase. They think love and structure will make all the difference. Unfortunately, it’s often not that simple,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “DTD is a disorder of the brain, not a developmental stage that they outgrow with time or ‘good parenting’. Parents can’t heal them through love alone. They need effective professional help.”

I very nearly had a nervous breakdown before acknowledging what was beyond my control and identifying what I could change. The parenting challenges I was facing were difficult enough without having marital issues, an air conditioner on the fritz and the stress of a difficult boss. What I could do was improve my ability to cope and my capacity as a caretaker by addressing these things. To survive, I had to find ways to raise my own resilience by decreasing or eliminating other stressors in my life.

4. Burning bridges with clinicians is a bad idea.

Some mental health professionals say the hallmark of a kid with RAD is a “pissed off mom”. That was me. As a result, my son’s therapists pinned me as unreasonable, uncaring and angry. I thought they’d give me the benefit of the doubt and assume the best about me. I was wrong. I spent two years torching bridges before I realized the value of building partnerships, even with professionals with whom I disagreed.

I started making progress in getting my son better treatment when I began to hold my cards close to the vest. I forced myself to listen then respond calmly and reasonably. Why is this important? Some of those professionals became my best allies when I needed referrals for treatment, favors called in to get Devon into new placements and back-up documentation when he made false allegations.

5. My family really didn’t get it.

When my father read a draft of my memoir, he found it so painful he had to take breaks from reading. My mother, after reading it, apologized for not understanding and being more supportive. It took my parents walking in my shoes, through the pages of my memoir, to truly grasp how difficult my life was. For some reason, I’d always felt their minimization of my challenges raising Devon was in part willful – as if they just didn’t want to believe it.

I now realize, they truly didn’t “get” it. That makes sense. If my life were a movie, I’d be the first to say the script was over the top and totally unrealistic. Before I adopted, I never imagined a child could have behaviors as extreme and unrelenting as my son does. It’s easy to become defensive with family and friends, but, in retrospect, I wish I’d done more to help educate them about developmental trauma disorder and reactive attachment disorder with movies like The Boarders and through other online resources.

Learning from our stories

It’s hard – impossible – to see the big picture when you’re just trying to stay afloat while parenting a child with developmental trauma. We’re often so caught up in our day-to-day moments, we don’t have time to reflect. We then fail to take a strategic approach to parenting. I wish I’d had the opportunity to benefit from the stories of others instead of learning the hard way.

I encourage parents of children with a trauma background to join online communities like Attach Families Support Group and The Underground World of RAD. We can all learn from each other’s experiences and support one another along the way.

First published by IACD here.

RAD, DTD – What’s all the controversy about?

Tweets. Facebook messages. Verbal knockouts. One too many times, I’ve been told reactive attachment disorder (RAD)—the result of a child’s early trauma—isn’t a “real” diagnosis. When parents like me hear that our child’s diagnosis is fake, bogus, or phony, it’s like a kick in the stomach. We feel invalidated, misunderstood, hurt, angry, and frustrated.

I’ve even had more than one mental health professional question my son’s diagnosis of RAD. I’m not sure if this stems from a lack of education, of effort, or of something else. Here is what I, and other parents raising children like my son, know for certainwe know RAD is “real” because we’re living with it.

Don’t miss out on this post: Raising a Child with Developmental Trauma

Parents know firsthand the heartbreak and frustration of raising a child who cannot receive or return our love…and what that looks like in the privacy of our own homes.

A new diagnoses for early trauma

To complicate matters, there is another diagnosis outside of RAD to explain the effects of early trauma. Many clinicians are advocating for the elimination of the RAD diagnosis altogether in lieu of developmental trauma disorder (DTD).

The term DTD was coined by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk who I recently heard speak at the 2018 ATTACh conference. Over the three days of that conference, I had the opportunity to learn more about the DTD diagnosis and the controversy attached from leading researchers and clinicians and I walked away with a new perspective…

Here’s what I heard:

    • We don’t like the label “RAD,” but we totally get it. We understand the extreme behaviors and challenges parents are facing on a daily basis.

    • We want to partner with parents because we believe healthy relationships with adoptive parents are the key to healing for these kids.

  • We know it is very difficult to find and access effective treatments for the impacts of early trauma. We’re advocating every day for adoptive families and focusing our research on meaningful treatments for trauma.

As I absorbed more about the DTD diagnosis, I realized parents and professionals are talking past each other on this issue. These professionals aren’t denying our experiences. They’re questioning how we categorize, label, and communicate about it.

[bctt tweet=”Here is what I, and other parents raising children like my son, know for certain—we know RAD is “real” because we’re living with it.” username=”RaisingDevon”]

What can we agree upon?

        1. Having a correct diagnosis is important. Children with early childhood trauma are often misdiagnosed and therefore don’t receive treatment. Furthermore, the RAD diagnosis is only the attachment piece of the puzzle. There are a number of diagnoses frequently given to victims of early childhood trauma including PTSD, conduct disorder, ADHD, and RAD. No one disorder covers the complexity of the issues our children face.
        2. Attachment is only one of the ways early childhood trauma impacts kids. We already know this as parents. Our kids have learning disabilities, cognitive issues, developmental delays, emotional problems, as well as attachment issues. In fact, most of our kids have an alphabet soup of diagnoses to cover all their symptoms
        3. Regardless of what the diagnosis is called, parents just want help. We’re desperate for treatments that work, therapists who understand, schools where our kids can be successful, more awareness in our communities, and strategies to better parent our children. We want our children to heal and thrive.

What’s in a name?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the guide mental health professionals use to diagnose mental disorders. It’s used by providers to submit insurance reimbursement claims. RAD was added to the DSM as a diagnosis in the 1980s. Three decades ago is a long time! Neuroscience has made huge advances and it’s time for the DSM to catch up.

Here are definitions of the RAD and DTD diagnoses in a nutshell:

RAD is caused by childhood neglect or abuse which leads to a child not forming a healthy emotional attachments with their caregivers. As a result they struggle to form meaningful attachments leading to a variety of behavioral symptoms.

DTD is caused by childhood exposure to trauma. As a result they may be dysregulated, have attachment issues, behavioral issues, cognitive problems, and poor self esteem. In addition, they may have functional impairments in these areas: Educational, Familial, Peer, Legal, Vocational. (footnote)

As you can see, the DTD diagnosis brings the impacts of childhood trauma under one umbrella. It enables mental health professionals to take a holistic approach to our children instead of piecemeal treatments.

Experts petitioned the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to have the DTD diagnosis added to the latest version of the DSM. The request was denied. One cannot help but wonder the impact the health insurance industry had this decision. In fact, Bessel van der Kolk made this point at the ATTACh conference, urging mental health professionals and parents to become politically active around this issue.

While the APA rejected the diagnosis in this latest version of the DSM, leading researchers and experts have embraced the DTD diagnosis. For example, the Institute for Attachment and Childhood Development is not waiting for the inclusion of DTD into the DSM in order to properly acknowledge it. 

When mental health and other professionals frown at the RAD diagnosis, they’re not invalidating our very real experiences. On the contrary, they’re recognizing that the current diagnoses, including RAD, don’t adequately describe the severe and devastating impact trauma has had on our children. They’re advocating for more research, treatments, and funding for our kids.

This mom’s resolution of the diagnoses for trauma

Until DTD is added to the DSM and/or covered by health insurance, to embrace the diagnosis still poses issues for parents. Treatment and care for children with early trauma backgrounds is expensive. The DTD diagnosis doesn’t currently qualify for insurance reimbursements. So, for now, I’m hanging onto my son’s RAD diagnosis. For better or worse, that’s how our healthcare system works.

When mental health and other professionals frown at the RAD diagnosis, they’re not invalidating our very real experiences…they’re advocating for more research, treatments, and funding for our kids.

However, I’m thrilled the mental health community is recognizing the devastating scope of impact early childhood trauma has on our children. I’m optimistic about the promising advances in neuroscience that are leading to new treatments. The DTD diagnosis is a major step forward in helping children like mine, who have suffered early childhood trauma, to heal and thrive.

Footnote: http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/preprint_dev_trauma_disorder.

Originally posted by IACD here.

How kids in “typical” biological families grow up with attachment issues

Adults who grew up in so-called “typical” families—the families we pay no or little attention to because it looks “normal”, okay, or good-enough—can struggle too. In this post from IACD Robert W. McBride, LCSW, MSW offers insight into the experiences that may cause attachment issues in children who are not foster kids and not adopted.

Phil the Farmboy
Phil was raised in a small mid-western town where his father operated several grain silos and mom was a teacher. Phil described his family as stereotypical—a happy, church-going, farmland family—dad, mom, daughter, and son. He described himself as mostly shy, afraid, unhappy, and somewhat angry as a child. When Phil was eight-years-old, his father began to take him to work at the silos after he got out of school. He picked up the dead rats, swept out the train cars, and cleaned the elevators. By the time he got home, his mouth and nostrils were red and raw, his throat was constricted and scratchy, and his eyes were swollen nearly shut from the dust…read the full story here.

Beth the Big Sister/Mother
Beth grew up in a large western city. She did not know who her father was and her mother had been addicted to drugs until Beth was fifteen-years-old. She had four siblings by four different men. Beth raised her siblings—bathed, fed, dressed them, did the laundry, and many other caregiver roles from a very early age. As a child, she was afraid someone in authority would find out her mother was an addict and party girl and break up the family…read the full story here.