Parents in crisis can’t parent therapeutically – so stop expecting us to.

My teenaged son called this evening to explain that he’d cursed his teacher out and thrown his desk across the classroom. He was upset because he’d lost his school issued Chrome book because he’d taken it home (not allowed, and not his first time) and had pornography on it. I listened patiently without judgement. He explained how his elopement from school ended in an entanglement in a pricker bush and contact with a concrete culvert which scratched up his arms and legs. He was covered with bloody scratches and scrapes. I expressed empathy as I sipped my coffee. I offered encouragement when he said he was going to try to earn back the Chromebook and even said I’d talk to the school to ask for a clear plan to work towards that goal. I told him I was proud of this choice to make tomorrow a new day.

Today I was a therapeutic parent superstar and here’s why:

Had this situation happened when my son was still living at home, I would have gone nuts. I would have been throwing out consequences and yelling. My anxiety would have been through the roof. I would have been angry, embarrassed, frustrated, and overwhelmed.

Back when my son was living at home, our family was in crisis. The situation had grown toxic. It took several years of his being in treatment programs, and my being in therapy and educating myself, to begin to find a positive way forward.

Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. Adoptive and foster parents aren’t prepared for the early childhood trauma most kids coming into our families have experienced. We usually reach a crisis point before we learn about therapeutic parenting. By that time, we’ve become desperate and demoralized. Our mental and physical health is so degraded that we are barely surviving. Our kids are out of control. Our life is out of control. We can’t even manage to brush our hair in the morning much less use a calm and kind voice after our child spits in our face.

No doubt, our children need us to be that calm and steady, therapeutic parent, but at that point, we simply don’t have the capacity to do it. And given the our current relationship with our kids, it’s likely we aren’t even the best person to do it. Though few dare tell the shameful truth – we likely have come to a point where we really don’t like our kid. It’s a struggle to be nice to them. It’s difficult to not feel adversarial towards them. If we’re really being honest, some days we’re as out of control as our kids.

Unfortunately, few therapists understand this. They usually underestimate our child’s extreme behaviors and the level of crisis our family is in. They assume we have the ability to parent therapeutically and shame us if we don’t. For our families to heal and thrive, this is something that must be recognized and addressed.

The only clinician I know who is talking about this and teaching other clinicians about this is Forrest Lien of Lifespan Trauma Consulting. (If you are a parent, please follow him on social media to support his efforts on our behalf.)

Families in crisis do not have the capacity to parent therapeutically. This is why we must:

1) Get help to families before they are in crisis (this means pre-adoption training and post-adoption support),

2) Support parents and families in a holistic way. Help us get to a place where we can parent therapeutically.

3) Surround families who are in crisis with supports. Stop shaming us for being broken and demoralized. Give us a hand up.

Parents must be healthy and educated to parent therapeutically.


A note about therapeutic parenting:

There are no perfect treatments for developmental trauma. My son hasn’t been able to access the highly specialized treatment he needs. My response to his phone call today doesn’t solve the problem – I realize that. However, consequences, though perhaps “deserved” won’t work, and will only further escalate my son. What I must do is choose the response that is most likely to move the ball forward. My goal is for him to remain in school and to not get kicked out of the group home. My goal is to de-escalate the situation. I highly recommend A to Z Therapeutic Parenting for practical information on therapeutic parenting.

The ugly truth about trauma

Warning: Graphic image

Because trauma from early childhood neglect and abuse is invisible to the untrained eye, we tend to imagine our children having only bruised and bleeding hearts.

In reality, some of our children have huge gaping trauma wounds. The gash is infected and oozing puss. It smells. It’s sticky and messy. No vital organ or system in our child’s body is safe from its insidious spread. As a result, our children can’t sleep or eat. They can’t learn. They don’t play nicely with others. Sometimes they spend days – years – delirious with fever and pain.

I’m sorry if this is disturbing, but that’s the point I’m making about trauma.

Our kids don’t know how to treat their own trauma gashes, but they’re afraid to let us help. They want us to just leave it alone and let it get better by itself. But trauma gashes, left to their own, can become life threatening or leave a mangled, ugly scar.

As parents we try to treat our child’s oozing trauma gash with bandaids, ice packs, and Neosporin. Afraid and in paid, they lash out at us like wounded animals no matter how lovingly we soothe and comfort. We explain the pain is only momentary, that we’re just trying to help the wound heal, but they fight to keep us far away.

Most trauma gashes need stitches or surgery. Our kids need highly specialized treatment that, more often than not, is unaffordable or inaccessible. And so, as parents, we just do the best we can with our inadequate home first aid kit.

Bruised and broken hearts can be comforted. And even trauma gashes can heal and fade with proper treatment and time, but they always leave a scar.

Learn more here:

Understanding the impact of childhood trauma
Raising a child with developmental trauma

Christmas Gift List for kids in Residential Treatment Facilities (RTFs)

It can be challenging to Christmas shop for kids who are living in residential treatment facilities (PRTFs, RTFs, or group homes). There are almost always restrictive rules about personal items along with special rules for Christmas gifts. For example, in most facilities electronics, candy, and hardback books are not allowed.

So what can you give your child for Christmas? Below is a list curated from parents who have successfully navigated the holiday season while their child is living in an RTF.

But first, here are some tips.

  • Gifts deemed inappropriate or against policy will likely be thrown away and not returned to you.
  • Most facilities do not allow wrapped gifts because they need to approve the items.
  • Often gifts must be dropped off on a specific day.
  • You may not be allowed to open Christmas gifts with your child. If this is important to you, ask their therapist about doing so during a family therapy session or home visit.
  • Kids in higher level facilities aren’t allowed to have “dangerous” item which may include shoe laces, belts, hard back books, calendars with staples, etc.
  • Ask the facility if your child will be getting additional gifts from local charities or the facility. As you shop, it can be helpful to know if you are supplementing gifts or supplying all your child’s gifts.
  • Plan for the gifts you buy to be lost or destroyed. Shop at Walmart and don’t give expensive gifts. Label what you can with your child’s name.
  • To successfully navigate Christmas gift giving with the least amount of frustration and waste, email your child’s therapist your planned gift list ahead of time for approval.

Christmas Gift List
(For kids in RTF)

  • Clothes
  • Pillow
  • Stuffed animal
  • Pajamas
  • Markers and coloring books
  • Dot to Dot books
  • Playing cards
  • Family Pictures
  • Art Supplies
  • Basket ball
  • Soccer ball
  • Foot ball
  • Journal
  • Hygiene supplies
  • Hair bands
  • Stickers
  • Pillow case
  • Picture book of “happy” memories
  • Paperback books
  • Crayons
  • Teddy bear
  • Gloves
  • Hat
  • Shoes
  • Puzzles
  • Funky Socks
  • Magic 8 Ball
  • Comic books
  • MP3 Player/iPod Shuffle with no internet access
  • Stationary
  • Legos
  • Crazy Aaron’s thinking Putty
  • Blanket – burrito etc
  • Posters
  • Calendar (no staples)

Please let me know your additional ideas so I can add to this list!

A few thoughts about realistic expectations…

Kids with developmental trauma, especially those diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) are likely to turn any situation into a power struggle, including their Christmas gifts.

Even if you give them a gift they’ve been asking for – that you know they’ll love – you can expect them to:

  • Tell the therapist they know you aren’t planning to give them any gifts because you don’t love them.
  • Complain to staff about the gifts they do get, and say they don’t like them.
  • Destroy the gifts even if they love them and desperately wanted them.

It may feel personal, but it’s simply how your child relates to the world because of the lasting effects of early childhood neglect and abuse. Unfortunately, you may end up feeling manipulated, lied about, coerced, and judged. It can be tempting to withhold gifts because of these behaviors or because your child is not cooperating with treatment, but that’s not a good strategy.

First, keep in mind that it will be very difficult to execute. Staff will likely compensate by giving your child extra gifts creating an opportunity for triangulation.

Additionally, your child’s therapist will almost certainly see your lack of gifts as a sign you are a cold, and unloving parent – and the focus of your child’s treatment will be side tracked.

Most importantly, your child will internalize feelings of rejection and this will not be a learning lesson no matter how well-intentioned you are. Jessie Hogsett, who was diagnosed with RAD as a child, reminds us that our child’s actions aren’t necessarily reflective of what’s going on inside. He says “I remember being in an RTF during Christmas. So lonely. And I felt totally unwanted. Horrible times. A gift would have made me feel wanted, special, and thought about.”

So, plop on your Christmas hat, sip a peppermint latte, and go shopping.

Joker: A warning we should heed

At my teenaged kids’ insistence, I took them to watch Joker in the theater, expecting a typical action-packed, comic book movie – not a genre I typically enjoy. Instead, I sat in the darkness, stunned to near-tears by it’s devastating portrayal of how early childhood trauma and untreated mental illness can spiral into tragedy. 

The poignant film explores the backstory of comic book villain Joker: a man named Arthur Fleck who has a disturbing past and a troubling present. It is a compelling and nuanced portrayal of untreated trauma and mental illness. 

Joker is incredibly violent and disturbing, certainly earning its R-rating, but at the same time reflects a reality we are already seeing in our society today. Early childhood trauma is at epidemic levels. Our mental health system is in disarray. We aren’t meeting the needs of the vulnerable around us and sometimes violence and tragedy are the price we pay as a society. 

There’s a huge amount of controversy swirling around the film and it’s portrayal of mental illness. After watching the movie, I believe the real controversy we should be focused on is why we don’t have affordable, accessible, effective treatment for mental illness and early childhood trauma!

*** Spoilers Below ***

In the film, Joker, we meet Arthur Fleck shortly after he’s been discharged from a mental health institution. He’s receiving mediocre city mental health services, living in poverty, and attempting to build a semblance of a life for himself.

While the film does not specify all of Arthur’s diagnoses, his symptoms include hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, and feelings of despair, loneliness, and worthlessness. Arthur’s one obvious diagnosis, Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA), fits of uncontrollable laughter, results in severe bullying. We also learn Arthur was abused and neglected by his mother during early childhood. This included severe head trauma as well as psychological and emotional abuse. Arthur has never been able to access the treatment he needs to manage his condition, much less heal, or thrive. He’s completely lacking social skills, unable to hold down a job despite his best efforts, and even with medication, unable to feel happy or optimistic.

Unfortunately, Arthur is not simply a far-fetched character. We have “Arthurs” living and breathing all around us – in our daycare centers, classrooms, workplaces, and neighborhoods. Early childhood trauma is a hidden epidemic affecting millions of people. While victims of early childhood trauma and/or people who have mental illnesses aren’t necessarily violent, the combination of untreated trauma and mental illness with psychosis can be dangerous. Furthermore, high-risk children are not receiving effective treatments in residential treatment facilities. They are aging out ill-equipped to function in the adult world and at high risk of criminal behavior and incarceration. Like Arthur, most of these individuals want to be happy. They want to have good lives. However, we, as a society, fail them by not providing effective, affordable, accessible treatments for trauma and mental illness. Like Arthur, these people struggle to navigate even the basics of life.

Arthur, though teetering like a wobbling house of cards, is trying to build a life for himself. He’s trying to find some happiness. But it’s obvious to the viewer that he simple doesn’t have the resources or skills to do so. And so begins Arthur’s devastating spiral that should be a warning for us all. 

  1. Arthur loses his services (therapy, medications, etc) due to city financial cuts.
  2. He’s fired from the job he loves – sure he made a mistake, but he’s given no mercy or compassion.
  3. He follows his dream to be a comedian, and falls flat. He’s mocked mercilessly.
  4. He’s physically assaulted for laughing (his Pseudobulbar Affect) and in self-defense shoots and kills two men on a train. In a panic, he kills another.
  5. He’s cruelly rejected by the man he believes to be his birth father.
  6. He learns his mother abused him as a child and anger that has been festering in his unconscious for decades surfaces.

The spiral tightens. Arthur is drawn to the rioters who praise him as a vigilante for the killing on the train (which was in fact, self-defense). He becomes more violent and murders several people. In his mind, his path has become inevitable as all other doors – all other options – have slammed closed in his face. 

Does this not reflect the crumbling path of so many young people in our society today? People who struggle on the edge of society: to hold down a jobs, to form relationships, to find their next meal, or place to sleep. This instability is the fate of so many people who have experienced early childhood trauma and/or are mentally ill because they are unable to access effective treatment and services. Is it any wonder that they are hopeless, desperate, and caught in a downward spiral? Is it any surprise that some end up engaging in criminal behavior? That some act out violently?

Towards the end of the movie, Arthur has fully transformed into the Joker. Wearing chalky make-up and a sardonic smile, he sits on a talk show stage and casually confesses to the train murders, Before shooting the talk show host point-blank in the face, Joker says, “I’ve got nothing to lose. Society has abandoned me.” And we can’t disagree: He has got nothing to lose. Society has abandoned him.

It only takes thumbing through the headlines to know that far too many of our most vulnerable have been abandoned by society and with nothing to lose have picked up guns and lashed out violently too. Read more about one recent incident here. This will continue until we prioritize affordable, accessible, effective treatment for early childhood trauma and mental illness.

NOTE: In case it wasn’t clear in this post, I am not saying that mental illness or childhood trauma lead to violent behaviors. What I am saying is that untreated mental illness and untreated childhood trauma can put people on a dangerous spiral.

Here’s what “trauma informed” looks like…

Due to startling research on the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on children, there is emphasis on “trauma informed care” in many sectors – education, childcare, health care, justice, and more. Far too often, however, trauma informed care is little more than a buzzword. In fact, many community resources exacerbate problems for families in crisis.

Over the last few months, my family has benefited greatly from several examples of truly trauma informed care. Let’s take a look at what “trauma informed” really looks like.

Leaving class to call home

My 12-year-old son Brandon recently lost his father under traumatic circumstances. As a result, he constantly worries about my safety. I receive these types of text from him multiple times a day:

Sometimes he’s texting from a friends house, sometimes just upstairs in his bedroom. If I don’t immediately see the text and respond, he becomes panicked. This posed a serious problem with the start of school where he has to leave his cell phone in his backpack.

When I explained the situation to the school counselor she immediately put in place a practical, trauma-informed solution: Brandon’s teachers have been instructed to give him a pass to Student Services whenever he asks for one. He’s then allowed to go into the office and make a short call home to check on me. While this could be viewed as disruptive, it is no where near as disruptive as his anxiety mounting for hours until it becomes debilitating. This way he checks in – 5 minutes – and is able to go back to learning. Shout out to @nwsarts

Protecting siblings from viewing an arrest

As my kids sat eating snacks at the kitchen table, I had no idea the police were on their way to my house to arrest my 17-year-old son Devon on outstanding assault charges.

When the police arrived they pulled me aside and explained they were about to arrest Devon. Then the officer added, “Do you have a place you can take your other kids so they don’t have to see their brother arrested? We’ll wait for you to take them.” Dazed, I took Devon’s siblings next door.

Once I recovered from the shock of the arrest, I was deeply grateful to the officers. They realized the potential for secondary trauma and were proactive in preventing that. They could have just swept in and handcuffed Devon. Instead, they were trauma informed and acted in the best interest of the whole famiy. Shout out to @CMPDnews

A private place to eat

Food issues are extremely common for kids who have been abused or neglected. My adopted daughter Kayla, now a teenager, has always struggled eating in front of other people. This poses a significant problem in school as she cannot concentrate when she’s hungry. In addition, during basketball season this can become a serious health concern.

Instead of diminishing this very serious concern, my daughter’s teachers have gone out of their way to create an accommodation that is both practical and helpful – one that is truly trauma informed. Kayla is allowed to eat her lunch in one of the teacher’s classrooms. As a result, she gets the daily calories she needs to thrive in school. This has been a simple and effective way of removing a barrier to Kayla’s academic success. Shout out to @LNCharter and @corviancourier

Each of these solutions is straight-forward. Simple even. So what makes them truly trauma informed?

  1. They recognize the underlying trauma
  2. They don’t minimize the issue
  3. They are practical and effective

Families like mine need more community resources who are educated about developmental trauma and willing to implement practical, sensible, trauma informed solutions that will enable our kids grow and thrive.

Video: Early Childhood Trauma – we need treatments now!

Learn more

Aging out of RTF and into the real world: A dangerous proposition

Raising a child with Developmental Trauma

Immigration isn’t the only “system” that’s harmful to children

Why adoption stories aren’t fairy tales

It takes a village

Book Review: Becoming Superman

J Michael Straczynski’s (JMS) new memoir, Becoming Superman: My journey from poverty to Hollywood, is compelling, heartbreaking, and inspirational. It provides unique insight for adoptive and foster parents of children who have been abused and neglected – a portrait of how these children are impacted and can develop Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).

JMS is most well known as the creator of Babylon 5, writer of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling which stars Angelina Jolie, and as a prolific writer of sci-fi and comic books. His new memoir shows how he built his career based on hard work and a belief in doing the right thing. What may come as a surprise is the details of his brutal childhood.

The story begins with JMS’s grandparents and follows the chilling thread of multi-generational trauma through three generations. While Joe makes no excuse for his sadistically abusive father, sexually abusive grandmother, and neglectful mother, this background enables readers to begin to understand how trauma can negatively impact multiple generations. In particular, we are able to feel some level of compassion for his mother who was kidnapped as a teenager by his father and spent her life as his captive, regularly beaten and mistreated.

Because his mother was emotionally unavailable due to her own suffering, JMS had no one to protect him. No one to love and care for him. Understandably, he suffered from inhibited RAD and struggled to form meaningful relationships and read social cues. Rising above a horrific childhood, JMS went on to become a Hollywood star. Fans and writers will enjoy the second half of the book which details his career stops and starts and ultimate success.

While RAD is not the primary topic of Becoming Superman: My journey from poverty to Hollywood, JMS does much to help raise awareness. He very effectively shows the reader the why and how of RAD. In addition, he provides an accurate and easily understood description for the disorder which will be new to many of his readers.

Pick up a copy of the new memoir here: Becoming Superman: My journey from poverty to Hollywood,

Here’s a social media shareable for you:

NEW video teaches kids about trauma and the brain

I am so excited to share this exciting new resource with you! The Brain Game is a new psycho-educational, 20-minute video, It’s designed to teach children about how trauma may have impacted their brain and what they can do about it. It was created by Family Futures, an adoption support agency based in London.

The Brain Game is designed around video game imagery and vernacular children are familiar and comfortable with. This is effective because each “level” is first played on easy mode. This sets the stage for what healthy and normal is. Then the level is replayed on hard mode and kids learn how trauma can make things more difficult for them.

Here’s the introduction to The Brain Game which will give you a good idea of the look, feel, and accessibility for children.

01: Intro

Here’s a sneak peek at the other 4 levels of The Brain Game.

02: THE WOMB
Kids learn how substance abuse, nutrition, and their parents’ stress can impact the ability of their brain to develop properly even before they are born.
03: BIRTH
Kids learn the potential impact of being sent to ICU, being born dependent on alcohol or having an inhospitable environment as an infant.
04: BRAIN BUILDER
Kids learn about the primitive, feeling, and thinking brains and how early traumas can cause “big” feelings. The also learn about fight-flight-freeze responses.
05: HOW WE CAN HELP
Kids learn that their brain is like “plastic.” It can change and grow and overcome many of their early traumas.

Why do I like The Brain Game?

  1. It reinforces the idea that children cannot control the trauma they’ve gone through.
  2. It acknowledges the unfortunate reality that kids may be stuck playing life on hard mode.
  3. It offers hope by showing how kids can help themselves change and live happier lives.

How you can use this resource

Parents – The Brain Game is a wonderful way to help children who have experienced trauma understand what’s going on with their mind and body. It’s also a valuable tool for siblings to foster an empathetic and supportive family environment.

Groups – The Brain Game can be watched with small groups of children and used for discussion. And don’t overlook it’s value for adults either. Trauma is a complicated and emotionally charged topic and many adults will learn from this video.

Therapists – The Brain Game is an excellent tool for therapists to use with children who have experienced trauma. It will be an effective discussion starter and a good way to get parents and children on the same page.

This resource is not useful for kids only!
The paradigm shift to trauma informed is a tricky one and this video can be eye opening for adults as well.

Details

Where to buy: Online via Family Futures (be sure to tell them I sent you!)
Length: 19 minutes
Format: MP4 download

An Introduction to Developmental Trauma

Also published by The Mighty (upcoming)

Nearly half of America’s children are exposed to one or more adverse childhood experiences (ACES). ACES include being neglected or abused, witnessing domestic violence, having a substance addicted or incarcerated family member, and being forcibly separated from a primary caregiver.

Children with a single ACE often have positive long-term outcomes. However, as ACES begin piling up, they can have very serious long-term impacts. This is most common among kids who have spent time in foster care and in high-risk families.

Chronic ACES that occur before a child reaches the age of five can cause “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading expert and researcher Bessel van der Kolk.

Trauma and Brain Development

Developmental Psychopathy, the study of how trauma impacts the development of the mind and brain, is an emerging field. What we do know is the impact of trauma depends on what stage of brain development the child is in when they experience the trauma.

For example, if a child experiences chronic trauma at six months this is the peak of primitive brain development. Limbic brain development is underway and the cortical brain is in the beginning stages. Chronic abuse or neglect at this time has the potential to affect the primitive brain functions including coordination and arousal.

In addition, because the brain develops like sequential building blocks, any impairment of the primitive brain may cause the limbic and cortical brain to not develop normally. In this way, trauma can cause a devastating domino effect.

It’s important to understand developmental trauma is a brain injury. It’s caused by chronic trauma endured in the first five years of life when the developing brain is most vulnerable.

Diagnosing the effects of Developmental Trauma

Unfortunately, there’s no single diagnosis in the DSM-5 (the manual used by clinicians to diagnose mental illness) that covers all the symptoms of developmental trauma. For this reason, kids are often given several different, seemingly unrelated diagnoses.

A few of the most common are:

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD)
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
• Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
• Sensory Processing Disorder
• Anxiety disorders
• Learning Disabilities
• Developmental Delays
• Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)

Visualize each of these diagnosis as their own umbrella with the associated symptoms beneath. Kids with developmental trauma are often balancing two, three, or more of these umbrellas. It’s not uncommon for a child to be diagnosed with ADHD, PTSD, RAD, and ODD – or any number of other combinations.

Unfortunately, this diagnostic method is a disservice to children who have developmental trauma.

Let’s take ADHD as an example. The ADHD diagnosis is for kids who have persistent symptoms of inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity that manifest in more than one domain, for example both school and home. ADHD is caused by a, often hereditary, chemical imbalance. Stimulant medications work because they increase certain chemicals in the brain.

Kids with developmental trauma may also be inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive. However, the symptoms are not caused by a chemical imbalance as they are with ADHD. They are caused by underdeveloped and impaired brain functions or an over-sensitive fight-flight-freeze response. Stimulant medications can exacerbate other symptoms of developmental trauma.

Unfortunately, ADHD is not the only insufficient diagnosis commonly given to kids with developmental trauma. In many cases this can result in a child receiving ineffective treatment. Worse still, these diagnoses may mask the real issue and it will go untreated.

Developmental Trauma Disorder

To better serve children with developmental trauma, Kolk has proposed adding a new diagnosis to the DSM called Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD). The new diagnostic criteria requires exposure to chronic trauma before the age of 5. This diagnosis would fully encompass the symptoms of developmental trauma bringing them under one umbrella.

The DTD diagnosis would enable clinicians to more accurately diagnose developmental trauma. In addition, comprehensive treatments for DTD could be developed. This an area of neuroscience Dr. Bruce Perry is pioneering with his Neuro Sequential Model of Therapeutics. His approach includes mapping of underdeveloped brain functionality and a process to stimulate healing in the order of natural brain development.

Largely due to political and financial forces, the DTD diagnosis was not included in the latest version of the DSM. Advocates are working to have it included in the next revision which is several years away. In the meantime, parents must know how to successfully navigate the current diagnoses to get their child proper treatment.

Getting your child the best care

Because DTD is not in the DSM, it is not an official diagnosis and not covered by health insurance. Until this changes your child will be given other diagnoses to fully describe his or her symptoms.

Here’s what you can do to ensure the best treatment:

  1. Early intervention is key so seek professional help as soon as you recognize there may be a problem or become aware of your child’s trauma history.
  2. Go ahead and accept the alphabet soup of diagnoses. These are essential to get health insurance coverage for the very expensive treatments and therapies your child may need.
  3. Get a psychological evaluation from a psychiatrist. If you know your child has a history of trauma, don’t settle for an ADHD diagnosis from your pediatrician. Ask for a referral to get a full evaluation.
  4. See a psychiatrist for medication management. For your convenience, most pediatricians will continue refilling prescriptions once the patient is stabilized. However, get started on the right foot with a psychiatrist.
  5. Seek out therapists and other practitioners who have experience working with traumatized children.

As your child’s primary advocate, it’s critical for you to keep the entire team focused on the trauma underlying his or her symptoms. Learn all you can about developmental trauma and keep it at the forefront when you discuss your child’s treatment plan with mental health professionals, educators, therapists, and pediatricians. These steps will ensure your child gets the best treatment available.

What is Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)?

Also published on The Mighty (upcoming)

I visualize my son’s mental disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), as a tug-of-war. If I tell him to wear blue socks, he’ll wear white. If I make his favorite sandwich, he’ll toss it in the trash and tell his teacher I didn’t send him with lunch. If I ask him to write his spelling words three times, he won’t even pick up his pencil. And there’s no negotiation. If I compromise and ask him to write them only once, he’ll still refuse.

No matter how inconsequential or mundane the issue is, my son treats everything as though it’s a tug of war, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. For him it’s a life-or-death battle. He must win at all costs – no matter how long it takes, and despite any consequences he’s given or any rewards he’s promised.

Kids with RAD have an indefatigable need to control the people and situations around them because they only feel safe when they prove to themselves they are in control. To understand this, we must go back to the underlying causes of the disorder.

What causes RAD?

RAD is caused by adverse childhood experiences (also called ACES) that occur during the first five years of a child’s life. This is when their rapidly developing brain is most vulnerable.

In my son’s case, he was neglected and abused before we adopted him out of foster care at the age four. Other ACES include witnessing domestic violence, having a substance addicted parent, and losing a primary caregiver.

These experiences can cause “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading trauma expert and researcher Bessel van der Kolk. Depending on the timing, duration, and severity of the adversity, a child can be affected in two key ways.

  1. Stuck in chronic survival mode. The fight-flight-freeze is not meant to be our “normal.” Its purpose is to kick in to keep us safe from danger. When kids are chronically abused and neglected, their brains are chronically bathed in adrenaline. As a result, they may begin to default to fight-fight-freeze even in minimally threatening situations. These kids can be hypervigilant and seem to overreact.
  2. Interrupted brain development. Our brain develops sequentially beginning with the primitive brain which controls our basic functions including our breathing and heart rate. The limbic brain comes next and regulates behavior, emotions, and attachment. The cortical brain – where critical, abstract, and cause-and-effect thinking live – comes online last. When kids experience chronic trauma, their brain may not develop properly. These kids can be dysregulated and lack high-level thinking skills.

The impact of developmental trauma is on a spectrum with a variety of symptoms and severity. This is closely related to stage of the child’s brain development at the time the trauma occurred. Unfortunately, there is no single diagnosis that covers all the symptoms of developmental trauma. Children are often given multiple diagnoses including Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and RAD.

What is RAD?

RAD is a diagnosis given to children who have experienced chronic developmental trauma before the age of five and did not form at healthy attachment to a primary caregiver, usually their mother. They grow up without an inherent sense of being safe and loved. Instead their psyche internalizes the message they must take care of themselves because no one else will.

The world feels alarmingly unsafe and unpredictable – and that’s why they lock into a tug-of-war with their primary caregiver. Remember too, these children may be “stuck” in survival mode. They may literally perceive an innocuous situation as threatening and kick into fight-flight-freeze mode. Their higher-level brain functions like cause-and-effect thinking may be underdeveloped. This is why they cannot be reasoned with or talked down.

How to end the tug of war

As a parent, the constant tug-of-war, is exhausting, frustrating, and discouraging. Our impulse is often to tug our side of the rope even harder – to teach our child who is boss. We dole out consequences and insist on compliance. They need to learn to respect authority and obey, right? It’s parenting 101.

But traditional parenting backfires spectacularly with kids diagnosed with RAD. They dig in their heels and tighten their grip on their side of the rope. It will inevitably exacerbate the situation and strain the relationship with our child.

It may seem counterintuitive, but to help our child drop his side of the rope, we must first drop ours. This is accomplished by employing therapeutic parenting strategies that prioritize relationship building and focus on the communication and the needs behind the behavior.

Let’s look at how therapeutic parenting can transform the tug-of-war with my son.

  1. When I tell him to wear blue socks, he’ll insist on wearing white. It doesn’t really matter what color socks he wears. I decide to let him make these types of choices whenever possible which enables him to enjoy some sense of control.
  2. He’ll toss his lunch in the trash and tell his teacher I didn’t send one. Perhaps he’s lining up a backup food source because he’s unconsciously afraid I’ll stop feeding him one day. By providing consistent nurturing over time, this need – thus this behavior – will diminish.
  3. Instead of writing his spelling words, he’ll stare at his pencil. I can make this a non-issue by leaving it to his teacher to follow up. If necessary, I can pursue a 504 plan or Individual Education Plan (IEP) to ensure the accommodations he needs to be successful.

And with that, I’ve dropped my side of the rope. We are no longer locked in a tug-of-war.

Of course, it’s easier said than done and takes great patience and perseverance. RAD is a very challenging disorder to manage and there are no quick and easy fixes. A good starting point is recognizing the underlying causes and educating yourself on the therapeutic parenting approach.

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.