My son Devon has a long track-record of making false allegations against staff at treatment facilities where he’s a patient. “I’m afraid Devon might make up a story about me too,” I recently told his therapist Cathy. “If CPS got involved, I could lose my other kids during the investigation…” In my mind I imagined my youngest son being dragged off to foster care even for one night. It’s a mom’s worst nightmare.
Cathy stammered a response, apparently incredulous I believed my son capable of such a thing.
When Cathy and I spoke the following week, she’d already discussed the issue with Devon. “I explained to him exactly why you’re so concerned about false allegations.You could be arrested. You could lose your other kids. False allegations could ruin your life,” Cathy said, recalling her words to Devon. She continued, “When I explained this to Devon, he was so upset. Now that he knows how serious this is, you have nothing to worry about.”
I was dumbfounded. I felt as though Cathy had handed my son the user’s manual for a weapon of mass destruction. And our family was the potential target. Telling Devon just how powerful false allegations are was extremely risky. It gave Devon all the more reason to do so.
Unfortunately, Cathy was unfamiliar with the nuances of developmental trauma disorder—a result of Devon’s early childhood neglect and abuse. Because Devon lacks an innate sense of security, he can be very manipulative in an attempt to control his environment. “When children’s brains are impacted by trauma during early development, they live in a fight/flight ‘survival mode’, do not trust others and rely entirely upon themselves,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Development Executive Director Forrest Lien. “They will go to great lengths to push others away—especially primary caregivers—to feel safe. Sometimes, that includes false allegations.”
When “help” isn’t helpful
Those on the “other side” of developmental trauma disorder—adults living outside of the child’s home—may want to help the child and family but lack the insight to do so. With DTD, there is often more happening than meets the eye. If therapists, educators, police officers, and other professionals aren’t familiar with the nuances of developmental trauma, their interventions sometimes make already volatile situations worse. This is why parents like myself can seem defensive, inflexible and frustrated. We desperately need support from community resources. Yet, we’re also desperately afraid they’ll exacerbate our child’s condition, damage our hard-won and tenuous attachment with our child or put our family in danger.
Here are some real-life examples of misunderstandings about developmental trauma that have had a harmful impact on families:
Ms. Linda, the school cafeteria worker, was charmed by 6-year-old Tom. He told her stories about how his mom mistreated and didn’t feed him. Ms. Linda always had a cookie or treat for Tom. She even told him that some kids get ‘re-adopted’ if their family isn’t a good fit. In fact, she said, she’d love to adopt a little boy just like him. That afternoon, Billy went home and demanded his mother let him be “re-adopted.”
Things to consider from the “other side”—
Kids with developmental trauma can be superficially charming. Again, it is often a learned survival strategy because they unconsciously feel unsafe in the world. By having this “secret” with Ms. Linda, Tom was bonding with her instead of his mom. Instead of encouraging Tom to build healthy relationships within his new family, she gave him an easy out. Mom needed Ms. Linda to contact her about the situation so they could get on the same page and partner together in Tom’s best interest.
Janey had a bad month. She’d been in a fight and had run away. She’d broken her bedroom window. She’d been suspended from school. During therapy Janey, her mom, and the therapist set some goals for Janey to work on. Then, just as the session was ending, the therapist smiled maternally at Janey. “Look at her, mom,” she prompted. “She just needs love. That’s all this is about. A little girl who needs her mom to love her.” Janey’s behavior did not improve during the following month.
Things to consider from “the other side”—
Kids with developmental trauma need clear and consistent parenting in order to thrive. While Janey certainly needed her mom’s love, that should not be used to excuse her from accountability for her actions. This is not a mindset that will be helpful to Janey in the long run. Unfortunately, Mom walked away from this session feeling blamed and beaten down. And Janey had no motivation to work toward more effective strategies. Mom needed the therapist to do attachment work but also to hold Janey accountable for her actions.
Nate, 13, was enraged and lunged at his mom with a shard of glass. She called the police. By the time the officer arrived, Nate was calm and sitting in a recliner as though nothing had happened. The officer looked between hysterical mother and serene son and made a snap judgement. “This seems like a ‘parenting problem’,” he said. He then reassured Nate not to worry and that he couldn’t be arrested for anything at his age. The next time Nate acted up, he told his mother there was nothing she could do to stop him—the policeman said so.
Things to consider from “the other side”—
Kids with developmental trauma may escalate until they reach a hard limit. Without limits, they may continue to behave violently and endanger themselves or others in their family. Mom needed the officer to speak with her privately to understand the full story and to express any concerns he may have out of earshot of Nate. Even if the officer was not going to make an arrest, Mom needed him to speak sternly to Nate so he’d understand how serious his actions were.
Unfortunately, in these examples, well-meaning professionals made the situation worse. They inadvertently derailed treatment, disrupted attachment work, caused confusion and stoked deep resentments and hurts. In some cases, they put the children and families they were trying to help in greater danger.
Ways professionals can best support children with DTD and their families
The best ways to help children who have developmental trauma can feel counterintuitive and, therefore, requires more than common sense. If you’re a mental health professional, educator, police officer or other community resource, please educate yourself on developmental trauma and therapeutic interventions so you can help families like mine. One place to start is the Institute for Attachment and Child Development new online resource library.
Here are some good things to know as a professional working with children and families—
- Realize things may not be as they appear. Pause to consider that there may be complex, nuanced mental health issues involved.
- Consider that parents’ concerns and fears may be justified – that we may not be overreacting. Our children may be dangerous even at startlingly young ages, particularly if they have a co-morbid mental disorder.
- Realize children with developmental trauma may act very differently in front of you than how they behave behind closed doors with their parents. The situations you encounter are likely far more complicated than an innocent misunderstanding.
- Discuss your concerns frankly with parents, but always privately. Partner with us—out of earshot of our children—to resolve and manage the situation and present a unified front.
- Refer us to local crisis services and community resources. We often don’t know where to turn for help but are eager to follow-through on any recommendations for services that can be helpful for our child and family.
- As a clinician, feel comfortable referring clients with developmental trauma elsewhere if appropriate. If you do not specialize in developmental trauma, it is vital to know your limitations. Do your best to connect families with therapists who specialize in the disorder.
We desperately need the community to rally around our families and provide support. To successfully help our children heal, we need to partner with trauma-informed therapists, educators, and law enforcement officers. If our children, who come from hard places, are to thrive and live happy, well-adjusted lives, it’s going to take a village.
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved and all stories are being told with permission.