Tag: Trauma

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.

How Racism, Trauma And Mental Health Are Linked

Research shows African-Americans are less likely to access treatment for mental illness.

Cultural norms and the stigma associated with having a mental illness are partly to blame, according to Shardé Smith, assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Smith studies the role that race-related stress and trauma has on entire families, and what strategies people use to cope.

She spoke recently with Side Effects Public Media about the barriers to mental health treatment for African-Americans and the relationship between racism, trauma and mental illness.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the barriers that prevent African-Americans from seeking help for a mental illness?

Mistrust of the therapeutic system stems from events like the Tuskegee experiment and other systemic injustices where African-Americans were treated unfairly. There’s also shame and negative beliefs about mental health care, and the assumption that an individual or community failed in some way, which led to these issues. And for those who are part of a religious community, sometimes mental illness is seen as not having enough faith in God.

What is the role of systemic racism in all this?

Systemic racism is the institutionalization of racism through policies and practices that show up in all of our systems. And it’s through systemic racism that mental health issues arise and are maintained.

For example, living in an impoverished community with less access to proper food and nutrition can be very stressful and can create mental health problems among individual family members. Another example could be the funneling of black youth through the justice system, where they’re more likely to either go to jail or be a part of the system than to receive proper mental health care.

There are also inequalities in our education system that can create gaps in wealth. This can lead to mental health problems, and systemic racism also means there’s a lack of access to proper mental health care, cultural biases from health providers, misdiagnoses such as attributing certain behaviors to delinquency as opposed to survival coping strategies for the trauma people have faced.

What role does trauma play?

Trauma plays a huge role. The disparities that we see cause trauma, and a lot of times that trauma goes unaddressed, and it’s not named as such. So it’s difficult finding treatment for the trauma because we don’t have a name for it.

What are some examples of trauma?

Race-related trauma could include the traumatic experiences, emotionally, psychologically, physically that manifest as the result of experiencing one or multiple events. Sometimes we think of traumas, such as natural disasters, sexual trauma, or car accidents, which are traumatic events. But sometimes we don’t think about race-related trauma as a part of that, and it’s important to include that in our understanding of trauma and how it can effect marginalized communities and African-Americans.

To loosely quote Kimberlé Crenshaw, if there’s no name for a problem, you can’t see a problem. And if you can’t see a problem you can’t solve it. And sometimes we don’t name these traumas as racial traumas that black and African-Americans are experiencing.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.

Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman

Developmental Trauma and Psychosis


When my son was 12 he’d “snap” into one of two personalities – a ballerina or a thug – by shaking like a wet dog. As a ballerina he’d loop his arms over his head and plie across the lawn, deftly ignoring calls to come in for shower time. His thug personality was less benign. He’d curse and swagger, punching walls and sometimes people. 

Like many moms, I fancy myself a bit of a human-lie-detector, and was pretty sure my son was faking these “personalities.” This was confirmed by the results of a neurological exam, brain scan, and full psychological evaluation. No indications of psychosis. What he had been diagnosed with, however, was Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), also called Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD). 

This left me wondering if there is a link between DTD and psychosis, and what parents can do to get their child the best possible treatment.

Is there a correlation between DTD and psychosis?

Up to 3.5% of the general population experiences psychosis. Psychotic symptoms most commonly include: 

  • Visual hallucinations – seeing things that aren’t there.
  • Auditory hallucinations – hearing things that aren’t there.
  • Sensory hallucinations – feeling things that aren’t there.
  • Delusions – beliefs that are not true and are irrational.

DTD is a brain injury caused by early childhood trauma (and RAD is just one related diagnosis). DTD can have wide ranging symptoms with varying severity depending on the stage of brain development the child was in when the trauma occurred. Symptoms can include attention deficits, poor impulse control, developmental delays, underdeveloped cause-and-effect thinking, aggression, and more. 

Psychosis, however, is not a symptom of DTD.

Though psychosis is not a symptom of their developmental trauma, some children with DTD do report hearing voices, seeing “beings,” or seem delusional. To delve deeper, I conducted a survey on this topic. Out of 184 parents, over 1/3 said their child reports symptoms of psychosis. 

(March 2019)

This is a significant number and a concern for many families. Since psychosis is not a symptom of DTD, if your child has reported any of these concerning symptoms the first step is understanding the possible causes. 

Potential causes of “psychotic” symptoms

1. The psychotic symptoms may be made up.

When a person fakes psychotic symptoms it is called malingering psychosis. Manipulation and lying are common behaviors of children diagnosed with DTD. These strategies are often used to gain a sense of control in what feels like an unsafe and unpredictable world. This was the case with my son. 

Tracy, another mom, says her son faked multiple personalities and was even diagnosed at one point with dissociative identity disorder (DID). After professional psychological evaluations, the clinician identified it as malingering psychosis. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” she says. 

Qualified psychologists are equipped to discern between malingering and true psychotic symptoms. Don’t rely on your own gut feelings. It’s always best to get a professional evaluation. In addition, if your child is faking symptoms they need treatment for the underlying reasons for this behavior.

For help with malingering psychosis, find a therapist who has extensive experience working with adopted or foster kids who have developmental trauma.

2. The psychotic symptoms may be a drug side effect. 

Children with DTD are commonly diagnosed with RAD, PTSD, ADHD, ODD, and more. They are frequently on a cocktail of serious medications, some of which may have psychosis as a potential side effect. 

Jessica’s son saw “little goblin creatures” when he was taking medications. “The last time, he said a naked man woke him up and told him to go outside,” she says. “Praise God he didn’t listen! That was a scary time.”

Psychotic symptoms may be a side effect of a drug, the result of drug interactions, or due to abruptly stopping or inconsistently taking the medication. Remember too, illicit drug use like LSD can cause psychotic symptoms. While appropriate medications have been helpful for many children it can takes some time to find the right combination.

For the best treatment insist on seeing a psychiatrist for medication management.

3. The psychotic symptoms may indicate a co-morbid disorder.

Disorders including schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar can cause psychotic symptoms. These can be particularly difficult to diagnose in children because adoptive parents don’t have knowledge of hereditary mental illnesses that may run in the family. 

Furthermore, developmental trauma paired with a co-morbid disorder with psychotic symptoms can be a dangerous combination. “Developmental trauma disorder alone does not deem a child dangerous,” says Forrest Lien, Director of the Institute for Attachment and Child Development. “Furthermore, not all children with DTD have a mental illness. Yet, some do. Children with complex developmental trauma often feel angry and can lack empathy. When you combine a child who feels slighted and vengeful with [for example] a misdiagnosed or poorly-treated severe bipolar disorder with psychotic features, it can be dangerous.”

Angela, says her daughter “creates her own ‘truths’ or ‘realities.’ “At 11 and 12 I would hear her having long talks with herself but I never knew if she was putting on an act or if it is real…” This is a dilemma for parents because what seems like delusions may be immature thinking caused by the DTD.

For correct diagnoses, a professional evaluation is essential. 

Don’t panic – but do get professional help.

If your child is reporting psychotic symptoms, don’t panic – but do get professional help. Whether your child has malingering psychosis, is suffering a drug side effect, or has a co-morbid disorder they are signaling for help. With proper treatment and early intervention these children can grow and thrive.

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

In recent months, the stories of migrant children separated from their parents at the border have tugged at our hearts. The news media is rightly exposing how early childhood trauma – such as separation from a mother – can cause lifelong, negative impact.

The issue of childhood trauma may only recently have become front page news with the crisis at the border, but it’s all too familiar for adoptive and foster families. Reactive attachment disorder (RAD), rare among the general population, is most prevalent among adopted and foster children. Due to early childhood trauma, they are often unable to form meaningful attachments to caregivers and may exhibit extremely challenging behaviors.

Instead of enjoying playful childhoods, these children struggle to cope with everyday life. As a result, some are unable to earn a high school diploma and too often get tangled up in the criminal justice system. Disorders like RAD, that are caused by early childhood trauma, are literally stealing away our children’s future.

In advocating for children we must cast a wide net

Regardless of our politics, we can advocate together on behalf of innocent children. Let’s consider that immigration isn’t the only “system” that’s harmful to children. The foster care, adoption, and criminal justice systems are also dysfunctional with misguided policies that traumatize and retraumatize our children. The impact of this trauma is staggering, life-altering, and devastating.

Here are just a few of the ways it happens:

  • Some vulnerable kids are overlooked by “the system” and left in abusive and neglectful situations.
  • Some kids are unable to be placed in a permanent family because “the system” makes repeated, misguided attempts at reunification.
  • Some kids are unnecessarily removed from their caregivers and processed into “the system.”

Sadly, “the system,” intended to protect our vulnerable children is broken.  

These children, with trauma scars indelibly etched on their psyche, need specialized treatment to heal and thrive. Few get it. The mental health community is woefully unprepared to recognize and treat RAD. Where treatments are available, most families cannot afford them. As a result these damaged children grow into unstable and unhappy adults.

We can do better

Let’s join together for all children – migrant children, foster kids, and adopted children – who are so often collateral damage of policies not focused on their best interest and well-being. There is power in our collective outcry. It’s time to leverage our collective outrage and advocate for reform of “the system” and for meaningful treatments and resources to treat trauma-caused disorders like RAD.

Image: A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border on June 12, 2018, near Mission, Texas. via @Huffington Post

Why adoption stories aren’t fairy tales

Adoption finalization is a reason to celebrate. Parents have filled out mountains of paperwork, waited months or years and shed many tears to get to that moment. They wear matching tee-shirts, eat way too much cake and splash photos all over social media. Adoption day is so momentous that it feels like a “happily ever after” in itself. After friends and family return home and the frosting is wiped clean, some adoptive families are left with a much different “ever after” than anticipated. They can struggle immensely feel completely alone. 

When you support adoptive families, you support children from hard places and all the generations to come.  Click To Tweet

While a friend, family member or professional can support an adoptive family in multiple ways, one simple task is most important—to understand that adoption stories aren’t fairy tales. And the path to happily ever after can be extremely difficult to find for kids with developmental trauma. Once a person understands this reality, they can offer more effective support to an adoptive family over time.

Unfortunately, the judge’s pen isn’t a magic wand for kids who come from hard places. “While many people think that love or ‘good parenting’ will make up for the early trauma a child experienced, it’s just not that simple,” said Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Families of kids with developmental trauma need extensive support and specialized services.” 

Without early and effective intervention, many adopted children from hard places continue to struggle academically and socially[i]—even in stable, loving families. They’re at increased risk for substance abuse and criminal conduct and at higher risk for mental health issues.[ii]

When adopted kids struggle, it’s easy for those around them—family, friends, community—to point the finger at adoptive parents. They’re quick to blame the adoptive parents for not getting help for their child. Or they criticize the child for willfully squandering the opportunities given to them.  

“While many people think that love or ‘good parenting’ will make up for the early trauma a child experienced, it’s just not that simple,” said Executive Director Forrest Lien. “Families of kids with developmental trauma need extensive support and specialized services.”

But an adoptive parent cannot serve as a hero or the villain in combating the effects of a child’s early trauma. And the child cannot simply “get over” developmental trauma. 

Adoption is better likened to the nostalgic “make your own adventure books” where readers make choices that lead to different endings. But depending on their geographical location, proximity to specialized therapists, level of trauma their child experienced early on, financial situation, insurance provider, etc., adoptive parents don’t have many viable good options from which to choose. 

Make Your Own Adoption Adventure: Story of Bobbi

To begin to understand the reality for many adoptive families, take a walk through their unfortunate “adventures”—

Chapter 1

Bobbi, age 7, squirrels food away under her pillow and gets into fights at school. Her parents notice these behaviors aren’t getting better. Bobbi needs to see a therapist who has experience working with adopted kids with developmental trauma. This would put her on the path to happily ever after. However, this is unlikely to be a choice available to Bobbi and her family. Here’s why:

 No matter the path chosen, most parents unwittingly go it alone.  They often hope traditional parenting methods will eventually work. Or they find a therapist who lacks specialized training in developmental trauma. Either way, matters get worse with time.

Chapter 2

By the time Bobbi is a teenager, her behavior is increasingly risky. She’s experimenting with drugs, partying and sexting. At this point, Bobbi needs to go to a specialized in-patient treatment program for her safety and the safety of others. This would put her on the path to happily ever after. However, this is unlikely to be a choice available to her and her family. Here’s why: 

  • Most residential programs mix together kids with a variety of conditions instead of offering specialized treatment for developmental trauma.
  • Many families cannot afford the out-of-pocket costs left over after the limited insurance coverage provided. 

Chapter 3

Unfortunately, many children like Bobbi grow up in institutions where they do not get better. Others get tangled up with the juvenile justice system. By then, choices are even more limited as early intervention is key for optimal healing.  

Why the good options are limited

Developmental trauma can have far reaching and severe impacts. Kids may suffer from attention deficits, developmental delays, behavioral problems and more. Because developmental trauma is a disorder stemming from brain impact during critical developmental stages, there are no shortcuts to happily-ever-after—no quick fixes or easy solutions. Even well-informed adoptive parents and early intervention by qualified clinicians is not always enough. However, proper and early interventions definitely offers hope.

Here’s how that can happen:

  1.  Adoptive parents must be given comprehensive training on developmental trauma and therapeutic parenting. They need support to parent their child and to recognize when they need professional help. 
  2. Adopted children must have access to effective, specialized mental health services. This treatment needs to be accessible and affordable.

It’s both shockingly simple and profoundly tragic. Parent training and specialized mental health services are just common sense. Yet, far too many adoptive families are headed down a rocky and difficult path due to lack of these two basics. 

Although the path toward “happilly-ever-after” isn’t as simple as one would hope, friends, family and professionals can at least try to understand the journey. And they can advocate and educate on behalf of these families. 

The Institute for Attachment and Child Development and I invite you to choose your own adventure in creative ways to support and advocate on behalf of the adoptive families. It’s time for communities to join together to make sure our vulnerable children have every possible resource to reach their happily ever after. Because when you support adoptive families, you support children from hard places and the generations that follow.

Originally published by the Institute for Attachment and Child Development..

[i]https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-paradox-of-adoption/
[ii]https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/can/impact/long-term-consequences-of-child-abuse-and-neglect/crime/

California Looks To Lead Nation In Unraveling Childhood Trauma

Imagine identifying a toxin so potent it could rewire a child’s brain and erode his immune system. A substance that, in high doses, tripled the risk of heart disease and lung cancer and reduced life expectancy by 20 years.

And then realizing that tens of millions of American children had been exposed.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s newly appointed surgeon general, will tell you this is not a hypothetical scenario. She is a leading voice in a movement trying to transform our understanding of how the traumatic experiences that affect so many American children can trigger serious physical and mental illness.

The movement draws on decades of research that has found that children who endure sustained stresses in their day-to-day lives — think sexual abuse, emotional neglect, a mother’s mental illness, a father’s alcoholism — undergo biochemical changes to their brains and bodies that can dramatically increase their risk of developing serious health problems, including heart disease, lung cancer, asthma and depression.

“[Nadine] has probably single-handedly done more to elevate this issue than anyone else,” said Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician known for documenting the rise in children’s blood lead levels in Flint, Mich., after the city switched its water supply.

With Burke Harris’ selection as the state’s first surgeon general, California is poised to become a vanguard for the nation in embracing the research that traces adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, to the later onset of physical and mental illness. In pockets across the country, it’s increasingly common for schools and correctional systems to train staff on how academic and behavioral problems can be rooted in childhood trauma. Burke Harris envisions a statewide approach whereby screening for traumatic stress is as routine for pediatricians as screening for hearing or vision, and children with high ACEs scores have access to services that can build resilience and help their young bodies reset and thrive.

As California’s surgeon general, she will have a powerful bully pulpit — and the firm backing of a new administration with deep pockets. In his first weeks in office, newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom has made clear he intends to devote significant resources to early childhood development. He has named several recognized experts in child welfare, along with Burke Harris, to top posts, and is promoting child-centric policies that include extended family leave for new parents, home nursing visits for new families and universal preschool. In his first state budget proposal, released last month, Newsom called out ACEs by name and committed $105 million to boost trauma and developmental screenings for children.

“It should be no surprise to anyone that I’m going to be focusing on ACEs and toxic stress,” Burke Harris said in a phone interview just days into the new job. “I think my selection is a reflection of where that issue fits in the administration’s priorities.”

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A Game-Changing Study

Adversity is the sort of thing we intuitively understand, at least to some extent. Having a parent who struggles with addiction or mental illness is hard on kids, as is growing up in a neighborhood marked by poverty, gun violence or drug abuse.

A 1990s study laid the groundwork, however, for an understanding of adversity that suggests it poses a pervasive threat to public health.

During interviews with patients at a Kaiser Permanente obesity clinic in Southern California, Dr. Vince Felitti was shocked at how many said they had been sexually abused as children. He wondered if the experiences could be connected. (Kaiser Health News, which produces California Healthline, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.)

As head of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, he had access to a huge pool of patients to try to find out. Together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he surveyed more than 17,000 adult patients about 10 areas of childhood adversity. Among them: Did a parent or other adult in your household physically abuse you? Emotionally abuse you? Sexually abuse you? Go to prison? Was your mother regularly hit? Did you often go hungry? Were your parents divorced? The researchers scored each patient, assigning a point for each yes, and matched up the responses with patients’ medical records.

What they found was striking. Almost two-thirds of participants reported experiencing at least one kind of adversity, and 13 percent — about 1 in 8 — said they had experienced four or more. Those who reported experiencing high doses of trauma as children were far more likely to have serious health problems as adults, including heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. And the higher their ACEs score, the worse their health was likely to be.

This extended to mental health, as well: Adults who reported experiencing four or more ACEs were 4.6 times as likely to have clinical depression and 12 times as likely to have attempted suicide.

In the 20 years since, scientists have built on the research, replicating the findings and digging into the “why.” In the simplest terms, traumatic events trigger surges in cortisol, the “stress” hormone. When those surges go unchecked for sustained periods, they can disrupt a child’s brain development, damage the cardiovascular system and cause chronic inflammation that messes with the body’s immune system.

And where children really get into trouble is when they also are missing the best-known antidote to adversity: a nurturing and trustworthy caregiver. Without that positive stimulation, children can end up with an overdeveloped threat response and a diminished ability to control impulses or make good decisions. Children with high ACEs scores are more likely to develop attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, and cognitive impairments that can make school a struggle. They are more likely to grow into adults who drink to excess, are violent or are victims of violence.

The research is compelling, because it has the potential to explain so many intractable health problems. What if some portion of Generation ADHD really has PTSD? What if obesity and hypertension are disorders with roots in childhood experiences, and not just what we eat for dinner?

‘What Happens To You Matters’

Until now, Burke Harris’ professional epicenter has been Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco. It’s a vibrant community with a history of activism, but also deeply impoverished, and blighted by pollution and violence. It was there that Burke Harris, at her pediatric clinic, noticed that many of her young patients with serious medical conditions also had experienced profound trauma. And patients who had experienced serious adversity were 32 times more likely to be diagnosed with learning and behavioral problems than kids who had not.

When a colleague introduced her to the ACEs study, she saw her patients written between its lines. Though these problems might be concentrated in Bayview, they certainly weren’t confined there. This was a health crisis transcending race, class and ZIP code.

In the years since, Burke Harris has worked to advance ACEs science though her work at the clinic and her nonprofit research institute, the Center for Youth Wellness. She regularly travels the country to train fellow pediatricians in trauma screening and treatment. She has written an acclaimed book on the issue, “The Deepest Well,” and her TED talk on the topic has been viewed nearly 5 million times online.

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Now, she’ll be directing her singular focus back on California.

She plans to start with a statewide tour to hear from doctors and other health leaders about barriers to increasing pediatric screening and care. She’ll also be talking about the science of ACEs. “It’s Public Health 101 that raising awareness is a critical form of primary prevention,” she said.

But even with the funding included in Newsom’s budget, there are challenges to standardizing trauma screening. For one: In medicine, it’s common practice that you screen only for what you can treat. Many doctors — even those persuaded by research on adversity — have raised concerns about the lack of established protocols for treating childhood trauma. What can a pediatrician, with her 15-minute time slots and extensive to-do list, do about the ills of an absent parent, or a neighborhood riddled with gun violence?

In general, experts working on the issue say a critical ingredient in helping kids heal is ensuring they find and develop healthy relationships.

“All of us want to feel seen, heard, understood and supported,” said Alicia Lieberman, a researcher at the University of California-San Francisco who specializes in early childhood trauma. Involving parents is an essential aspect of treatment, particularly because so many have experienced trauma themselves. “It has to start with an acknowledgment that what happens to you matters.”

Researchers have found early success in seemingly simple interventions: Therapists coaching parents by filming and playing back positive interactions with their child. Therapists working with teachers on how to support their students. Key to success, said Pat Levitt, chief scientific officer at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, are quality programs that start early and recognize the role of relationships.

At her clinic, Burke Harris coordinates with a team that wraps a child in care, treating mind and body. When a patient scores high on the adversity scale, she can send them down the hall to a therapist; connect them with classes on meditation, nutrition and exercise; involve the family in counseling; and aggressively monitor for and treat any physical manifestations.

Most clinics aren’t set up for this staff-intensive approach.

Dr. Andria Ruth, a pediatrician with the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics in California, is among those researching how to “treat” adversity within a more traditional doctor’s office. Her research team is randomly assigning patients who screen positive for trauma into one of three groups. One group is assigned a navigator who connects the family to services for basic needs, such as food and housing. A second group also sees a behavioral health therapist at their child wellness visits. The third group receives both those services, and gets home family visits from therapists.

Ruth has a healthy skepticism about what’s possible, but she and her colleagues are convinced childhood trauma does pose a potent health threat: None of them felt comfortable including a control group that wouldn’t receive any services.

In the big picture, these experts say, addressing the fallout of traumatic stress will require a broader paradigm shift, to a system that recognizes that bad behavior can be a physical symptom rather than a moral failing. Gov. Newsom has signaled a move in that direction: In January, he said he would transfer the Division of Juvenile Justice out of the Department of Corrections, which runs the state’s prison system, and into the Health and Human Services Agency.

Garnering that kind of official backing is a powerful boost, said Jason Gortney, director of innovation at the Children’s Home Society of Washington, that state’s oldest and largest nonprofit dedicated to child welfare. His organization has lots of programs with promising results, he said, but connecting them to state agencies that aren’t used to working together is a challenge.

With Burke Harris crusading from the surgeon general post, Gortney said, he and fellow advocates across the country are hoping California can provide a beacon.

“Maybe California can show some of the other states how to do this,” he said.

This story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

A to Z of Therapeutic Parenting

The a-z Of Therapeutic Parenting, Sarah Naish

My Rating: 5/5

We can’t always be therapeutic, no matter how hard we try, but we just need to be as therapeutic as we can, whenever we can. After all, we are only human!

– Sarah naish, adoptive parent and author

The a-z Of Therapeutic Parenting has real strategies and solutions for kids with developmental trauma. Enough said. Seriously, for most adoptive parents I could end my review here. That’s how incredibly rare it is to find practical strategies that make sense.

But let me explain more… Sarah Naish is the adoptive parent of 5 children and fostered for years. She speaks from experience and that’s clear. Her book isn’t full of platitudes or theory. It’s practical which is what parents like myself are desperate for.

The book begins with general information on developmental trauma and strategic approaches. This is well written and helpful in making the paradigm shift from traditional parenting to therapeutic parenting. However, what makes this a 5-coffee review is PART 2: A-Z OF BEHAVIORS AND CHALLENGES WITH SOLUTIONS which is an indexed guide of behaviors with strategies to address each of them.

Each behavior (Lying, Food Issues, Brushing Teeth, Charming, and so many more!) has its own entry. Let’s take “Lying” as an example since that’s a hard one to deal with. Here’s a taste:

  • WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE– This section includes descriptions of how the behavior may manifest in your home. The entry for lying includes: blatant lying, habitual lying for not reason, stalwart sticking to the lie…
  • WHY IT MIGHT HAPPEN – This is one of the best parts of each entry because it’s honest. It doesn’t assume all kids have exactly the same motive. Instead it allows for the fact that some kids may be more willful than others. The entry for lying includes: avoiding shame, lack of cause-and-effect thinking, dysregulation, momentary hatred of parent…
  • REALITY CHECK – Here’s where all adoptive and foster parents can connect. Naish gets personal and doesn’t gloss over how these behaviors can drive parents crazy. We’re only human after all! The entry for lying includes: the struggle parents feel over letting a child ‘get away’ with lying and the frustration we feel…
  • USEFUL STRATEGIES – This is the information we are desperate for. The entry for lying has 6 bullet pointed suggestions to try. They’re not all going to work for every child – and because Naish is a fellow parent – she gets that. The strategies are varied, practical, realistic, and useful. I won’t give them away. Go pick up a copy of the book

My Bottom Line
The a-z Of Therapeutic Parenting is practical and comprehensive help for foster and adoptive parents who are looking for parenting strategies. It’s obviously written from the trenches, not the desk of an academic. I can’t recommend this book enough- in fact, I’d add a dollop of whipped cream to my 5-coffee rating if I could!

Consider too joining the Therapeutic Parenting facebook group founded by author Sarah Naish. Be sure to let them know you heard about them from @RasingDevon.


The Body Keeps the Score

The Body Keeps The Score , Bessell van der Kolk, MD

My Rating: 5/5

Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.

– Bessell Van Der Kolk, MD.

The Body Keeps The Score reveals the mysteries of brain development – and disruption.

Leading trauma expert Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD expertly guides the average reader through the complex world of neuroscience. The book documents his journey which begins by working with adults suffering from PTSD to recognizing the need for a Developmental Trauma Disorder diagnosis for children who have been chronically abused and neglected.

This book will provide an interesting and enlightening background on the science of trauma. It’s not a how-to, although Dr. Kolk does offer some insight into treatments he’s found useful including yoga. While Dr. Kolk is a highly technical, leading expert he’s repackaged this information in a way that can be easily understood by lay parents.

If you need help with the paradigm shift from traditional parenting to therapeutic parenting, this book may help.

It’s a long book but it’s well worth your time. I fit it into my busy mom schedule by listening on Audible!

My Bottom Line
The Body Keeps The Score is a thought provoking, comprehensive exploration of how our children’s behaviors may be linked to brain development that was disrupted due to trauma. It’s an important read for adoptive and foster parents who want to understand how trauma has affected their kids and catch the vision for therapeutic parenting.


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.

It takes a village

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 disorderadults living outside of the child’s homemay 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:


Tom’s Story

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’s Story

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’s Story

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.

Here are some good things to know as a professional working with children and families

  1. Realize things may not be as they appear. Pause to consider that there may be complex, nuanced mental health issues involved.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. 

If our children, who come from hard places, are to thrive and live happy, well-adjusted lives, it’s going to take a village.  Click To Tweet

Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved and all stories are being told with permission.

RAD and Developmental Trauma in Fiction

These popular novels are twisty, psychological thrillers with surprise endings. They each feature a child with developmental trauma and/or RAD. Some details are true-to-life while others are just fiction…

Andy, a district attorney, believes his son Jacob, diagnosed with RAD, is innocent of the murder he’s been accused of. Andy puts all his efforts into Jacob’s defense despite mounting evidence against him. But is Andy really innocent?

Psychologist, Imogen, refuses to believe her new patient 11-year-old foster child Ellie, is dangerous. She’s determined to protect Ellie from the distrustful and cruel adults and children around her. But is she the one who needs protecting?

Hanna is a difficult, non-verbal child whose mother is chronically ill. She’s adored by her dad, but mistrusted by her mother, Suzette. After Hanna breaks her silence with whispers threats, bad things begin to happen. Is Hanna really dangerous?


What’s just fiction…and what’s not.

*** WARNING! SPOILERS BELOW ***


When 14-year-old Jacob is accused of murdering a classmate it seems impossible – especially to his father, Andy, who is the local district attorney. Jacob is evaluated by a psychiatrist who diagnoses him with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). The psychiatrist tells the family it is “unusual” for a kid to develop RAD without experiencing any abuse, neglect, or trauma. As the investigation gets underway, Jacob’s mother Laurie begins to question his innocence.
Jacob is ultimately exonerated of the murder. A few months later, however, his girlfriend mysteriously disappears. Andy again defends Jacob vigorously and will not consider the possibly he’s capable of these crimes. However, the truth dawns on Laurie as incriminating evidence mounts. Laurie is deeply conflicted by fear, guilt, shame, love, and desperation. To atone for herself, and to save Jacob from himself, Laurie purposely crashes her minivan into a concrete barrier, killing Jacob instantly.

What’s just fiction – It’s impossible to have with RAD without an underlying trauma per the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria. The author could have incorporated one of the causes of RAD in a “typical” biological families into his plot. Also, it’s unlikely for a child with RAD to be homicidal, as Jacob is, unless he has other serious co-morbid mental illnesses.

And what’s not – The story effectively portrays the common RAD symptoms of extreme manipulation and how father’s often do not “get it.” Also, the conflicted feelings of the mother are realistic and true-to-life. While her ultimate actions are unthinkable – real-life mothers of children with RAD may understand her desperation.

Read Defending Jacob


Ellie, an 11-year-old foster child, the only survivor of a house fire that took her entire family. She’s a child with a trauma background, but is now in a nice foster home. Unfortunately, she’s facing bullying from peers and dislike from teachers. Idealistic child therapist Imogen immediately lays blame on those around Ellie and is certain they are projecting their distain onto her. Wanting to shield Ellie from the unfair treatment of others, Imogen oversteps boundaries in the therapeutic relationship.

All too coincidental “accidents” happen around Ellie. For example, her foster brother teases her at dinner then wakes up and his mouth is super glued shut. Imogen is the only one who believes Ellie is the victim, not the perpetrator. In an unexpected twist, it turns out Ellie’s foster sister, resentful of foster children coming in and out of the home, is to blame for many of the problems. However, in the final scene we find Ellie flicking a lighter and contemplating her future. We realize she murdered her family and was complicit in what happened in the foster home.

What’s just fiction – While these situations can be difficult for siblings, the foster sister’s actions seem highly unusual and unlikely. Also, the book portrays many of Ellie’s responses as involuntary which is not always the case for children with developmental trauma. They can be angry and act out quite willfully.

And what’s not – While Ellie’s behaviors may seem over-the-top, unfortunately, they are all to familiar to parents of kids with RAD. The story also effectively captures how a therapist can be manipulated and mislead in these situations complex situations.

Read The Foster Child


Hanna is a difficult, non-verbal, 7-year-old. Her mother, Suzette, has a debilitating medical condition that has left her distant. While Hanna is not formally diagnosed with RAD, the hallmarks are there and likely a result of having an unavailable primary caregiver. Hanna is highly intelligent, but has angry outbursts and is kicked out of kindergarten. Suzette must homeschool Hanna who grows increasingly defiant, rebellious and resentful towards her. Meanwhile, Hanna is charming and loving with her father, Alex. He sees only an obedient, clever child. Hanna’s first words are whispered threats towards Suzette. And as Hanna begins to target her mother with physical violence, Suzette grows increasingly fearful.

It’s only after the situation has grown frighteningly dangerous that Alex happens to witness Hanna’s violent behavior for himself and understands there is a problem. Husband and wife work together to send Hanna to a residential treatment facility and they quickly accept the reality that she will live there indefinitely. In a sinister final twist, Hanna realizes what she must do. She must follow the rules at the facility so she can go home, get rid of her mom, and have her father all to herself.

What’s just fiction – The ease at which the family finds residential treatment for Hanna, and how quickly they accept her need for long-term care does not mirror the reality of most real-life families in this situation.

And what’s not – Most children with RAD target their mother, as Hanna does. They also hide their behavior well from their father and this can cause serious marital discord. While Hanna’s behaviors seem too extreme to be believable, parents of kids with RAD know they are in fact not that far fetched.

Read Baby Teeth


What we might learn from another tragic story of mental health help given too late, too little

Caleb, 11, was thin with blond hair, glasses, and a big smile where crooked teeth jockeyed for space. He and his brother, Elijah, were adopted by Martin and Dena Lishing when Elijah was a toddler and Caleb was a baby. Their young birth mother struggled from addiction.

Born a preemie at 24-weeks-old and weighing only 1 pound, Caleb beat the odds. His 5th grade teachers remember him as shy, inquisitive and loving. He wore cowboy boots to school every day. He was fascinated by all things Titanic. A classmate says, “He was really funny. He always had jokes and puns to tell.”

It was a warm, overcast evening on April 23, 2018–Caleb was asleep in his bed. An adult babysitter was in a nearby room. Meanwhile, 13-year-old Elijah dismantled their grandfather’s locked gun cabinet to access a .357 Magnum. Caleb was sleeping on his stomach when Elijah shot him in the back, killing him.

This tragedy was the first murder in the small, sleepy town of Streetsboro, Ohio in 20 years. But it wasn’t the first time police were called to the Lishing home on Alden Drive.

Mental health interventions, too late

Over the years, the family had attempted – unsuccessfully – to get mental health treatment for Elijah although details are not public. Reports indicated Elijah tried to commit suicide twice. In 2017, Elijah was charged with indecent exposure on the school bus. In 2018, his stepmother called police because he became “unruly.” When he told officers he was thinking of harming himself, they transported him to a local behavioral health center for evaluation.

Only four days later, Elijah shot and killed his little brother Caleb. Police have not disclosed Elijah’s motive but say it was premeditated.

Psychologist Dr. Amy Thomas testified at the sentencing hearing that Elijah suffered early childhood abuse. Elijah claims, in addition to neglect from his birth mother, he was subsequently abused in the Lishing home. He details harsh punishments from a young age and says his adopted mother was more devoted to premature Caleb than to him. The Lishing couple also divorced several years after the adoption.

Thomas diagnosed him with reactive attachment disorder (RAD), also called developmental trauma disorder (DTD). This often occurs when a child experiences chronic abuse or neglect before the age of 5. A child with DTD has disrupted brain development and, if not provided early and highly-specialized intervention, can suffer long-term and devastating impacts. They have difficulty forming healthy attachments with caregivers and others which can lead to familial, social, educational and legal issues. Dr. Thomas also diagnosed Elijah with post-traumatic stress disorder and conduct disorder, both common diagnoses for children with DTD.

Elijah’s situation is even more complex than DTD alone, however. Dr. Thomas testified that Elijah also suffers from paranoia and stated that a previous clinician had diagnosed him with schizophrenia. Reflecting on the time of the murder, Elijah told the court, “I was living inside my head, unable to determine the difference between imagination and reality.” This points to serious mental illness in addition to complex DTD.

The worrisome correlation of complex developmental trauma and mental illness

Dr. John Alston, psychiatrist for the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, found a strong correlation between complex DTD and co-morbid mental illness. In his studies, Dr. Alston recognized that adults who abuse or neglect their children often do so as a result of a mental illness. Thus, their children may suffer the unfortunate combination of both the nature (genetics) and nurture (attachment) consequences.

And when children with complex DTD inherit a mental illness, it is often in a profound way according to Dr. Alston. He gives the analogy of more commonly-known childhood health issues. “You never hear of symptoms of childhood diabetes in a mild form, you never hear of childhood asthma in a mild form. They are always inherited in a severe or profound form and therefore the earlier the onset, the more severe the disorder, the more intensive the treatment needs to be,” said Dr. Alston. “It is exactly the same when we are talking about mental health disorders.”

Elijah told the court, “I was living inside my head, unable to determine the difference between imagination and reality.” This points to serious mental illness in addition to complex DTD.

Forrest Lien, Director of the Institute for Attachment and Child Development, is adamant that not all children with developmental trauma are dangerous. Rather, it is often the unfortunate combination of specific and severe disorders. “Developmental trauma disorder alone does not deem a child dangerous. Furthermore, not all children with DTD have a mental illness. Yet, some do,” Lien says. “Children with complex developmental trauma often feel angry and can lack empathy. When you combine a child who feels slighted and vengeful with a misdiagnosed or poorly-treated severe bipolar disorder with psychotic features, it can be dangerous.”

Neuroscience is an emerging science and this link between early trauma and mental illness is not well known. However, given the potential for sometimes dangerous antisocial behavior, it is critical that clinicians still give careful consideration to these correlations. It is vital, Dr. Alston says, to differentiate the impact of severe trauma from potential mental illness symptoms in order to properly diagnose and treat the whole child. 

The case for better mental health support

Unfortunately, Elijah’s developmental trauma and co-morbid disorders were not accurately diagnosed until after he was incarcerated—not in time to prevent this horrific incident. He did not receive appropriate treatment and the costs to his family and himself have been enormous.

Martin and Dena are heartbroken having suffered the loss of their children. Innocent 11-year-old Caleb’s life has been cut short. And they must now grapple with the incarceration of their other son.

“When you combine a child who feels vengeful and slighted with a misdiagnosed or poorly-treated severe bipolar disorder or schizophrenia with psychotic audio and visual hallucinations, it can be dangerous,” said Institute for Attachment and Child Developmental Executive Director Forrest Lien.

Elijah, now 13, is a convicted murderer facing a lifetime of struggles. He has been sentenced to juvenile detention until he turns 21 and at that time his case will be reevaluated with the potential for adult detention time. According to the Record Courier, “Judge Robert Berger said that despite abuse the boy suffered as a child, it did not excuse shooting and killing his brother.”

Perhaps with earlier diagnosis and interventions, Elijah wouldn’t be sitting in a prison cell today. Caleb might be running around the playground instead of being memorialized by the Titanic-shaped play fort the community is erecting in his memory.

Published originally by IACD. Updated 1/28/2019 after sentencing.