Developmental Trauma – Where Attachment Meets Trauma

Developmental Trauma – Where Attachment Meets Trauma
February 20, 2014 Echo

by Louise Godbold, Co-Executive Director

Can this possibly be right?

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to one of the trauma ‘greats’ Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. He was humane and wise, and had us all enthralled for 7 hours straight. But in the middle of the flow of information that now occupies half a notebook, he said something that made me sit up.

He listed the set of symptoms we have come to associate with complex or ‘developmental’ trauma: inability to concentrate or to regulate feelings of anger, fear and anxiety; self-loathing; aggression and risk taking. Those are all attachment issues, he said, not trauma. Trauma symptoms are intrusive thoughts and nightmares, etc, and we know how to treat those (Eye Memory Desensitization and Reprocessing – EMDR, for example).

Wait! I looked around but everyone was bent over their notes or tucking into the breakfast pastries. Did he just say what I think he did?!

Let’s dial back a bit. When a child does not receive consistent loving attention from their primary caregiver, the child develops an insecure attachment. So far so bad. The loving relationship provides the building blocks for brain development. In fact, Bessel (if I might be so familiar) told us that the strongest predictor for mental health was how loveable your mother finds you at 2 years old.

What happens to a child when their parent constantly flies into a rage? If the parent is shut down emotionally? (Watch the ‘still face’ experiment) If for long periods the parent is stressed or sick or has to go away? The attachment is in peril and if the child does not get the comfort they need those oxytocin receptors in the brain (see previous blog) don’t get formed. Children or adults who don’t respond to kindness and reassurance? Maybe that’s because there is no mechanism to respond. And it makes perfect sense that without the fundamental feeling of being loved, a human being is not going to thrive.

So which is it? Does an insecure attachment lead to trauma symptoms? Or does trauma create the insecure attachment in the first place? Or is this new ‘developmental trauma’ (or the more general ‘complex trauma’) really a combination of two things that we have lumped together?

If so, do you see the implications? The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) provided data that has created a great shift in our understanding of people with physical, mental and social problems, and has fueled the movement to become trauma-informed in our services… but what if we’re focusing on the wrong thing? What if we should be focusing on attachment, at least as much as we are focusing on trauma?

At Echo Parenting & Education we have always focused on attachment and how nonviolence in child raising can create a safe, stable nurturing relationship between adult and child. Next week, we are convening a conference on developmental trauma “Changing the Paradigm: Trauma and the Developing Child” precisely because we have always seen this link between trauma and attachment. It was only because I was packed in with 400 therapists when I heard Bessel make the link too that I didn’t do cartwheels (that, and because I was wearing a skirt). Nice to know that we are on the forefront of this thinking about developmental trauma, and not because we’re psychologists or neurobiologists, but because 12 years ago our founder, Ruth Beaglehole, set up an agency that has ‘an uncompromising view of what it is to love a child well’. Go Ruth! Go Echo! I think I might feel a cartwheel coming on…

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