Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children

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Lesson 4: What can I do to help?
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In this lesson, learn more about:
  • How different problems can manifest themselves in daily life

  • Approaches to helping maltreated children

 Ways to help!

Parents and caregivers make all the difference in the lives of maltreated children. This section suggests some different ways to help.

Nurture these children:
These children need to be held and rocked and cuddled.  Be appropriately physical, caring, and loving to children with attachment problems.  Be aware that for many of these children, touch in the past has been associated with pain, torture, or sexual abuse.  In these cases, make sure you carefully monitor how they react--be “attuned” to their responses to your nurturing and act accordingly.  In many ways, you are providing replacement experiences that should have taken place during their infancy--but you are doing this when their brains are harder to modify and change.  Therefore, they will need even more bonding experiences to help develop attachments.


Try to understand behavior before dispensing punishment or consequences:
The more you can learn about attachment problems, bonding, normal development, and abnormal development, the better you will be able to develop useful behavioral and social interventions.  Information about these problems can prevent you from misunderstanding a child’s behaviors.  When these children hoard food, for example, it should not be viewed as "stealing" but as a common and predictable result of being deprived during early childhood.  A punitive approach to this problem (and many others) will not help the child mature.  Indeed, punishment may actually increase the child's sense of insecurity, distress, and need to hoard food.  Many of these children's behaviors are confusing and disturbing to caregivers.   You can get help from professionals if you find yourself confused by a child’s behavior or struggling to create and implement a practical and useful approach to these problems.


Parent these children based on emotional age: 
Abused and neglected children will often be emotionally and socially delayed.  When they are frustrated or fearful, they will regress further.  For example, this means that, at any given moment, a ten-year-old child may, emotionally, be a two-year-old.  Despite our wishes that they would “act their age” and our insistence to do so, they are not capable of that.  These are the times that we must interact with them at their emotional level.  If they are tearful, frustrated, overwhelmed (emotionally age two), parent them as if they were that age.  Use soothing non-verbal interactions.  Hold them.  Rock them.  Sing quietly.  Breathe deeply.  This is not the time to use complex verbal explanations about the consequences of inappropriate behavior.  It is also important to note that, while a child may show a delay in one area, they may be “on target” in others.  As stated above, stay “in tune” with the child—meet her where she is.


Be consistent, predictable and repetitive:
Maltreated children with attachment problems are very sensitive to transitions, surprises, chaotic social situations, changes in schedule, and, in general, any new situation.  Busy and unique social situations will overwhelm them, even when they are pleasant!  Birthday parties, sleepovers, holidays, family trips, the start and end of the school year--all can be disorganizing for these children.  Because of this, any efforts that can be made to be consistent, predictable, and repetitive will be very important in making these children feel "safe" and secure.  When they feel safe and secure, they can benefit from the nurturing, enriching emotional and social experiences you provide them.  If they are anxious and fearful, they cannot benefit from your nurturing in the same ways.


Model and teach appropriate social behaviors:
Many abused and neglected children do not know how to interact with other people.  One of the best ways to teach them is to model this in your own behaviors and then narrate for the child what you are doing and why.  Become a play-by-play announcer: "I am going to the sink to wash my hands before dinner because…” or “I take the soap and get soapy here and…"  Children see, hear, and imitate.

In addition to modeling, you can "coach" maltreated children as they play with other children.  Use a similar play-by-play approach: "Well, when you take that from someone they probably feel pretty upset.  If you want them to have fun when you play this game…"  Positive play with other children can help increase self-esteem and confidence.  Over time, success with other children will make the child less socially awkward and aggressive.  Maltreated children are often "a mess" because of their delayed socialization.  If a child is teased because of her clothes or grooming, it can help to have “cool” clothes and improved hygiene.  

One area that these children have problems in is modulating appropriate physical contact.  Some of these behaviors are noticeable, while some are almost imperceptible.  They don't know when to hug, when to pick their nose or touch their genitals, how close to stand, or when to establish or break eye contact.  In these cases, it is important to gently guide without shaming or embarrassing the child.  

As discussed earlier, children with attachment problems will often initiate physical contact (e.g., hugs, holding hands, crawling into laps) with strangers.  Adults often misinterpret this as affectionate behavior.  It is not.  It is best understood as "supplication" behavior and it is socially inappropriate.  How adults handle this inappropriate physical contact is very important.  We should not refuse to hug the child and lecture them about "appropriate behavior."  We can gently guide the child toward ways to interact differently with grown-ups and other children (e.g., “Why don’t you sit over here?”).  It is important to make these lessons clear, using as few words as possible.  They do not have to be directive--rely on nonverbal cues.  It is equally important to guide in a way that does not make the child feel bad or guilty.


Ironically enough, children with attachment problems frequently are overly affectionate and attentive to strangers. 

This is often misinterpreted as a form of healthy attachment bonding but in fact is reflecting profound attachment problems and makes them more vulnerable to exploitation.

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