The bonds between young children and their caregivers are vital to help a child feel comforted, safe and secure. When a caregiver isn’t available or is unpredictable, a child will experience chronic stress that can affect their developing brain and lead to an inability to form attachments, known as attachment trauma.
All children entering foster care suffer from a degree of trauma. After all, leaving your primary caregivers is traumatic, even when their care was inadequate or inconsistent. But when that trauma is ongoing, it can impact the rest of a child’s life.
Here are the signs of attachment related trauma, and what you as a foster carer can do to help.
Signs of attachment trauma in children
Neglect causes a child to experience extreme stress, flooding their brains with adrenaline and cortisol and triggering a fight-flight-freeze response. When a child goes through that process repeatedly, that reactionary state becomes pre-programmed, impacting the child’s brain as their ability to reason shuts down to divert energy towards life-saving measures.
What that looks like in the everyday is often an inability to regulate behaviour. Behaviour is a major form of communication for children, so some significant indicators that a child may be suffering from attachment trauma include:
• Acting out, being aggressive and shouting.
• Retreating, being quiet and holding feelings in.
• Struggling to remember and follow complex instructions.
• Having trouble switching between tasks and activities.
• Messiness and lack of organisation.
• Difficulty planning and executing tasks independently.
• Not looking over their own work or being unable to monitor their tasks.
• Having a hard time moderating their behaviour; they may be frightening to other children but won’t understand why.
The long-term impact on a child’s development
If a child doesn’t learn how to form healthy attachments and build positive relationships, they will struggle with many of these same issues for most of their lives.
They will likely find it difficult to regulate their emotions and may act rashly and impulsively. Life skills such as budgeting and career planning will be difficult, and they will be highly prone to stress, increasing their risk of substance abuse and long-term health complications. They may become overly dependent on other people and have difficulty recognising abusive and manipulative behaviours.
Since most children who come into care are suffering from a degree of attachment trauma, foster carers can have a huge impact by helping foster children cope with their feelings and learn how to build strong and secure attachments for the future.
How foster carers can help children with attachment trauma
The best way to help a child overcome attachment trauma is by showing them what it means to have a healthy and secure relationship – but that can be challenging when a child is already struggling.
Carers at Compass Fostering find it helpful to use an approach called ‘therapeutic parenting’. It embraces four principles of communication, called PACE (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, empathy), to create a framework for working with children in crisis.
Playfulness means bringing a lightness of touch to communicating with your foster child. A playful approach creates a safe environment that invites closeness without asking too much.
Acceptance allows you to validate your foster child and their emotions. Instead of trying to change how they’re feeling, you can sit and experience it with them.
Curiosity invites you to ask questions about why your child is feeling or acting the way they are without judgement or blame.
Empathy helps you understand the situation through your foster child’s eyes.
Other tools to help a child dealing with attachment trauma include:
• Getting down to their physical level.
• Keeping your tone of voice light but firm.
• Not insisting on eye contact.
• Being aware of your non-verbal gestures, such as crossing your arms or putting your hands on your hips.
• Keeping verbal communication simple and matter-of-fact.
The goal is to help the child move from a dysregulated state to a regulated one by calming their fight-flight-freeze response. As they learn to trust you, your relationship will begin to form a new blueprint for what a secure attachment looks like. Their behaviour will slowly get easier and with their trauma lifting, you will discover the beautiful, loving child they really are underneath.
Attachment trauma is a broad topic, but your social worker will always be on hand to help you with the information and skills you need to support your foster child.
• Learn more about attachment trauma at the Attachment & Trauma Network.
• Learn more about therapeutic parenting at the National Association of Therapeutic Parents.
• Beacon House has numerous online resources to help support children with developmental trauma.
• The British Association for Adoption and Fostering has additional resources available for foster parents.
While dealing with attachment trauma can be difficult for foster carers, it is also one of the most significant ways you can have a positive impact on the life of a child in care. If you’re ready to find out more about becoming a foster carer, please get in touch today.