Over the last weeks, we’ve explored the biology of trauma. In other words, we’ve focused on what happens to the brain and the body when an individual is exposed to stress and trauma, especially at a young age. In this article, we take a closer look at how trauma (and the associated physiological effects) translate into the attachment, behavioral and mental health issues we frequently see in children who have experienced abuse, neglect and a lack of attachment.

As previously discussed, traumatic experiences are stored in preverbal memory. These memories are intense perceptual experiences and later in life intrude on awareness in the form of hypervigilance, nightmares, hyperarousal and anxiety. Biochemical and hormonal reactions occur in children during traumatic stress that produce long-term changes in the mind-body system.

The child with attachment disorder

When working with children who have histories of developmental attachment trauma, we often see them display angry, manipulative, threatening, and coercive control behaviors. Therapy with these youngsters and their parents/adoptive parents, and consulting with social services and therapeutic foster parents, has led us to the following working assumptions and conclusions:

  • The child’s controlling–punitive orientation is a major defense linked to survival:The child truly believes he or she will not survive without controlling and distancing others, especially caregivers. This control strategy is a form of compensation for lack of trust and internal control. Because these children have not learned to regulate their own emotions and impulses effectively, they focus on regulating and controlling their outer world. Also, they have learned survival strategies in previous harsh environments where they did not feel safe. Being defiant and controlling is self-protective.
  • A feeling of empowerment accompanies controlling, oppositional, and defiant behavior:Parental caregiving and limit-setting is perceived as a threat, rather than as an opportunity for need fulfillment, learning or love. Efforts to care for or help the child are filtered through the child’s negative working model (negative core believes) and are interpreted as abuse, rejection, or control. When a parent or therapist provides support or shows affection toward the child, the reaction is often an increase in hostile, angry and controlling behavior. These children often misinterpret social and emotional messages.
  • Reciprocity in relationships is extremely limited:These children avoid needing others, asking for help, and many forms of positive interaction. They often have difficulty accepting praise, affection, and love. They do not believe they are worthy of love and caring or that caregivers possess nurturing qualities because of previous abuse and neglect. Relationships are a “one-way street;” they believe that distancing and controlling others is the only safe way to relate.
  • Parenting concepts and strategies that are recommended by mental health and social service professionals are often ineffective:Approaches such as time out, reinforcing positive behavior, and verbal communication typically do not succeed in changing the child’s negative attitudes, perceptions or behavior. Parents can lose faith in the mental health and social service systems and feel helpless and hopeless regarding any positive outcome.


Specialized parenting concepts and approaches are necessary to meet the needs of children who have experienced maltreatment, significant losses, and disrupted attachment. Parents must learn to be healing parents and children must learn that adults are dependable, caring, patient and safe. Evergreen Psychotherapy can help you learn the skills and strategies of healing parenting. Contact us to learn more.

This article is part of our Biology Series in which we take a closer look at mind-body-emotion connections. Learn more about the full series here.