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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Talking Attachment Trauma: Sense and Nonsense

I recently received some court documents that included the statement of a psychiatrist who was arguing as an expert witness against a proposed custody change, from a mother who was accused of “parental alienation”, to the father who was alleging that the mother had caused their children to dislike and avoid him. The psychiatrist discussed the family history and the children’s attitudes and behavior in detail, emphasizing that adolescents are often temporarily “alienated” from their parents without having been encouraged to take this position by anyone. The psychiatrist concluded that “parental alienation” was not at work in the family in question, and I think he was quite correct in that conclusion.

However, this expert witness then proceeded to take a very risky step to cement his argument. Not satisfied with having shown evidence that there was no “parental alienation” going on, he marched forward onto thin ice by claiming that individuals in late childhood or early adolescence would suffer from “attachment trauma” if separated from their primary attachment figure (in this case, the mother). This was nonsense, and the expert and the children were very lucky that no one on the opposing side apparently knew that it was nonsense.

It is certainly true that most children between the ages of 6-8 months and 18-24 months will show extreme distress if abruptly separated from familiar caregivers. If the separation goes on for more than a few days, toddlers become lethargic and depressed and do not eat or sleep well. To understand what is happening here, we need to keep in mind that the attachment relationship the children originally experienced was one that penetrated their entire lives. Caregivers who are familiar attachment figures understand a child’s signals and cues and respond to them promptly and in ways a child can anticipate. Good caregivers are able to predict what will scare a given child and what words or actions are comforting to a particular child when he or she is distressed, so they can often “buffer” unpleasant experiences and help keep the child calm and engaged. A caregiver’s understanding of a given child needs to be and usually is quite individualized, because what works with one child will not necessarily work with another, even with respect to such basic caregiving functions as feeding and putting to sleep.

A young child who is separated from familiar caregivers and given to the care of a stranger loses all of the details of familiar experiences and finds that the whole world has altered, not just the presence of one person. Communication that used to work smoothly may no longer work at all until the child and the new caregiver come to know each other. All of these factors contribute to the distress of the toddler separated from a familiar caregiver, and if the environment has also changed because the child is taken to the new caregiver’s home or to a hospital, there is still more distress for the uncomprehending toddler.

These problems become gradually diminished if separation takes place after the child has mastered some communication through speech, assuming that the new caregiver and the child share a language. They are also diminished if the new caregiver can give plenty of time to the child and can make serious efforts to offer comfort and help—as one of John Bowlby’s colleagues showed, these circumstances can greatly lessen the traumatic impact of separation (although after a week or more of separation, toddlers may show their distress by “snubbing” a parent who returns for them).

When older children and adolescents are abruptly separated from a familiar caregiver, their responses are vastly different from what we see in toddlers. It is certainly true that under some circumstances they will show distress and concern, sadness and even depression. But these responses are not drastically different from what we would see in an adult who is suddenly abandoned by a spouse, whose parent dies, or whose close friend moves far away. Not all disruptions of life are traumas, and certainly not all losses of intimates are attachment traumas in the sense that we might use that term for a toddler’s experiences. An older child or adolescent prefers not to be separated from a loved parent unless he or she wants a temporary separation and can control how it happens. Toddlers do not ever seem to want a separation, but older children and adolescents do want choices about separation and use those choices as part of their developmental task of achieving autonomy. To be forced into a separation is distressing to the older child in part because this situation contradicts the child’s developing autonomy. In addition, a separation like custody change almost invariably means that the child or adolescent also loses many familiar parts of life—his or her own room, friends, neighborhood experiences, and possibly even a school situation if the child is attending a public school and moves out of the school district. These changes are distressing and will probably produce intense complaints and resistance on the child’s part, but they are not attachment traumas, or even traumas at all.


I am not intending to argue that custody changes after allegations of “parental alienation” are a good idea—I am fairly sure that in most cases they are not. I simply want to point out that we need to use terms like attachment and trauma in ways that are developmentally appropriate. The fact that an abrupt separation from a caregiver can be devastating for a toddler does not mean that the result is the same for an older child or an adolescent. If it were, we would not see sleepaway camp as a step toward maturity, nor would there ever have been boarding schools for privileged children.  Whatever they had to do with the battle of Waterloo, the playing fields of Eton were not the site of attachment traumas. 

10 comments:

  1. Completely agree. Majority of the cases I have seen that involve parental alienation include a home being sold, moving to a new school or state. There are many causations for why adolescents do what they do during a divorce or custody modification. So many times I have seen they are just teens being teens. If they were not involved in court, parental alienation wouldn't be used.

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    1. No, if they were not in court, "parental alienation" would not be used. At least not so systematically/intentionally.

      Thank you, #LetThemSpeak.

      And I have seen many of these causations since the mid-to-late 2000s.

      And how they follow through.

      Lots of bureaucratic work like allowances and scholarships and fees.

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  2. "The psychiatrist discussed the family history and the children’s attitudes and behavior in detail, emphasizing that adolescents are often temporarily “alienated” from their parents without having been encouraged to take this position by anyone."

    Not even peers or the general social environment?

    And, yes, alienation and autonomy in adolescence do run together.

    "Not all disruptions of life are traumas, and certainly not all losses of intimates are attachment traumas in the sense that we might use that term for a toddler’s experiences. An older child or adolescent prefers not to be separated from a loved parent unless he or she wants a temporary separation and can control how it happens. Toddlers do not ever seem to want a separation, but older children and adolescents do want choices about separation and use those choices as part of their developmental task of achieving autonomy. To be forced into a separation is distressing to the older child in part because this situation contradicts the child’s developing autonomy. In addition, a separation like custody change almost invariably means that the child or adolescent also loses many familiar parts of life—his or her own room, friends, neighborhood experiences, and possibly even a school situation if the child is attending a public school and moves out of the school district. These changes are distressing and will probably produce intense complaints and resistance on the child’s part, but they are not attachment traumas, or even traumas at all."

    Two things here:

    1. People need to understand the difference between distress and trauma.

    2. Sometimes the understanding of adults and older children trickles down to toddlers and understanding their reactions and feelings.

    3. And when you remember/conceptualise this distress and trauma...

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    1. Thanks for these excellent points!

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    2. And thank you, Jean, for the opportunity to discuss and introduce them.

      Disruption is a big thing.

      The thing about it is that it is unexpected. Or entirely expected, through, say a transition.

      The young Dupont used to say some very silly things about "trauma of/in migration" when what she/I meant was "disruption" or "distress".

      Distress has become reified a lot. It used to be the biological counterpart to eustress / good stress; the stress which makes you grow and change or accompanies it.

      And it is still possible that a toddler may want/need a separation and be very assertive in prolonging it given the opportunity.

      *Intensity* is how we modulate all this.

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  3. "Whatever they had to do with the battle of Waterloo, the playing fields of Eton were not the site of attachment traumas."

    http://www.boardingschooltrauma.co.uk

    Joy Schiaverien BOARDING SCHOOL SYNDROME THE TRAUMA OF THE PRIVILEGED CHILD

    Brexit an invitation to dig deeper

    Trauma transformed: an empowerment response

    And this belief in boarding school trauma brings on bad treatments like EMDR and Neurofeedback and Emotional Freedom Technique. [see Treatments for Boarding School Trauma dot co dot uk].

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    1. Schiavieren seems to assume that going to boarding school at 6 is the same thing as going at 13-- also, rather than considereing the any factors like the old "fag system" and general cruelty in a school, she concentrates on separation, as if this were the only issue.

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    2. I would have liked to have seen S. talk about cruelty and that milieu/environment.

      And when you think of 300-600 separations and their reasons and emotions all through.

      She does mention that 16-18 year-olds enjoyed their experience - because it had an endpoint and they were ready and they consented.

      And two years and more of an abusive/cruel life is definitely not the same at 6 as at 13.

      Perhaps the 6-year-old brushes it off; the 13-year-old becomes inured.

      And there are other things like temperament and social life to consider.

      And whether the place is highly selective or not so.

      Remember the Bronte sisters and their charity school for one. People actually died there. There was strong religious abuse and some educational neglect. Clergy daughters deserved so much better.

      Something about dependent and independent variables. If S. - or any other researcher/clinician wanted to look at the one thing - in this case, separation - you level with the reader. It is like they are with you doing the experiment if not being in the experiment/experience.

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  4. I have not read the other comments yet but wanted to ask you if the psychiatrist could have been insinuating that the children could experience some type of trauma or perceved trauma believing that the parent who was accusing the mother of accusation is an abusive parent. From my own personal experience my older children expereinced trauma when forced into a 50/50 custody arrangement with their abuser. They truly feared him, and for good reason. Once 50/50 was stopped, along with intensive therapy and very little contact with their abuser, the children began to heal. Their depression lifted, and anxieties slowly started to fade. After a year of no contact with their abuser all 3 children were thriving. Since he has inserted himself back in the picture we have had 3 visits to crisis between two children. Perhaps, that is what the psychiatrist was attempting to describe (although poorly)?

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    1. I am not too sure what he meant-- I didn't read it the way you are suggesting, though I guess it could have been that. I would speculate that he was overreaching himself by trying to argue that a separation from the mother would in itself be traumatic for an adolescent (whether the father was abusive or not, whether anybody was abusive or not). Seems like a peculiar argument, especially in a country that lets 17-year-olds go into the military! But really not relevant to your situation, I would say.

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