Disruptions in attachment

Disrupted development due to maltreatment often results in attachment disruption as a result they will have their emotional development disrupted. Sometimes a child’s unwanted or unusual behaviours can be linked to this developmental delay. Think of the child’s social and emotional development as being frozen in time at the developmental stage at which they experienced maltreatment.

Some common behaviour that you may see when a child has suffered abuse/and or neglect during each stage of development are:

Stage 1: Birth to One year

For the child suffering maltreatment during this stage of development, attachment is disrupted, consistency and routine no longer exist and the child develops a general mistrust in their carer and the world. The infant’s cries are ignored and they perceive the world as terrifying and unreliable. During this time the child will appear fussy, constantly crying, irritable and unable to be soothed. They may also have problems with feeding, sleeping and toileting.

Stage 2: One to Three years

The child has developed the skills of speech and largely independent toileting during this stage; if maltreatment is suffered during this time these newly acquired skills are the first to go.  For example the child may regress, begin bed wetting, soiling, use ‘baby’ speech or in extreme cases become mute. Other behaviours that are common include; clingy, tearful/ excessive crying, whiney, fussy, difficult to soothe, sleep difficulties (night mares), temper tantrums and non compliance.  In general the child may be fearful and continuously want to be held due to their need to feel safe again.

Stage 3: Three to Six years

Maltreatment at this stage confirms the child’s fears that the world is unsafe and that bad things do happen.  The child is plagued by fear and guilt; they fear further punishment and suffer the guilt of having ‘bad’ fantasies, thoughts and feelings.  Again regression is a common symptom of maltreatment at this developmental stage.  The child may revert to thumb sucking, bed wetting, soiling and baby talk. Other behaviours include; temper tantrums, repetitive play, clinginess and general fear behaviours.

Stage 4: Six to Twelve years

At this stage maltreatment crosses into the school environment as well so social problems are prominent.  Similarly regression behaviours occur, but include social regression as well, i.e. the child loses the ability to appropriately relate to and interact with their peers. Other behaviours evident include; repetitive play and re-enactment of trauma, sleep disturbances (nightmares), intrusive thoughts, sounds and images, school refusal, poor concentration, anxiousness, tearfulness, somatic complaints (stomach pain, headaches, aching with no medical cause), aggression and impulsivity. Overall, the child loses trust in the world and in particular the people who are meant to keep them safe.

Stage 5: Twelve to Eighteen years

At this stage in development when the adolescent is attempting to forge their own identity, they may align with and adopt an identity similar to that of their aggressor. Parentified behaviour is common during this stage, when the carer is no longer caring for them the child will prematurely take on this adult role; this is most common where the child has younger siblings they feel responsible for.  Alternatively they delay their identity development and stay in adolescence. Behaviours include; nightmares, poor concentration, school refusal and truancy, poor academic performance, alcohol and drug use, promiscuity, anxiousness, social difficulties, withdrawal, appetite fluctuations, suicidal ideation and attempts, self harm, somatic complaints and intense anger.

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