A Behavioral Perspective of Childhood Trauma and Attachment Issues: Toward Alternative Treatment Approaches for Children with a History of Abuse

Article excerpt


Authors of recent studies on abuse have proposed that trauma and related traumatic experiences within the family of origin have important implications for parent-child relationships, and may disrupt normal attachment behavior in children. These studies have primarily examined previous trauma and long-term sequela of severe childhood and adolescent psychopathology from the perspective of attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980). The central premise of attachment theory is that the security of the early child-parent bond is reflected in the child's interpersonal relationships across the life span (Schneider, Tardif, & Atkinson, 2001). This article examines childhood trauma and attachment issues from the perspective of behavior analysis, and provides a forum in which the authors provide rationales for new cognitive focused or trauma-focused behavioral treatment approaches for abused children and their foster or adoptive parents. These new therapeutic models provide dyadic, cognitive, and emotive behavioral interventions that encourage positive behavior change with abused children placed in foster and adoptive families.

Research studies focusing on mediating the long-term sequela of repetitive, intrafamilial abuse and neglect have repeatedly argued that a history of pathogenic care can interfere with secure attachment and disrupt healthy development in children (Howe, Brandon, Hinnings, & Schofield, 1999; Schneider, Tardif, & Atkinson, 2001). This is especially true in foster and adoptive families in which children have been abused or neglected as part of their early experiences. Research on foster children and problematic attachment has consistently found that long-term sequela of abuse leads to a complex array of emotional deficiencies and behavioral symptoms that reflect the traumatic effects of maltreatment on children, and create strain on attachment with their adoptive parents (Berry & Barth, 1989; Dyer, 2004; O'Connor & Zeanah, 2003). This strain in the children's lives, often across multiple placements and multiple caregivers, increases the likelihood of difficulties across a range of development. Research investigating abuse and insecure attachment behavior in foster and adoptive children has linked these factors to emotional and behavioral difficulties in these children.


Researchers investigating maltreated children have repeatedly found that neglected or abused children in foster and adoptive populations manifest different emotional and behavioral reactions to regain lost or secure relationships (Ainsworth, 1989; Hazan & Shaver, 1994), and are frequently reported to have disorganized attachments (Hughes, 2004) and a need to control their environment (Loyn-Ruth & Jacobvitz, 1999). Such children are not likely to view caregivers as being a source of safety, and instead typically show an increase in aggressive and hyperactive behaviors, which Berry and Barth (1989) suggest disrupt healthy or secure attachment with their adopted parents. These children have apparently learned to adapt to an abusive and inconsistent caregiver by becoming cautiously self-reliant, and are often described as glib, manipulative and disingenuous in their interactions with others as they move through childhood (Schofield & Beek, 2005).

The major challenges reported in parenting maltreated children include their profound lack of trust (Schofield & Beek, 2005) and a distorted sense of security, often reflected in the child's poor interpersonal relationships across the life span. Researchers investigating children adopted at older ages report many of the same symptoms found in foster children with backgrounds of pathogenic care, including a failure to develop secure attachments. Behavioral and emotional descriptions of these older children suggest that they lack impulse control and normal conscience and moral development (Termini & Golden, 2007), and often present as superficially engaging or connected to others, emotionally aloof, and unwilling to participate in treatment, all possibly connected to impaired attachment (Dyer, 2004; O'Connor & Zeanah, 2003). …


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