Attachment, Trauma, & Development: What Every Foster & Adoptive Parent Should Know

Attachment, Trauma, & Development: What Every Foster & Adoptive Parent Should Know

Hello Friends of Foster the Family!

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Maggie, I am an avid reader of this blog, and I am less than four weeks away from finishing a Masters in Social Work at Rutgers University.

So first, on behalf of my fellow social workers, I want to thank you for your participation or interest in the foster care system! We are grateful for people like you who are willing to offer a safe and loving home to children in need.

Second, let me say that I am not an expert in child development or trauma. However, in the process of completing my graduate education, I have read hundreds (maybe thousands?) of pages of research on these topics. So today, I will attempt to offer you a summary of what I have learned in the hope that it will help you better understand and care for the children in your home.


First let’s start with a quick review of healthy child development, and an important concept called attachment. Attachment is the way that children learn about themselves and the world around them through predictable interactions with their primary caregivers. When your child cries and you pick her up, she is learning about cause and effect, but more importantly, she is learning that you are someone she can trust. As you soothe your crying child, she learns how to regulate her emotions, ultimately developing the ability to soothe herself.1 As a child grows, this trusted caregiver becomes the “secure base” from which to explore the world. Those of you who are parents will recognize this behavior when your child runs off in excitement to explore a new apparatus at the playground and then immediately calls out “Mom! Watch this!” Your secure presence gives them confidence to learn new things.


So now that you know a little bit about the importance of attachment, let’s talk about what happens when a child doesn’t have a secure attachment relationship or that relationship is broken. Unfortunately, when a child enters the foster care system, they have necessarily experienced some form of trauma, affecting both the process of attachment and their overall development. When a young child is neglected, he is unable to develop a secure attachment with a caregiver. When a child is abused by a caregiver, the person who is supposed to be the child’s source of safety becomes a source of stress, causing confusion about how to interact with the world.1 If a child has a secure attachment with a nurturing parent but becomes separated from that caregiver due to some intervening circumstance, the disruption in that relationship is a trauma in itself.

Effects on Development

The experience of trauma is particularly damaging in childhood when the brain and nervous system are in early stages of development.1 In stressful situations, the brain enacts a “fight or flight” response, sending all of the resources of the nervous system to react to the stressor. Experiences of trauma, particularly in the early stages of brain development, can permanently increase levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. These hormone increases may lead to improper brain development, particularly in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is critical for learning memory.4 Exposure to chronic stress also causes the amygdala to become more sensitive, resulting in hypervigilence, or always being “on edge.”

What does all of this mean for the children in your home who have experienced trauma? Well assuming that you don’t have an MRI in your home, you won’t see the effect on their brains, but you will experience the effect on their behavior. If a child has experienced a specific trauma, they will likely experience a stress response to a particular stimulus.1 However, if a child has experienced general trauma, they may react in a “fight or flight” response to everyday situations.1 Sudden or unpredictable arousal, such as a loud noise or the excitement of a party, may initiate a stress response in a traumatized child.1 The response may either be expressed through irritability and aggression or through withdrawal and detachment.1

Exposure to trauma may also cause other developmental delays. Children who experience chronic maltreatment from a caregiver are often significantly younger developmentally than their chronological age.4 A child experiencing language delays may not be able to understand instructions he is given or have the ability to explain the emotions he is experiencing.4 Children with traumatic backgrounds may also have delays in basic skills such as brushing their teeth or getting dressed.4 So what may seem like a lack of compliance with the rules may actually be an inability to understand or perform a task. However, research shows that the greatest developmental delays for children who have experienced abuse or neglect are in the area of social development.4 These children may be hesitant to interact with other children and may need help practicing how to play and make friends.

What can we do to help?

For those of you who have stuck with me this long, thank you! I know this information can be overwhelming and even depressing. The good news is that there are things we can do to help these kids. First, I am a firm believer that knowledge is power. Hopefully the quick overview I have given you has helped you to understand the science behind some of the behaviors of the traumatized children in your home and to reduce any guilt you have over your inability to control those behaviors. Second, remember the concept of attachment we talked about in the beginning of this post? Developing a secure attachment with an adult can help to counteract the effects of trauma.1 When you nurture and care for the foster children in your home, you are giving them the healing gift of attachment!

What are some other ways you can help? It all starts with creating an environment of physical and emotional security.1 This involves setting up predictable routines. When a child knows what is expected of them and the consequences of their actions, they begin to build trust.1 However, as explained earlier, it is important that a child’s developmental capacity be considered in establishing expectations.4 Due to potential language and learning delays, it may be useful to create pictorial charts to explain routines.4  In establishing routines, it is also important to plan times to connect with the child either one-on-one or as a family.1 Family dinner time or bedtime stories are a great way to connect, but if a child’s behavior is particularly difficult, even watching TV together can be a good way to start building a relationship.1

It will also be helpful to adopt the role of helper or teacher rather than enforcer as routines are being established.4  When a child is being oppositional, a parent can help by staying calm.1 This will help the child learn to manage their own emotions.1 A child may also need the opportunity or encouragement to “take space” when they become stressed. Caregivers can also help the child practice getting excited and then calming down in structured environment at home before entering stressful situations in public (read kid birthday party).1 Children with an elevated stress response may also feel a lack of control over their own bodies.1 Games and other physical activities can help a child develop a sense of mastery over their body.1

While I hope all of this information has been helpful, you are ultimately the expert on the children in your home. I encourage you to advocate for the needs of those children, and hopefully you have a social worker in your life who is willing to listen to your concerns and offer intervention when needed.

1 Goldfinch, M. (2009). 'Putting Humpty Together Again': Working with parents to help children who have experienced early trauma. Australian And New Zealand Journal Of Family Therapy, 30(4), 284-299.       2 Bacon, H. & Richardson, S. (2001). Attachment theory and child abuse: An overview of the literature for practitioners. Child Abuse Review, 10(6), 377-397.       3 Neigh, G. N., Gillespie, C. F., & Nemeroff, C. B. (2009). The neurobiological toll of child abuse and neglect. Trauma Violence & Abuse, 10(4), 389-410.       4 Becker-Weidman, A. (2009). Effects of early maltreatment on development: A descriptive study using the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-II. Child Welfare, 88(2), 137-161.

National Foster Care Month - Video for the US Children's Bureau

National Foster Care Month - Video for the US Children's Bureau

"I would get too attached," "Do you get to keep this one?" and "Are they all yours?": 40 Answers to the Invasive (But Typically-Well-Meaning) Questions Every Foster Parent Hears

"I would get too attached," "Do you get to keep this one?" and "Are they all yours?": 40 Answers to the Invasive (But Typically-Well-Meaning) Questions Every Foster Parent Hears