signs of neglect, trauma, and attachment issues

My last post delved into attachment issues and what we need to know so we can begin helping our children. In that post, I said we would be looking at what attachment issues can look like and how we might not notice them.

I would like to change that verbiage a little. I will be writing on the symptoms of neglected, abused, and traumatized children, as well as children with attachment issues. I believe that many children who enter a foster or adoptive home due to neglect, abuse, and trauma will have difficulty attaching to their caregivers. For all of these children, trust has been broken and it will take an adult who is willing to work through their issues for them to heal and make attachments.

“The quality of early caregiving sets the stage for a child’s future interpersonal relationships.” –

Many of our children have come out of a traumatic experience, this includes, but is not limited to; a neglectful home, an abusive home, or an orphanage. (You can see a more extensive list here.) Even children who are adopted at birth can suffer from trauma. For instance, they may have had a birth mother who did drugs (including legal narcotics), or was hiding her pregnancy, or they simply may have difficulty separating from the mother they heard while in the womb. One mom, who adopted her son at birth, talked to me about his behavior issues. She felt they stemmed from the birth mother hiding her pregnancy, which resulted in lack of nutrition and possibly other problems.

When our children come into our care, they are bringing with them their traumatic experiences, which cause attachment issues and other problems in our children.

Our daughter, Payton, came to us when she was nine-months-old. She is the unfortunate example of what neglect and trauma can do to an infant. Many people think that babies and young children are resilient to the wrongs inflicted upon them, but I believe this thought process is very wrong, and my daughter is just one instance. (You can read my thoughts on the term “resilient child” here.)

Before entering foster care, my daughter’s bio mom had been homeless, and left Payton with countless strangers. While in foster care, she lived in four different homes.

Our first sign that something was amiss was when Payton’s foster mom brought her to us. Payton didn’t cry. She would laugh, but her smile didn’t reach her eyes. In fact, we thought it odd how much she laughed. We were completely new to her, she was in a strange house, a different room, but when she woke up in the morning, she still didn’t cry. (Yes, she slept those first couple months and then everything changed, and then major sleep disturbances ran our house.)

About a week after Payton arrived, the laughing stopped and she withdrew into herself. Our social worker, Belinda*, came by for a home visit, I told her about PaytonPayton and she observed her. She was shocked. Payotn’s first foster parents, the Beans*, had told her Payton was doing well, and they described her as being a “good baby.” Somehow we received the information that in the Bean house, Payton had spent most of her time in a playpen. Payton was so withdrawn that day when Belinda visited, she said she would diagnose her with Failure to Thrive, even though she wasn’t authorized to make the diagnosis. Payton didn’t match up with the definition of Failure to Thrive, she was overweight (she had been given a bottle to quiet her when she made noise, even if it was a cry for attention, hugs, or changing), so lack of nutrition wasn’t the issue. However the absence of emotional connection is what I believe led Belinda to say this.

I continued what I had begun the moment she joined our family, I ran to Payton when she fell (she never cried when she was hurt), I picked her up and hugged her, telling her I was there for her. I spent a large majority of my time with her or near her. Once she finally began noticing that someone was paying attention to her (I don’t think she realized yet that I truly cared about her) she was like a calf with it’s mama, she followed me everywhere. We had a long road ahead of us, but I was excited she was aware of my presence.

My daughter had been born into a harsh world, one where she quickly learned that no one would take care of her needs. She shut everything off and laughed at the world around her. She was so good at hiding her true feelings, the other foster parents thought she was fine. Well, I don’t really think Payton was so good at hiding everything, I think those foster parents didn’t notice what was right in front of them. I don’t believe any child escapes from trauma, neglect, or abuse unaffected.

As Payton began to heal, many other behaviors surfaced and we have had to learn to deal with each one as it attacks her.

Following is a list of behaviors that are common in children who have been neglected, abused, been through trauma, or have attachment issues. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

  • Overly aware of the world around them. It may seem like they aren’t paying attention, but they can give you directions to the grocery store.
  • Easily distracted/Difficulty focusing
  • Disconnected/Lack of emotions
  • Inability to entertain themselves. They haven’t learned to play and teaching them how seems like an endless task.
  • Becomes angered quickly
  • Self-centered/Wants constant attention on themselves
  • Apathetic about anything around them – consequences mean nothing
  • Irritable
  • Food issues – can be insatiable
  • Have great difficulty expressing feelings
  • Obstinate/Defiant
  • Controlling
  • Excessive worrier
  • Always alert/Hypervigilant
  • Emotional
  • Sleep issues
  • Lies
  • Untrusting

These symptoms can change as your child moves through their various stages of healing. A child may come into care disconnected, with a lack of emotions, but as healing takes place, they may become overly emotional. This is to be expected, I liken it to the stages of grief. As our children heal and realizations come, other areas of their brain and hearts open and show a different layer that needs to be worked through.

Your child may have exhibited some of these behaviors and you may not have recognized them as being related to their neglect or trauma, after all, some of these issues are common among children who have not been through a traumatic experience. That’s okay, you now have the information and can move forward in helping your child.

“Ultimately, what determines how children survive trauma, physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is whether the people around them – particularly the adults they should be able to trust and rely upon – stand by them with love, support, and encouragement.” –  Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

My follow up posts will give common sense approaches on how to help your child move past their trauma and bond. So you don’t miss any of the posts on Lovin’ Adoptin’ you can go the right side of my website and sign up to have the newest entries delivered to your email.

I also have an article coming out in the June issue of Adoption Today called, Connecting with Compassion. The June issue is mostly dedicated to attachment and trauma in adopted children.

* Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Following are more posts on attachment:
attachment in adoption – the first things we need to know
let’s bond already – creating attachment with an adopted child
rocking: a simple first step to bonding (and it doesn’t just apply to infants)
play = bonding time
why “good nights” are illusive