Greetings to all WinShape Homes! I want to continue our learning about trauma-informed care by writing to you this month about trauma bonding. First, we need to gain an understanding of what this term means. A trauma bond is a deep connection that forms between a victim or survivor and their abuser. We will look at a few questions and take them one at a time:
- How can this happen from such pain?
- How does this affect foster child behaviours?
- How do we break trauma bonds and foster healthy connections?
1. How can this happen from such pain? Or maybe a better way to ask this question is, why does any bond or connection at all occur, much less a deep one, from abuse or neglect? One common feature that these abusive relationships share is heightened intensity, which involves the exploitation of trust and power. During childhood traumatic events, the brain is overstimulated and flooded with neurochemicals, and the child’s neuropathways (thinking patterns) get acclimatized to living under toxic levels of stress.
Trauma bonding can occur as a result of any abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, it imprints in them an unhealthy way to relate or connect to people when it occurs in children. This is why so many who experienced abuse as children end up in abusive adult relationships or doing the abusing themselves. It also explains why some foster children seem stuck in a cycle of recreating chaos even in healthy environments, in an unconscious attempt to create a bond.
2. How does this affect foster child behaviors? Essentially it comes down to how acclimatized the child’s brain became to a traumatic environment. It’s like a frog sitting in water that is set to boil, and it does not notice the danger. Similarly, we do not notice the dangerous levels of chemicals being released in the brain during traumatic events. This is worsened by repeated traumatization over long periods of time versus one trauma that occurred once or twice. When the only connection to a primary caregiver is an unhealthy one, the person craves chaos in order to gain any kind of connection during periods when the abuser is absent or lets up. When the source of fear is removed, the chemical levels lower, and the brain experiences cravings. It is the up and down pattern or heightening and lowering of chemicals in the brain that fosters the bond. When that person is removed from their life, children will have acting out behaviors in an attempt to attach, connect, or bond, albeit unhealthy, damaging, and fearful to others. Bear in mind that a foster child’s insight into self and why they have certain behaviors is very low and mostly occurring subconsciously.
3. How do we break trauma bonds and foster healthy connections? There are several steps that we can take to help foster children break these bonds and develop healthy ways of bonding: educate, consistency, counselling, challenge them to try new things, and prayer.
Considering the child’s age and their ability to comprehend, try to help them understand trauma bonding as a result of abuse or neglect. If they are old enough to be educated, do so in a general sense. Otherwise, you run the risk of them becoming triggered and defensive of their abuser or primary caregiver. Therefore educate in a general sense to avoid them unnecessarily getting offended by feeling their bond to the abuser is being attacked. Their counsellor can help in this area too, so that there is consistent messaging.
Having consistent presence and voice from you in their life with all of these steps will work toward breaking the old bond and learning to build new ones. Consistent healthy structure in their daily life is foundational, but we have to build on top of that with structured, intentional love. We have to keep in mind that trauma only heals from the inside out, not outside in. Therefore providing love for them outwardly (housing, healthy food, non-abusive relationships) is needed but will not heal. They need both, but to heal, they need inward love and to see your transparent, vulnerable, and God-dependent attributes modelled. I will say more about this under prayer.
Getting them connected to a therapist who understands abuse, trauma, and attachment issues can be very helpful. At the very least, they can use the therapeutic relationship to learn to build connections in a healthy way. My hope is that integrating faith and counselling can help to bring inner healing and reconnect them to God, who is truly perfect love and the only one capable of fully filling that inward love. 1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” This is one reason why I believe counselling should point people to The Wonderful Counselor, not just better ways to cope.
Try New Things
Challenging them to try new things can be really good for someone who is learning to build healthy relationships. It can bolster self-confidence and help their brain begin to rewire itself to create new neural pathways. Eventually, their new thinking patterns get associated with a healthy, loving environment.
When I say prayer, I want to highlight tenacity and spiritual warfare. In Matthew 7:7-8, we hear Jesus telling them, “ask, seek, and knock…everyone who asks receives, seeks finds, and knocks the door is opened.” There is almost nothing worse than scripture that should have been better translated. The Greeks had a verb tense that we do not have, which Jesus used here. We have verb tenses in past, present, and future. Ancient Greeks had those too, plus a present tense continuous. It actually reads something like this, “Ask, and go on asking. Seek, and go on seeking. Knock, and go on knocking.”
In Ephesians 6, we can read about the weapons of spiritual warfare. There are 7 weapons total; 6 for defending, and “all prayer” is our offensive weapon.
Letting these children see our vulnerability, transparency, and dependency on God will model to them how to build healthy connections. I would advocate for asking their permission to pray for them and let them hear you pour your heart out to God over them, their healing, and how you are dependent on Him to make life abundant. Let us use all that God has equipped us with to fight for the truth of His love for these wonderful children.