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How a Child's Early Trauma Can Separate Their Parents' Relationship

Updated: May 19, 2023

How a child's early trauma can separate their parents' relationship

Post updated in May of 2023

It’s a common story: A couple decides to share their love with a child. If the child enters the family through adoption, their loved ones often call them “saints” for doing so. But no matter how the child comes into their lives, the couple is often showered with love. They’re flooded with gifts and congratulations.

Yet, whatever their circumstances, the child might bring the effects of trauma into the home. And trauma brings confusion, conflict, and chaos. Rather than the bigger loving family the couple had envisioned, theirs is a bigger troubled family.

The couple begins to argue about the best way to parent. Their friends stop calling. Family members judge them. The support for their family is gone when they need it most. Their relationship starts to deteriorate.

I work with families every week who experience this dynamic. It’s not anyone’s fault. Here’s how it happens:

The impact of trauma on a child

When a child experiences trauma in their first three years of life, whether due to a biological parent’s addiction, mental health issue, or trauma history, their brains develop atypically. If properly assessed (which can be difficult to secure), this affliction is commonly diagnosed as reactive attachment disorder.

A child with reactive attachment disorder doesn't develop healthy pathways in the brain. And if the child enters foster care or an orphanage, the effects of their trauma are only compounded.

Like a war veteran, the child lives in a constant state of fight or flight even if they’re in a healthy and stable family. Their survival instinct is on high alert. The child manipulates the people around them to feel in control. And they do everything possible to keep people at a “safe distance”.

The impact of the child's trauma on the primary caregiver

Many social workers and therapists mistakenly tell those raising children with reactive attachment disorder that love conquers all. If they just give the child enough love, they say, everything will be fine. So the primary caregiver does everything they can to attach to and nurture the child. Sadly, however, love does not “fix” reactive attachment disorder.

The closer the primary caregiver tries to get, the more the child spits their attempts to love (sometimes literally) back in their face. The child they so desperately want to love reacts with hatred at their pursuit of attachment. The caregiver spends day after day trying to connect with a child who reacts to attachment in a disordered way.

The impact of the child's trauma on the other parent

Most families I work with include a primary caregiver and then another parent who is well-intended and loving, but not quite as hands-on and involved as the other caregiver. They don’t get as close to the child, whether because they work more often or the nurturing aspect isn't as innate for them. While the primary caregiver can be anyone and any gender, I've typically worked with moms in this role. Because the child doesn’t feel the pressure to connect with the other parent, the child feels safer with them than with the primary caregiver. That said, one parent often has a very different experience with the child than the other does. They only see the charming side of the child because that is what the child wants them to see.

The impact of the child's trauma on the couple

The different ways in which parents experience their child over time creates division.

When the couple tries to communicate, the primary caregiver explains their experiences with the child. But the other parent doesn’t see their point of view at all. They don’t understand why their partner is so upset with a perfectly happy-looking child. They assume the parent is too hard on their child. Meanwhile, the primary caregiver feels unsupported, dismissed, and angry. They often experience post-traumatic stress disorder themselves.

One parent often has a very different experience with the child than the other does. They only see the charming side of the child because that is what the child wants them to see.

The couple stops communicating and understanding one another and their relationship begins to deteriorate.

Moving forward

Reactive attachment disorder doesn’t need more love, “better” parenting, or time to “fix” it. What it does require, however, is plenty of outside support and expert intervention to strengthen the family foundation and help the child to heal.

It all starts with a strong parent union.

But that stability is far from easy. The very nature of reactive attachment disorder is to create chaos and triangulation in relationships. It is, ironically, how the child feels temporarily safe. But if the child succeeds, everyone including the child suffers.

If it is your relationship at peril, it is time to find a way back. You need one another as parents. It is the only way through for your family.

Recognize that you are traumatized as individuals, as a couple, and as a family. Find effective help from clinicians who understand reactive attachment disorder. And find solutions toward healing, for everyone’s sake. That can mean a multitude of things and depends entirely on your unique situation.

If it is your relationship at peril, it is time to find a way back. You need one another as parents. It is the only way through for your family.

I'll be chatting about this at the Navigating RAD Experience this October during my presentation, "Determining What You Have Left as a Family and Ideas to Move Forward". Through this presentation and the guidance of additional experts, NavRAD attendees will leave with a customized family plan of action to move forward, parent-shared resources, and new friends who truly understand. You don't have to do this alone.

Above all, know that the culprit in your home is the child’s early trauma, not one another. Remember where you began—a loving couple decided to bring in a child and share their love. Start again from there.

About Carrie

How a Child's Early Trauma Can Separate Their Parents' Relationship by Carrie O'Toole

Carrie O’Toole has adopted domestically and internationally and is a biological mother. After parenting a child with reactive attachment disorder for eight years, the O’Tooles made the heart-wrenching decision to relinquish their son to another family in 2009. Since that time, Carrie has earned her master's degree in human services specializing in marriage and family therapy. Because parenting traumatized children is traumatizing, Carrie works as a coach and helps other struggling adoptive parents to heal from their own grief and trauma. Carrie also helps parents through her book Relinquished: When Love Means Letting Go, documentary film Forfeiting Sanity, the Relinquished Retreat for Parents, blogs, and podcasts. Meet Carrie at the NavRAD experience this year!


This is like reading an excerpt from my own life! The spitting in your face brought to mind a vivid memory of my teenage daughter sucking on limes & repeatedly spitting on me! Turns out she was sensitive to the limes & had a rash around her mouth for several days after that.


Robert Baird
Robert Baird
May 23, 2023

As a gay dad I super appreciate the inclusive way that you wrote this article. And as a former child protective social worker I completely understand the dynamic that you speak of where the "mother" is the one who struggles the most. Raising a child with RAD is tricky. I believe that a good way to feel success in your parenting involves being more clinical in your thinking. Also, feeling proud of yourself and your child for every small success, recognizing that parenting is hard in some ways for everyone, and feeling grateful for all the positive things you have in your life.

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