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How a Child's Non-Violent Symptoms of Developmental Trauma Disorder Can Cause Chaos in the Home Too

Updated: May 15


Development Trauma Disorder: How a Child's Non-Violent Symptoms Cause Chaos in the Home Too
Developmental trauma disorder symptoms can be traumatic for everyone in the home, no matter how the child presents.

Last year, in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I wrote a blog about the physical abuse many parents endure at the hands of their children who have reactive attachment disorder (RAD), a developmental trauma disorder (DTD). 


A mother responded, “Would you consider writing a blog on other forms of abuse? We feel even more isolated as parents (of a child with developmental trauma disorder) because we feel like the other forms of abuse — emotional, verbal, stalking, gaslighting, damaging personal property, weaponization, false allegations, etc. — are not talked about at all or recognized as abuse.” 



I knew exactly what she was talking about because that was much more in line with our experience. Our adopted son, who was eventually diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder/developmental trauma disorder, was not violent but his behaviors still left us feeling isolated, misunderstood, and generally crazy. 


The other forms of abuse [of developmental trauma symptoms] — emotional, verbal, stalking, gaslighting, damaging personal property, weaponization, false allegations, etc. — are not talked about at all or recognized as abuse.

Although many families enduring physical abuse from their adopted child are not believed, I'd like to think that if I had been able to tell friends and family that he was attacking us or trying to burn the house down (as other families have experienced), they might have understood the severity of the situation. But instead, they saw a charming boy. When I tried to talk to them about what was going on in our house, I got comments like “All kids do that.” It seemed impossible to explain, and no one understood what was happening behind closed doors. 


I know many parents dealing with developmental trauma disorder feel similarly. I will try to put this nonviolent crazy-making into words. 


7 troubling developmental trauma behaviors, even without violent symptoms:


1. Kids with developmental trauma disorder lie incessantly.


While all children may lie occasionally or go through a phase of lying, many of our children lie constantly, expertly, and often for no reason (other than control). Our son moved in at age 9 already an expert liar — I'm talking Oscar-worthy performance. He would act so offended that you could think he had done something and burst into tears at the snap of the fingers. It took me almost a year to realize all the lies, but even after that I couldn't tell when he was lying or telling the truth.  


Similarly, while a neurotypical child may steal once and feel guilty about it or take something that isn't theirs before they understand that it is wrong, many of our children with developmental trauma constantly steal throughout their lives. Our son would claim he “found” money at school, and we caught him many times stealing from my purse or my husband's wallet until we learned to keep these things locked up. I even found my wedding ring under his bed. 


They saw a charming boy. When I tried to talk to them about what was going on in our house, I got comments like “All kids do that.” It seemed impossible to explain, and no one understood what was happening behind closed doors. 

I wrote a blog previously about lying and stealing where I interviewed Forrest Lien, developmental trauma expert clinician. He explained that during the first 18 months of life, babies are learning whether the world is a safe place and whether they can rely on and trust their caregivers. If they have consistent, loving caregivers, they learn to trust. Having their needs met is internalized — their needs matter, they matter, and they’ll be taken care of. As they grow, they want to please their caregivers, which makes it easier for parents to modify behaviors like lying and stealing and guide them toward acceptable norms.


Need help navigating developmental trauma and the frustrating systems that go with it? Consider support memberships.


However, youngsters who experience abuse, neglect, or breaks in attachment learn not to trust their caregivers. They generally do not accept guidance easily and do not care about pleasing their parents. They believe that they are entitled to have what they want so they steal. When confronted, they will lie to get out of trouble or simply for the sake of deceiving their parents. 


2. Kids with developmental trauma argue incessantly.

Our son argued nonstop. He would argue about anything and everything from sunup to sundown. He even argued once about which way was left and which way right. Children with developmental trauma often have a high need to control people and situations in order to help themselves feel safer. Arguing and being right helps them maintain that sense of control, and it also helps them gain a sense of control over their caregivers because behaviors like this can get a rise out of us. They realize they can control their parents’ emotions. 


Our son’s therapist urged us not to “go down the rabbit hole.” Instead, she encouraged us to be a broken record and repeat a short phrase like “Maybe so.” This is similar to the grey rock method, as I understand it. But I had been raised by two psychologists who discussed everything with me and used reason. It was so hard for me not to try to explain things and attempt to have a rational discussion. However, I know the therapist was right and I should not have wasted my time and energy or given him control over my emotions.  


3. Kids with developmental trauma gaslight others.


Gaslighting is when someone makes you question your reality. Our son was good at this too. He'd pull out his expert acting skills and put on quite a show. He was the innocent child with parents who were too strict. He had grown and changed, and we just didn't see it. He would never do the things we were accusing him of, etc.  


4. Even kids with non-violent developmental trauma symptoms can threaten others.


Threats can come in all shapes and sizes, from threatening physical harm to a family member or to themselves, or threatening to run away, etc. Our son would use the runaway card and once refused to come home from school unless we removed our rules and gave him more freedoms. 


5. Kids with developmental trauma insult, yell, and name-call.

Our son was a fan of following me around when he was upset, insulting me, and telling me how much he hated us, how awful we were, what terrible parents we were, how he would never do anything we said, and calling us names. The only way to escape would be to lock myself in my bedroom. 


6. Many children with developmental trauma falsely accuse others of abuse or neglect.


While our son certainly did not portray us accurately to those outside the home, he never, to my knowledge, made accusations that would have gotten the authorities involved. However, false allegations are an all-too-common scenario for parents of children with developmental trauma disorder that can result in very severe real-world consequences, such as arrest, investigation and even having other children in the home removed. 


7. Most children with developmental trauma manipulate others.


Any or all of the above can be used to manipulate or pit family members or professionals against each other in order for the child to get what they want.  

On top of these things, there are the many other challenges that families dealing with developmental trauma face, such as food issues, sleeping issues, school issues, hypervigilance, etc. 


*Please note that I am not blaming the children. They have suffered a great deal of trauma, and their behaviors are a manifestation of that trauma. Still, it is not fair to expect their current caregivers — often adoptive parents who were not made aware of the issues they would be dealing with — to be able to address these severe psychological conditions. Even many experts can't agree on the best ways to help children with developmental trauma. 


When I would talk to my friends, mothers of neurotypical children, about what we were dealing with, they would say their child lied or their child argued with them or talked back or broke a major rule — “All kids do that.” But I am not talking about an occasional instance of such behavior — a drop of water here or there. I am talking about a constant drip, 24 hours a day, that has created a huge lake the family is now drowning in. I'm talking the muscle difference between a scrawny middle schooler and Arnold Schwarzenegger at his prime. I'm talking the difference between a skateboard ramp and Mount Everest. 


[False allegations are] an all-too-common scenario for parents of children with developmental trauma disorder that can result in very severe real-world consequences, such as arrest, investigation and even having other children in the home removed. 

We often think of emotional abuse in terms of a romantic couple, but emotional abuse can happen in any intimate or close relationship. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, “Emotional abuse includes non-physical behaviors that are meant to control, isolate, or frighten you.” It goes on to say that this may present as threats, insults, constant monitoring, excessive jealousy, manipulation, humiliation, intimidation, gaslighting and dismissiveness, among others. Sometimes emotional abuse is more obvious, like being yelled at or called names; other times it can be more subtle. While these emotionally abusive behaviors do not leave physical marks, they do hurt, disempower, and traumatize the person who is experiencing the abuse.


When I would talk to my friends, mothers of neurotypical children, about what we were dealing with, they would say their child lied or their child argued with them or talked back or broke a major rule — “All kids do that.” But I am not talking about an occasional instance of such behavior — a drop of water here or there. I am talking about a constant drip, 24 hours a day, that has created a huge lake the family is now drowning in. 

The age or size of the abuser does not change the impact of their abusive behaviors. We do not tell abused adults to stay with their abusive spouses. Yet we tell abused parents and siblings to endure abuse from children and adolescents. Families of children with developmental trauma need support, not shame and blame.


The RAD Advocates website is full of expert advice on how to keep your family safe, how to get the support and help you need for yourself and your children, and much more. This article is not meant to tell you how to solve your issues. Instead, it's meant to say, we get it. You are not alone. Emotional abuse is real and damaging.  


It's important that we share our experiences. And it's important for our family and friends — and society at large — to listen and to believe us.  

 


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Juanita Moolman
Juanita Moolman
١٦ مايو

I can certainly relate to all of the above. I now just say Yes true, yes true, yes true to all she is saying, circle argument is broken then. She then swing it around if I agree to everything she says by saying "Not everything is right what I say" and I say again Yes true. Frustrating to live like this.

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I feel this deep in my soul. Having two children with severe RAD, one of whom is also very violent, this form of abuse destroys you just as much as the physical. And continually being told that this is "normal" is also a form of abuse. No one believes you or understands that it is 24 hours a day, non-stop. Not just a drip here or there. And I still haven't found anyone that actually understands it after 15+ years. It helps to read about someone else's story that is almost exactly mine. One of the arguments I remember most was his telling me the sky was orange when it was a beautiful blue. We were on the way to…


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micaela
micaela
١٦ مايو
الرد على

Thank you for reading and commenting. It's good to know others relate. I'm sorry for what you've gone through.

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