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Reactive Attachment Disorder: When Your Child's Trauma Events Resurface Like Clockwork


Reactive Attachment Disorder: When Your Child's Trauma Events Resurface Like Clockwork

Our adopted son moved in with us the summer he was 9. That February, his behavior and

attitude dramatically deteriorated. Our adoption finalization date was coming up in March, so we assumed that was the cause. After all, the experts tell you that your adopted children will calm down and settle in once they have permanency (without understanding developmental trauma/reactive attachment disorder).


However, the next February the same thing happened. It's not that the rest of the year wasn't

difficult. It was. But things ramped up in February. By the third February, I was definitely

seeing a pattern.



I had never heard of a traumaversary, but reading through our kids’ records, I learned he and

his sister were dramatically removed from their birth parents in a drug raid in February. He

had only been 2.5 at the time, but I asked his therapist if these February meltdowns might

have something to do with this date in his unconscious memory?


That's when I learned about traumaversaries. A traumaversary is just what it sounds like, the

anniversary of a trauma. And yes, they can be unconscious memories.


According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD: “An

anniversary date may cue (or ‘trigger’) the memory of a traumatic event. … Cues may also seem to come from out of the blue around the time of an anniversary. … So, it is possible you may not even be aware that there is a connection between your distress and the anniversary of your traumatic event.” Our therapist suggested having our son write his story with her and then using that story to do EMDR, or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy. However, this required him to make up the story with lots of embellishment because he had no conscious memory of it. This made the focus too much on made-up details of the event and not on the process of EMDR. That, combined with the fact that he had to be cajoled into cooperating with the therapist, meant the whole process was not very effective.


The February meltdowns continued.


Dealing with developmental trauma/reactive attachment disorder & traumaversaries


The National Center for PTSD recommends the following coping strategies for traumaversaries: finding a provider and seeking treatment, focusing on self-care, leaning on your social support network, giving yourself time to examine and grieve the traumatic event, and being open to growth (journaling, talking with others, or creating a meaningful ritual, etc.). However, whether any of these methods would be effective with our children will depend on their age and cognitive abilities, and their desire to change, learn and grow. I believe for many of our children, the body-based methods discussed in the bestselling book “The Body Keeps the Score” by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk would be far more effective. These include yoga, theater, neurofeedback and body work (massage, cranio-sacral therapy, etc.), as well as approaches that would require the child to willingly want to participate in healing, such as mindfulness, EMDR and internal family systems therapy.


A traumaversary is just what it sounds like, the anniversary of a trauma. And yes, they can be unconscious memories.

Therapeutic approaches aside, there are things we can do as parents to help mitigate the damages that might occur during these traumaversaries. They are similar to the suggestions you can find in this article on surviving the holidays. Holidays, like traumaversaries, can be very triggering for our children. In hindsight, I think it would have been helpful for us to expect heightened issues around this time of year and prepare ahead of time. We should have upped the supervision and reduced activities and outings, keeping things as simple and close to home as possible. We also should have lowered our expectations and allowed natural consequences (vs. battles) as much as possible. 



While we can do certain things to minimize our children's response to traumaversies, we also must acknowledge the limitations. Only so much is within our control. Parents typically get the brunt of blame and shame from others about what we should or should not do as parents. Yet we have no control over our child's traumatic experiences that occurred long before they entered our homes. Traumaversies are no exception. We also have no control over how they choose to deal with that trauma presently or whether they wish to seek or receive help. Give yourself grace, and prepare to take care of your family. 


If things escalate during a traumaversary time, follow these tips from our infographic “4 Steps to Take During a Crisis While Parenting a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder/Developmental Trauma”:


1)      Try to remain calm.

The calmer you are, the calmer your child will be. Prep tip: Research and practice self-regulation techniques to prepare for times of crisis, i.e. the 5 senses grounding exercise.


2)      Assess the scene.

Take a moment to determine what is happening and who is in danger. Prep tip: Learn to recognize your child's triggers so you can recognize and prevent possible escalation. Additional prep tip: Ask someone you trust to be your safe person to help if needed. For example, you could call a neighbor and ask them to bring sugar over. The mere presence of an outside party can often defuse the situation. 


3)      Direct other children to safety.

Tell other children to leave the room if there's potential for physical harm or mental distress. Prep tip: Have a safety drill appropriate for the age of your children, including a code word, a safe place to retreat, and a conversation about how and when to call first responders.


4)      Seek safety for yourself and assistance.

If you're in danger, find shelter and call first responders. Prep tip: If it is necessary to call first responders, calmly and clearly tell them what you need. For example, do you need them to safely transport your child to the emergency room? Do you need them to press charges against your child? Do not use vague language. For example, explaining that your child is enraged is often more accurate than saying that your child is upset in moments of crisis.


Parents typically get the brunt of blame and shame from others about what we should or should not do as parents. Yet we have no control over our child's traumatic experiences that occurred long before they entered our homes. Traumaversies are no exception.

Know that you cannot, despite what many people assume, “love away” the impact of early trauma. As so few professionals understand the disorder, all you can do is your best with the limited resources you have. Sometimes the only thing you can focus on is the physical safety of your family and that is okay. “The physical safety of the family must always come first,” says RAD Advocates Executive Director/Founder Amy VanTine. “From there, you can work on a felt sense of safety and mental health and stability for everyone involved. While these are also critical components for your family, focus first on their physical safety.”



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