Attunement: How the Brain, Mind and Body “Remember” Trauma

Something I read several days ago literally has been haunting me. While I write about basic parenting principles and approaches for Lakeside, this information seems essential for anyone who provides care both to very young or older children.

The critical power of attunement 

In his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, author Bessel van der Kolk describes what makes the most difference in determining those children and eventually those adults who perpetuate self-destructive behaviors. This means while they continue to experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors that are self-injurious, they can be healed through therapy, so they no longer pursue self-harming behaviors.

Most parents have heard about children and adolescents who cut themselves. Cutting is one behavior that can reflect earlier childhood trauma. Even if none of your children show symptoms of significant emotional trauma, chances are that there are children somewhere in your family or neighborhood or child’s classroom who have. Therefore, being aware of the impact of trauma—as well as what is needed to safeguard children from the damaging effects of severe trauma—is important for all of us who care for children.

Trauma occurs to a child or adult when something happens that is so overwhelmingly terrifying that the brain is literally wounded by the experience, leaving emotional scars.

Unless there are interventions to prevent the emotional wounding from deeply imprinting the trauma, it can remain within that person’s brain and nervous system indefinitely.

That child or adult with unresolved traumatic memories is prone to being hypervigilant or dissociative. They can be triggered by any sensation reminiscent of the original trauma, resulting in behaviors that are reenactments of the original trauma. In fact, the younger the person is when that trauma occurs, the more devastating the impact, because unlike adults, infants and younger children cannot defend themselves, are totally dependent on adults for their care, and are incapable of cognitive reasoning because the upper parts of the brain have not adequately developed.

A lack of personal safety as a child can lead to destructive behaviors

In describing behaviors of self-harm, van der Kolk shared patients, who after several years of therapy continued to feel suicidal and self-destructive, reported no memories of feeling safe with anybody as a child. “They had reported being abandoned, shuttled from place to place, and generally left to their own devices. I concluded that, if you carry a memory of having felt safe with somebody long ago, the traces of that earlier affection can be reactivated in attuned relationships when you are an adult, whether these occur in daily life or in good therapy. However, if you lack a deep memory of feeling loved and safe, the receptors in the brain that respond to human kindness may simply fail to develop.” [pp. 141, 142]

What haunts me is how few parents realize the incredible need children have to feel emotionally as well as physically safe in the significant relationships they experience early in life.

Feeling truly safe requires a child has at least one significant adult who is predictably available and attuned. Sometimes parents and caregivers think they just need to be physically present in a child’s life but attunement means so much more. An attuned parent or caregiver is really attending, listening, noticing, engaging and communicating his or her desire to be connected in a loving, caring way.

There are many dramatic examples of parents and caregivers who chronically neglect their children. Consequently, this often results in children being placed in foster care or struggling to survive virtually on their own without experiencing loving, attuned relationships.

There also are more subtle forms of emotional neglect children experience when parents ignore their cries, stay focused on screens, and make minimal eye contact, let alone take the time to rock, sing to and allow children to express their thoughts and feelings openly.

Sometimes this neglect continues throughout childhood, with children experiencing insufficient opportunities to feel genuinely connected and cherished by the adults who care for them.

While Dr. van der Kolk focuses on the most extreme situations of abuse and neglect, all caregivers of children need to appreciate the essential nature of consistent, predictable, safe relationships in which those adults responsible for the child’s care remain focused and attuned. As a result, these children grow up much less likely to engage in self-harming behaviors and are more likely to have the freedom to become emotionally strong and healthy.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. Think about your own childhood. To what extent do you recall feeling emotionally safe? Was there at least one adult in your life who you know was attuned to you, interested and engaged, who promoted in you a sense that you were cherished and connected? If that person or those people are still in your life, you might want to thank them for providing you with a deep foundation of emotional health that has probably protected you throughout your lifetime.
  2. Think about your relationship with your own children. Think about the day-to-day opportunities that exist for you to ensure that they know they are emotionally safe and that you are consistently attuned to them. Maybe that requires putting down your devices or distractions, in order to show each child that he or she deserves both quality time as well as consistent engaged, supportive attention. Recognize that doing this in the present is not only a way to make your children feel safer and cherished now, it is a kind of insurance policy for their future emotional health and well-being.

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network



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One response to “Attunement: How the Brain, Mind and Body “Remember” Trauma”

  1. Maia Dean

    My adopted son endured many traumas prenatally and in his first year. Raising him was a minute to minute challenge. He was diagnosed with RAD when he was 13. Because I had educated myself I feel like we have made progress. He is 20 now and just had an epiphany about how RAD is still impacting his life.

    Im excited and have hope that with both of us working on his mental health that great progress is still possible.

    Thank you for the article.