Photo by Teri Dreher / ITeams

Helping Chronically Traumatized Kids

July 9, 2015
Katie Friend
Katie Friend

The atmosphere in the orphanage was chaotic. As the head teacher led us along the lime-green corridors, children followed us, jumping up and down, and crowding around us with bids for attention and pictures, candy and hugs. Children pushed one another, and a fight almost broke out. Outside the windows I spotted a child sitting alone at the top of a slide rocking back and forth. Most of the children at this orphanage in western Ukraine are Roma - children of an underprivileged and oppressed minority. Most of these children have parents, but their parents cannot afford to care for them, so they leave them with the state. The level of care in the orphanage is well below what you or I would consider acceptable. In many ways, these children face developmental deprivation - their experience of childhood is severely impoverished. Perhaps their greatest deprivation though, is the lack of a consistent relationship with a caregiver.

"Attachment theory" is the idea that our very first developmental task as infants is to form a secure attachment with a consistent primary caregiver. This caregiver should not only meet our physical needs reliably, but also provide the warm, loving attention that our brains and bodies need for development.

Attachment theory also teaches that the experience of this first relationship forms the foundation for all subsequent relationships, and the importance of what we learn about the world through this relationship's success or lack thereof, can hardly be overestimated. While we cannot change the past for children like those I met in the orphanage, we can help mitigate the effects of missing this developmental milestone - effects like difficulty managing emotions and regulating energy levels, trouble with empathic perspective-taking, and poor communication skills.

This work takes time and patience, grace and humility. There are no quick-fixes. Do you work with children who have suffered inconsistent caregiving from birth? The first thing you can do for these children is to educate yourself about the ways this kind of trauma affects the developing brain. (If you're with ITeams a good place to start exploring is our Child & Adolescent Trauma resource page.)

Once you've educated yourself, the best way to help is through consistent relationships with these children, in which you work to purposefully address the deprivation they've experienced. You won't be able to reverse all that trauma has taught them, but you will be able to show another way—that relationships can represent consistency, respect, sensitivity, and trust. You will be pointing them to Jesus—to hope for relationships in a world full of brokenness and disappointment. It's slow, beautiful, transformative work.