Chapter twenty 20
It could be said, very simply, that an infant born into an extremely abusive and traumatic environment is born with a broken heart. The damage happens to the infant from birth. It will be built right into its brain structure, its mind, and its self – if it is even fortunate enough to get one.
Researchers have studied infant attachments to their caregivers. They use the term “disorganized/disoriented attachment” to describe a category of behavior that infants who are obviously suffering under far less than ideal care giving conditions most frequently display. They see at the extreme of the continuum this behavior in fifty-five to about eighty percent among infants who have been maltreated by their parents.
Siegel describes the consequences of the “unusual forms of communication” these caregivers have with their infants. He states,
“This communication has the quality of a “paradoxical injunction.” “Come here and go away” is a mild version of this conflictual communication. These communications present a child with an unsolvable and problematic situation.” (Siegel, TDM, 108)
According to experts in the field of infant mental health, caregivers of infants who display disorganized and/or disoriented behavior regarding their attachments to these caregivers, often show to the infant their own behavior that is frightened, frightening, or disoriented.
“They are disruptive to an organized strategy because the infant cannot make sense of the…confusing parental responses. Furthermore, the child cannot use the parent to become soothed or oriented, because the parent is in fact the source of the fear or disorientation. There is no organized adaptation available for the child. The internal state of mind is thought to lack internal coherence, because the attachment system is such that the caregiver is intended to confer safety to the child.” (ibid)
An infant has nowhere else to turn other than to its caregivers, who are supposed to provide for all of its needs. This is particularly true when the infant is in a state of danger. Experts often assume that there are “fill in” caregivers to help meet the needs of even the most traumatized infants, yet I know from my own personal experience this is certainly not always the case. I therefore urge extreme caution in applying this bias where it does not apply, and believe it is both ignorant and dangerous to carry this assumption without the facts to show that other help was available to the infant. In cases where it is not available, the conclusions researchers tend to draw must be stretched far in the direction of the unbelievable to even begin to express both the danger to the infant and the damage that the abuse and trauma causes.
We must be on extreme alert. While I understand that Siegel is making the effort to reflect these concerns among professionals, I still suspect that the following statements may not truly reflect the magnitude of the continual peritraumatic experience that abused infants endure from their birth. It is crucial to keep in mind that when the abuse that is done to a child DOES NOT originate at birth, it is an entirely different matter compared to that done to an infant from the moment it is born, and then done continually to that infant through its toddler months. If an infant remains in the perpetual state of acute distress of peritrauma through these crucial months and then into its childhood, and through their corresponding brain-mind-self developmental stages, an infant is taken completely off track way before it even reaches the growth status of being a child.
We cannot lose sight of this crucial distinction. Every experience of every minute of an infant’s life is designed by nature to build its brain, and therefore its mind from which its self is born. Infant peritrauma so interferes with this developmental process that often a self does not even emerge. If peritrauma does not encase the infant before the age of two years old, an entirely different picture will evolve. This is the case, I believe, even if the abuse occurs primarily after the age of one year.
The Strange Situation test that examiners use to classify attachment styles is done in the second year of life, often very close to when the infant is twelve months old, but not always. The months of living under severe abuse, with their corresponding developmental stages, that have already transpired before the infant is old enough to demonstrate the kinds of behaviors these researchers use to assess attachment styles, have already wrecked their brain-mind-self damage. The generalizations, therefore, which researchers make from the classification system they have devised to discern these attachment styles that “children” have with their caregivers, I believe, can therefore be misleading. This is especially true for the research they have conducted in infants’ homes.
Any in-home observers of parenting or care giving behaviors have to know the exact conditions the infant is being exposed to in order to draw any reasonable conclusions. In cases such as mine was, my mother was extremely astute as to what constituted “public” versus “private.” This is often the case with many adult mental disorders, including Borderline Personality Disorder. If any possible observer, other than my toddler brother, was anywhere in her and my vicinity, the abuse would not have been visible. To make the assumption that these researchers do, that anyone, especially a stranger, could enter the home and observe the true behavior being acted out with the infant, I believe is ludicrous! NOBODY SAW IT! In order to grasp the nature of the peritrauma severely abused infants experience we MUST understand these facts. It is essential that we do.
I also believe there is a universe of difference for an infant between the experience of being with a “frightened” versus a “frightening” caregiver. With peritrauma there is no comparison possible. I find myself only able to marvel that researchers could possibly even consider that these two experiences might be related. A “frightened” caregiver does not likely produce an acute state of peritraumatic distress in an infant. A “frightening” caregiver does.
Keeping these distinctions in mind, I still believe that the following words written by Siegel are of paramount significance. I encourage the reader to keep in mind, however, that a “child” is far different, in my view, from an infant who
“…experiences fear or terror of the attachment figure, not just loss of the ability in the moment to use the attachment figure as a orienting and soothing haven of safety…the infant experiences a bind in which the feeling of fear cannot be modulated by the very source of that fear. Without the option to fight or flee, stuck between approach and avoidance, the infant can only “freeze” into a trance-like stillness, which may be the beginnings of a tendency toward clinical dissociation – the phenomena in which consciousness, states of mind, and information processing become fragmented. The parental behavior of either abuse (frightening) or sudden shifts into mental states independent of the child’s signals (frightened or disoriented) are thought to be the mediators of disorganized/disoriented attachment.
Children with disorganized/disoriented attachment have been found to have the most difficulty later in life with emotional, social, and cognitive impairments. These children also have the highest likelihood of having clinical difficulties in the future, including affect regulation problems, social difficulties, attentional problems, and (as suggested just above) dissociative symptomatology. Unlike the other forms of insecure attachment, which are “organized” approaches to the pattern of parental communication, this form of insecure attachment appears to involve significant problems in the development of a coherent mind. The sudden shifts in these children’s states of mind yield incoherence in their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning. Their social interactions become impaired. Studies have found that these children may become hostile and aggressive with their peers. They tend to develop a controlling style of interaction that makes social relationships difficult. These peer interactions in the school-age child often occur when the child is having continuing difficulties in the home environment that engender unsolvable paradoxes or overwhelming feelings without solution. [Underlining is mine). Disorganized attachment has been associated with serious family dysfunction, such as impaired ability to negotiate conflicts, chronic and severe maternal depression, child maltreatment, and parental controlling, helpless, and coercive behaviors…..(Siegel/TDM/109)
In these dyadic situations, the child has the double trauma of experiencing terrifying events and the loss of a trusted attachment figure. Terrifying experiences that have occurred early if life, during the normal period of infantile amnesia (before explicit episodic memory is available), will be processed in only an implicit manner….”(Siegel/TDM/110)
What this means is that when infant abuse is persistent and consistent, perpetual and chronic, the experience of being in a state of acute distress, or peritrauma, will never be available for conscious recall. All early attachment experiences work to form the structure of the infant’s brain, and these peritraumatic experiences are no exception. Both the experiences themselves, and the toxic chemicals released into the body during acute distress of peritrauma are damaging the infant.
The infant brain has not yet developed to the point where complex associations can be made to process any of the infant’s experiences. This also means that until the developmental milestones are reached that allow for the processes Siegel is describing in this next passage to occur, the implicit memories the infant has of its trauma will never be available for conscious recall. They do, however, affect every aspect of the infant.
Siegel says of trauma that occurs in the out-of-infancy child or adult:
“If such experiences occur later in life, then the family denial and lack of memory talk can impair explicit recall after the traumatic event, which in turn may impair the consolidation process and prevent experiences from becoming a part of permanent explicit autobiographical (narrative) memory. Instead, these events may remain in an unresolved, unconsolidated form. In this state, they may be more likely to influence implicit recollections automatically, creating elements of emotional, behavioral, perceptual, and perhaps somatic reactions without conscious awareness of their origins. The ability of the mind to integrate these aspects of memory is severely impaired in unresolved trauma and in disorganized/disoriented attachments, leading to dissociative tendencies and incoherence of mind. (ibid)”
Siegel is describing the process whereby traumatized adults transmit trauma to their offspring. In anything less than an ideally secure attachment relationship, parents and caregivers directly conspire, without intention but with devastating effect, to ensure that the cycles and patterns of abuse, neglect, trauma and peritrauma roll right on down the generations. THIS is the pattern we have to understand, and STOP.
This is particularly so when the trauma has happened to an infant from birth, particularly up to the age of two. When there is not intervention, the traumas continue to occur. In my case, the state of peritrauma was unmitigated by anyone, ever, until I reached the age of eighteen and left home. When an infant remains in an abusive family situation throughout its entire childhood, the “early in life” experiences are compounded by the “later in life” experiences. Thus impaired brain development causes impaired mind development causes impaired self-development causes an impaired adult.
All the blasé self help books and programs, most therapeutic efforts, and nearly all diagnosis applied to both children and adults miss this absolutely crucial fact: What goes in must come out! Input in equals input out. I would be willing to bet that when we see an adult with a disastrous life, what happened to them as infants was unrecognized peritrauma. In order to understand the “end” we must understand the beginning.