Attachment with Children Who Have Experienced Trauma


I attended a conference recently where guest speaker, Juli Alvarado, discussed a trauma informed paradigm she created, called Emotional Regulatory Healing (ERH). Alvarado described ERH, as “an integrative, theory based, trauma informed, and whole culture approach to healing of trauma.” She stated that the objective of ERH is to maximize a person’s ability to build and maintain meaningful relationships through healing. In order to promote healing we have to understand trauma and how it affects our brain.

Understanding the impact of trauma on the brain can help a parent build and maintain a relationship with a child who has experienced trauma. This is so important for adoptive parents to understand because most of the children who have been adopted have experienced some kind of trauma at some time in their life. Traumatic experiences can be a single event or something that happened repeatedly over time. The experience leaves a person feeling humiliated, powerless, terrified and often includes the betrayal of a close and trusted person. Trauma leaves a person feeling unsafe. Trauma can be physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect. Trauma impacts our relationships with our self, others and our environment, often resulting in recurring feelings of shame, guilt, rage, isolation, and disconnection.

There are three parts of the brain that are affected by trauma: the amygdala, hippocampus and the orbitofrontal cortex. The amygdala is the “fear receptor” it unconsciously identifies when something is wrong and initiates a “fight, flight or freeze” response. The amygdala notifies the hippocampus that something is wrong. The job of the hippocampus is to calm the amygdala. The hippocampus attempts to regulate the emotion by releasing a stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol sits on the orbitofrontal cortex, the “social/emotional control center”, until an external response, like a parent calming a child when he is upset by picking him up and holding him, helps calm the body. Too much cortisol is dangerous to brain tissue and can interfere with the development of attachment. If there is no external response then the Hippocampus will continue to release cortisol, in an attempt to calm the brain down, and the person will continue to remain in a fight, flight or freeze state. This is why letting a child cry himself to sleep is simply not effective and is actually damaging to the child. Until cortisol is diminished there is no hope for healing and attachment. The orbitofrontal cortex is where regulation and attachment solidifies and if the brain is overloaded with too much cortisol this bonding cannot occur. When the sensory experience becomes safe it allows the amydgda to calm down, which allows the hippocampus to stop releasing cortisol and in turn will allow the orbitofrontal cortex to become regulated and able to form attachments.

Alvarado explained that the hippocampus is not fully developed until age three. Since the hippocampus is responsible for higher level thinking, rational decision making and understanding cause and effect, a child under the age of 3 will not understand “If you do this, then this will happen.” They simply can’t understand. As a parent of a three and four year old this would have been helpful information to know a few years ago. It all makes sense now! The numerous blank stares that I received from my kids could have been avoided if I had known that they simply could not understand what I was saying and no amount of repetition would teach them, they simply had to get older and their hippocampus needed to fully develop.

Alvarado also discussed brain based interventions and stated, “The brain is the boss of behavior.” It is important to promote emotional regulation and foster attachment with your child you will then decrease negative social, emotional and behavioral outcomes. A child will less likely act out when they feel safe. We need to create emotionally safe relationships, families, and environments and in order to decrease behaviors. Alvarado stressed the importance of building relationships and said, “If there is no relationship, nothing else matters.”

You can learn more about Juli Alvarado’s teachings, ERH, trauma informed care and the impact of trauma at

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MLJ Adoptions is a Non-Profit, Hague-Accredited adoption service provider located in Indianapolis, Indiana, working in Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Pacific Isles. We are passionate about serving children in need.