Being or bringing into harmony; a feeling of being “at one” with another being.

After attending a conference titled “Trauma Focused Treatment for Youth with Sexual Behavior Problems,” I began to develop a clearer picture of the nature of many problems for children who have experienced trauma. For one, the problem of attachment is paramount. Those who have problems with attachment have often been identified as those who lack remorse, which is a big concern of many. So how can one get a child who has a range of behavior problems to begin to show remorse?

Children who have been affected by trauma need attachment to gain the ability to show empathy. If one does not care about himself, it would take a lot to begin caring about someone else. So where does one start? Often children who have been traumatized have problems with hypervigilance, difficulty recognizing internal cues, and difficulty recognizing their own feelings. Thus, they can’t accurately read what’s going on with themselves, let alone other people. However, the basis for attachment is “attunement” to others.

What are some ways to engage children and facilitate the “attunement” necessary to develop attachment? One example is a mirror exercise. Stand facing the child and ask the child to imitate exactly what they see in the ‘mirror’ or what he sees you doing. Another example of an attunement exercise is what we often do with babies when we play patty cake. In fact, any rhythm game can be particularly useful. Three-legged races or jumping rock are other examples of attunement exercises. As the child becomes more engaged and practices playing off cues of other people and engaging himself at the same time, he/she can begin to develop skills necessary for attunement.

As the child becomes more attuned to others, work needs to continue in order to learn attunement to self. Developing this attunement is focused on learning to self-regulate and identify and monitor internal cues and feeling states. Self-regulation activities may include strong sitting, deep breathing, or Brain Gym exercises. Some individuals require more movement in order to achieve a state of calmness, which makes yoga a very beneficial activity. Structure, rhythm, and contained movement are all components of self-regulation.

Identifying internal cues can be very difficult for a child who has been traumatized as he may always function as if he were still in trauma. The child may also try to recreate the trauma state, as it is where he feels most comfortable. Cues are thus often misinterpreted and can trigger feelings of rejection and/or abandonment for the child. Then the effect becomes overwhelming and so the child engages in behavior to get relief from this effect. He wants to get someone else involved to represent the caring relief that is needed, so he continues his behaviors. When the response from others is anger or frustration, it may appear to him as rejection or abandonment and thus the cycle repeats itself.

One way to help a child identify his internal cues is to help him read and regulate things such as his pulse. Other ways to check in to receive feedback from the body are through things such as a mood ring or stress check card. A child may not think something bothers him but he may be producing physiological symptoms that he can learn to identify. It is equally important for the child to be able to identify feeling states. Anger is frequently identified but is often secondary to feeling embarrassment, sadness, shame, or frustration.

Attunement is evidenced in several ways. First, the child will be able to attune to others for short periods of time. He can begin to engage in brief conversations initiated by others. He can give direct attention to others and respond with reflective listening. Secondly, the child can attune to others for extended periods of time. He can initiate brief conversations with others on his own. While activities that work towards building the attachment are more extensive than just achieving attunement, these suggestions are merely building blocks. Once these things are established for the child, the child’s ability to eventually show remorse is just that much better.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Jody Johnson, LICSW, LIMHP, began working at Wholeness Healing Center as a therapist in 2007. Jody graduated from the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her Masters in Social Work.  She received her bachelor degree in Social Work from the University of Nebraska at Kearney.


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