Bonded To The Abuser: Signs Of Traumatic Bonding

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Traumatic bonding. Neglect. Psychological abuse. What comes to mind when you hear these terms asks Tamara Hill our Guest Blogger today?

Do you find yourself picturing a loved one in your mind?

Are you thinking about an experience that still hasn’t left you?

After giving a presentation at a conference, in 2014, of parents and families who have lived through years of abuse, I recognized that not many people understood the full definition of traumatic bonding. The ones who did know what the term meant either minimized it or maximized it as an influence in their lives.

This article will discuss traumatic bonding and provides some examples of 9 signs you may be experiencing this phenomenon.

Minimizing or magnifying the term Traumatic Bonding only perpetuates incorrect views. Abuse takes many forms. Abuse is one of the most traumatizing events that a child could experience, especially when there is trauma entwined. For many children, abuse is unexpected and their ability to cope is often minimal compared to the abuse.

Trauma is defined as a terrible event that outweighs a child’s ability to cope (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2015). This inability to cope often leads to mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and even personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder, narcissism, or avoidant personality. The inability to cope can lead to “dysfunctional” ways of existing or interacting in the world in most cases.

Trauma can interfere with our ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships (work, marriage, friend, family) and appropriate social interactions. Trauma can also affect biological and neurological development throughout the lifespan and lead to a lifetime of emotional lability (“switchable” emotional states or moods). There are real and lasting brain changes that occur in children who have experienced abuse. These lasting changes often interfere with adulthood.

So that we are clear about the definition of abuse I will define it here. Abuse , although defined in many ways, is:

“(A) Any recent act or failure to act by a perpetrator which causes non-accidental serious mental injury to or sexual abuse or exploitation of a child.
(B)  An act or failure to act by a perpetrator which causes non-accidental serious physical injury to a child.
(C) A recent act or failure to act or series of the acts or failures to act by a perpetrator which creates an imminent risk of serious physical injury to or sexual abuse or exploitation of a child.
(D) Serous physical neglect by a perpetrator constituting prolonged or repeated lack of supervision or the failure to provide the essentials of life, including adequate medical care, which endangers a child’s life or development or impairs the child’s functioning.”

It is important to understand that there are multiple factors that can impact the total influence of trauma on the child experiencing it. These factors can either protect us from the trauma or plunge us deeper into it. These factors include risk factors (things that make us more vulnerable to further trauma) and protective factors (things that make us more resilient to trauma):

Risk factors:

  • low socioeconomic status,
  • substance abuse,
  • poor mental health or emotional reactivity,
  • financial difficulties,
  • poor coping style,
  • others reaction to the trauma,
  • no support system
  • lack of employment,
  • being bullied or harassed,
  • living in situations that increase one’s exposure to trauma,
  • low self-esteem,
  • lack of identity,
  • domestic violence or abuse, and
  • poor academic performance
  • homelessness

Risk factors that are combined can trigger “complex trauma” such as a child who has witnessed their mother being physically abused by his/her father and is struggling with homelessness, low income, depression, anxiety, and substance abusing parents.

The following protective factors can help build a layer of resilience:

Protective factors:

  • support system,
  • financial stability,
  • good emotional and psychological health,
  • positive coping skills,
  • connectedness with the community such as school, church, or youth/support groups
  • social or familial connections,
  • education or academic achievement,
  • employment, and
  • problem-solving skills

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin