Understanding FASD & Attachment Disorders

Contributed by Kelly Eggleston MS.LPC, Chief Executive Officer of Alaska Attachment and Bonding (AABA)

The disruption of mother-child interactions has a profound effect on children with impaired cognitive and emotional development (Lyons-Roth et al 2000). This impairment may be the result of alcohol or drug exposure or due to neglect. Mothers who are drinking or using substances are not available for their children. Although prenatal alcohol exposure can be related to higher levels of insecure attachment, it has been found that children whose mothers were able to provide them with emotional support were more able to deal with frustration (O’Connor et al 2001). A child who is unable to communicate their needs, or feel safe experiences a great deal of frustration and fear. Their brains may be on a constant fight or flight response.

We know that most kids who are diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FAS) have some degree of attachment disorder. Many children with FAS who have been placed in healthy nurturing homes from birth may still display symptoms of attachment disorder.  We also know that a number of individuals with FAS have the most severe attachment disorder ( Reactive Attachment Disorder) which is due in most cases to the combination of permanent brain damage and difficulty in the bonding process. Prenatal alcohol brain damage may interfere with the child’s ability to develop reciprocal relationships, develop a mature working conscience or to become fully self-reliant. Please keep in mind that this does not mean that such bonding is not possible.

Alcohol exposure negatively impacts the child’s ability to interact with others in many ways:
•    Their capacity to form attachments is affected.
•    Results in stressed attachments.
•    Self-regulation is poor.
•    They may be unpredictable and unreliable.
•    They may have sensory interpretation difficulties.
•    They may demonstrate a poor understanding of verbal communication.
•    And they have a higher awareness of non-verbal communication.

These are the children we often see being placed into foster care or under the custody of the state, either due to substance use or neglect.  With the increase in heroin use, combined with continued use of other substances, we are seeing an increase of children going into placement in Alaska, whether in foster care or the adoption system. Foster and adoptive parents are not always aware of the history of the children placed in their care either due to the unavailability of the information or due to the emergency of the placement.

According to an article in the Alaska Dispatch News (2/13/16: DRAMATIC SPIKE IN FOSTER CHILDREN OVERWHELMING STATE AGENCIES; by Lisa Demer), the rates of out of home placements have increased in Alaska by 750 children in the last 2 years. These rates continue to increase. 

January 2012    1860
January 2013    1954
January 2014    2051
January 2015    2438
January 2016    2802

Of those children placed, 18% of the confirmed cases of abuse or neglect were repeat victims in the space of one year. Nationally the average is 9%. The Office of Children’s Services has identified that there are more children coming into the system than are leaving. Of the children placed in January 2013, 852 of them were under the age of five. This is an important factor when you consider that attachment disorders often result from trauma or neglect experienced in the first three years of life.

Abudato & Cohen 2011, supported the effects of these placements on children. They stated that most of these children have had multiple placements prior to the age of 5. These children show poor relational and social connections and may have been neglected early on with very little stimulation. Alcohol abuse on the part of the mother also impairs maternal organizational and emotional regulation, which in turn affects her ability to care for her baby.

As foster or adoptive  parents begin the process of learning about this new being, determining their likes and dislikes, and their special needs, there are 4 stages of learning that have been identified. 
1) The new parents are struggling with the challenging child and questioning their abilities as a parent.
 2) The parents are realizing that there is something wrong and fighting to get a diagnosis or some help.
 3) Undergoing attachment therapy and implementing therapeutic parenting techniques.
 4) Learning to live with a child who is healing and becoming a “regular child.” 

More than anything else these children want to be “Normal.” They want to be like other kids and they want to feel and be safe.  As you continue on this journey with them I wish you only the best…
The best supports….
The best therapies…..
The best feelings…
The best relationships….

We cannot give or share what we do not have….

Kelly Eggleston MS.LPC is the Chief Executive Officer of Alaska Attachment and Bonding (AABA), an organization in Wasilla, Alaska which was formed by a group of mothers to provide information and resources to foster, guardianship and kinship parents of children diagnosed or experiencing Reactive Attachment Disorder. We currently provide education, resources and information to parents and providers regarding all Attachment Disorders. AABA has a Facebook page as well as a web page for additional information. We provide mini workshops and trainings in the Wasilla area. In addition we have a lending library and DVDs of our trainings available for purchase.