A few weeks ago, I rode on an airplane. There was an older woman sitting next to me, and every time the place jostled, I thought, “This lady and I are going to hold hands and die together.”
Sort of laughable, sort of pathetic. Either way, I kept thinking about the bond we would share if we lived through the crashing of a plane together.
The technical term for the bond two humans build when they survive something awful together is “trauma bonding.”
Kids from unsafe home lives often form trauma bonds with the people around them, whether it be other family members, neighbors, or strangers. Let me explain.
When siblings endure physical or emotional abuse at the hands of their parents, they often form a trauma bond. They find comfort in one another and know that they’re the only two people who understand what they’ve gone through. They rely on one another for survival, for confiding in, and for peace.
When a child and a mother endure physical/emotional abuse at the hands of a father, the mother and child can form a trauma bond with one another. They share their own secrets, their own ways of keeping one another safe, plans of what they’ll do if things get too bad. They form a camaraderie that is unnatural for a mother and child, but they’ve formed it out of necessity.
Students who go through disasters with their classmates form trauma bonds. The students of Sandy Hook. The kids of Joplin, MO, who went through the tornado. The kids of Columbine. I could go on forever.
Trauma bonds can obviously happen in adults as well, but when they involve children, it shifts the way that child’s brain develops. Depending on where the child’s brain is developmentally, how severe the trauma is, and how often the trauma happens, trauma bonds can either be short-lived or deeply ingrained in the child’s brain.
I worked with a little boy last year who had formed a trauma bond with his biological sister while they’d grown up being physically and sexually abused together. His trauma caused attachment and anger disorders, but it also created an extremely unhealthy bond between him and his sister. Their bond was so inappropriate that they had to be permanently separated for the sake of both kids’ health.
Families who are going through separation at the border right now are forming trauma bonds with one another, especially siblings who stay together while their parents are removed. (This is not an invitation to political conversations, and I will delete your comments if you attempt it.)
I’ve read many, many articles about people who went through horrors like war, or the Holocaust, or The Great Depression, who’ve bonded to strangers because of what they experienced together.
The siblings of a child with a severe mental illness often bond to one another. In several families close to me, I think it would be likely that their children who do not have mental health concerns will form a trauma bond with one another after living the life they do. When your brother/sister constantly makes you fear for your own life or the life of your parents because they are Schizophrenic, Reactive Attachment, or severely ODD, you learn to live in survival. When you have another sibling who is living through that survival with you, you might form a trauma bond.
And a lot of those kids don’t even realize they’ve bonded in that way until they’re much older.
While severe trauma almost always forms these bonds, it’s still important to recognize that “simple” trauma can also cause them.
My sister and I formed (what I realized many years later was) a trauma bond as kids. It wasn’t from the hands of abuse, but instead from a lot of years of being each other’s only source of comfort at babysitter’s houses. Our parents worked A LOT because they were trying to make life better for us. Out of necessity, we spent a lot of years with revolving babysitters. Even when the babysitters were nice (which thankfully, they all were), we clung to each other because of the sameness we found in one another.
That sense of dependence on one another for comfort started the bond, but it didn’t lean toward an unhealthy trauma bond until we were a little older. We watched our parents go through the death of many friends and family members, and as they grieved, we clung to each other because we didn’t know how to be a part of that adult world filled with death. We confided in one another as normal siblings do, but we depended on each other. The co-dependence was the difference between a normal bond and a trauma bond.
We wouldn’t even sleep in separate beds, although we had them.
Then when we were 12 and 14, we were in a car accident with our mom where she was very close to dying. I’m not exaggerating – she didn’t leave a hospital bed for three months. Our parents lost their business, our mom lost her independence, and we lost an entire summer of being able to watch our mother move. The only people who understand what we were going through was each other.
That year, we formed a trauma bond that had been given a head start from the years prior.
The reason it’s important to recognize these types of bonds in kids is because we need to teach them that not all bonds have to be formed out of necessity. And beyond that, just because you don’t feel THAT bonded in other relationships, it doesn’t mean those relationships are missing anything.
You SHOULDN’T feel that bonded to everyone you love. It’s unhealthy.
I don’t want all of my bonds with people to be the same as the one I have with my sister. That would mean I’ve endured traumatic moments with all of those people, and I don’t want that.
It’s important for us to teach that trauma bonding doesn’t have to last forever and isn’t a normal, healthy example of attachment.
Our foster daughter needs to know that the way she was taught to interact with her siblings isn’t normal or appropriate. A little girl shouldn’t go to sleep every night worrying whether or not her Autistic brother will be hurt/suffocated/abused/bullied while he’s sleeping. Siblings should feel protective over one another, naturally, but they shouldn’t feel the weight of their sibling’s life and death on their shoulders.
That type of weight isn’t normal, and it has to be fully processed.
If there are kids in your life who’ve formed a trauma bond with one another (or with an adult), it’s okay to encourage them to find a therapist who knows how to handle their specific situation. If you formed a trauma bond with someone when you were little, it’s okay to work through that with a therapist or talk with the person you’ve bonded with. It’s okay.
Working through those bonds is the only way we can reach real healthiness.