No one will ever know exactly what happened to Ashley Trella in her first three years, but it’s clear she was neglected.
Ashley and her sister and brother finally came to the attention of state Child Protective Services when their mother fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand, starting a fire that killed the woman and scarred Ashley and her siblings.
The scars on her skin, however, healed more easily than the scars within. The lack of a secure relationship with her drug-abusing mother left the child deeply distrustful and unable to love.
When she and her older sister, Didi, came to live with their adoptive family in Chandler, Didi lashed out with temper tantrums. Ashley would not make eye contact.
“Her affection had absolutely nothing to it. It was forced,” said her adoptive mother, Barb Trella. “She was quiet. She had locked it all up inside.”
A year of therapy helped Ashley release some of those emotions and learn to trust, the foundation for a loving relationship with her new mother and, ultimately, everyone else.
Among the many things that babies learn in the first year, the most fundamentally important is trust. As their brains are growing and making connections based on what they see, hear, smell and taste, their brains also are learning to love.
After babies learn they can rely on somebody and begin to distinguish people, from about 9 months old, they start forming their first attachment. That intense relationship provides the framework for all those that follow and the beginning of the child’s self-esteem - if mommy loves me, I must be a good baby.
“Human beings are social beings,” said Dr. Robin Blitz, a developmental pediatrician at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. “We need to have those relationships for our brain to form normally.”
When a baby’s needs aren’t met - because of abuse, neglect, illness, multiple care givers or unstable homes - those neurological pathways don’t form. If they can’t depend on the same person to care for them, they become fiercely independent, oppositional, manipulative, angry and seemingly without a conscience. Emotionally, they are flat.
“Those kids are at much higher risk for drug and alcohol abuse,” Blitz said. “They are at much higher risk for being victims of crime, or being involved in the juvenile justice system.”
Children who have had secure attachments that were broken may respond in the opposite way, reaching out and showing affection indiscriminately.
An estimated 37 percent of U.S. foster children have attachment disorder, and clearly the abuse and neglect they endured puts them at high risk. But other children and their parents may have “bumpy” attachments that, while not diagnosed as a full-blown disorder, still dampen the child’s self-confidence and result in difficult relationships later in life.
“Kids who are born into families who are good families and who do things correctly can still have some issues,” said Marsha Usdane, a Scottsdale attachment therapist and director of Dillon Southwest adoption agency.
Her youngest client was a baby who had colic and hadn’t grown attached to mom or dad. The constant crying kept the parents from nurturing the child, feeding into their negative image of the baby and their guilt at not being able to help him. Meanwhile, the baby got the message that no one was consoling him when he cried.
Even the tiniest babies pick up on what’s going on around them and can sense the fear or stress of others, said Jan Martner, director of family health and wellness for Southwest Human Development.
“Parents who think that they can just argue night and day and night and day and it’s not going to have an effect (on their small children) are kidding themselves,” Martner said.