I love my kids. They’re thoughtful, spirited and oftentimes downright wacky. And, unlike some of their friends, they still don’t mind hanging around the “old lady” in public. So, when things turned toward the awkward after my divorce, I discovered the answer in the duck test story — it was trauma bonding.
When things got weird: Trauma bonding & my children
Like so many other parents, I’ve spent my fair share of oppressive summer evenings at treeless sports complexes. I’ve cheered, I’ve consoled, I’ve kept my kids well stocked in Gatorade. Things were always easy between us before the divorce; they didn’t keep me at a distance, just because their pals were around.
But things went topsy-turvy when my marriage ended. Then, instead of taking the kids to their activities myself, I sometimes arrived on my own, sat on the sidelines and watched. Not a big deal in and of itself, but it was the kids’ reactions to me on the evenings when they arrived with Darkness that I didn’t understand.
See, when I drove them to their games, they were their über social selves, frequently chatting with both their dad and myself, as well as any other man, woman or child they knew who happened to pass on by.
But when they arrived at games with Darkness, things were very different between us. They would still frequently check in with their dad, but they wouldn’t walk over to say hello to me.
What was wrong?
They’d occasionally catch me watching them and give me a quick smile and half wave, but that was it. I remember thinking how odd all of it was, how uncomfortable they seemed.
Have you heard of the duck test story?
Deep into my second summer “out,” I started doing some reading on trauma bonding. And it was in a therapy session that I wondered out loud if trauma bonding might have played a roll in my kids’ relationship with Darkness. They did tell the guardian ad litem they wanted to spend more time with their dad, after all; even after sharing with me that they feared him.
That’s when my therapist asked me if she’d ever shared, “the duck story.”
Uh, no. But she did that day, and it was an a-ha moment, for sure.
What a mechanical duck teaches us about trauma bonding
My therapist pulled out a well-worn copy of, “Get Me Out Of Here: My recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder,” by Rachel Reiland. In it, the author was being asked to examine the nature of her relationship with her parents, and the deep attachment she had to them.
That’s when her therapist shared the duck-test story with her:
“Some scientists were conducting an experiment,” he said, “trying to gauge the impact of abuse on children. Ducks, like people, develop bonds between mother and young. They call it imprinting. So the scientists set out to test how that imprint bond would be affected by abuse.
“The control group was a real mother duck and her ducklings. For the experimental group, the scientist used a mechanical duck they had created – feathers, sound, and all – which would, at timed intervals, peck the ducklings with its mechanical beak. A painful peck, one a real duck would not give. They varied these groups. Each group was pecked with a different level of frequency. And then they watched the ducklings grow and imprint bond with their mother.
“Over time,” he went on, “the ducklings in the control group would waddle along behind their mother. But as they grew, there would be more distance between them. They’d wander and explore.
“The ducklings with the pecking mechanical mother, though, followed much more closely. Even the scientists were stunned to discover that the group that bonded and followed most closely was the one that had been pecked repeatedly with the greatest frequency. The more the ducklings were pecked and abused, the more closely they followed. The scientist repeated the experiment and got the same results.”
The author then wrote, “It was a compelling story that resonated within me. Even I had to admit the possibility that my fierce loyalty to my parents may not have been because I wasn’t abused, but because I had been.”
It was a story that struck a chord with me, as well. It shed light on why the kids felt so comfortable going off on their own when they were with me, yet seemed attached to their father’s hip when they were with him.
Why an understanding of trauma bonding is important from a legal perspective
Unfortunately, the kids’ guardian ad litem didn’t seem to thoroughly understand the complicated dynamics of trauma bonding.
In their interviews, the kids spoke of verbal and emotional abuse on one hand, but expressed their desire to spend more time with their abusive father on the other.
What could the GAL do?
The kids seemed to want to invest in their “close relationship” with their dad. It was the right thing to do—to support their requests with a more balanced placement arrangement, right?
Well, from the perspective of someone who didn’t quite “get it,” it would certainly appear to be the right thing to do.
It was not.
Yes, the kids had deep attachments to Darkness, but those attachments weren’t healthy; they were the result of trauma bonding. And because their requests to spend more time with their dad didn’t match up with my concerns for my children, they have now been exposed to years of continued abuse — and without me to act as a buffer.
So, here’s the important question you need to make sure your children’s guardian ad litem is asking:
Is the close bond this child shares with their parent the result of a lifetime of love and nurturing — or years of systematic abuse?
Because to the uneducated, they may appear to be one and the same.
Mother duck wins out
The great news is that the kids and I are doing much better now, thank goodness. We’ve grown, and we’ve had lots and lots (and lots) of therapy.
Heck, they even walk up to me on tropical summer nights with their mechanical duck in sight, begging me for Gatorade.
I love it.