The Ins and Outs of
Attachment Trauma

The Ins and Outs of
Attachment Trauma

As an infant, every time we cry, reach out for our caregivers, or seek comfort from them, we develop an understanding of ourselves, others, and the world. We call this bond “attachment,” and it can have a long-lasting impact on our lives.

We develop a secure or insecure attachment style depending on how our caregiver responds to our attempts for comfort when we need them. If they consistently attune to us, we form a healthy (or “secure”) bond. But if our needs aren’t met reliably, we experience attachment trauma, leading to an insecure bond. 

But what is attachment trauma? What are the signs? And most importantly, how do we heal? In this article, we’ll cover the ins and outs of attachment trauma, including:

  • What attachment is 
  • An in-depth explanation of attachment trauma
  • Common causes of attachment trauma
  • The signs of attachment trauma in adults and children
  • How to heal from attachment trauma

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What Is Attachment?

Attachment refers to the relationship we form with our primary caregiver as a child. This relationship can take many forms, depending on how our caregiver responds to us when we’re in distress. Caregivers who are attuned to and consistently respond to our needs will help us feel safe and secure in the world. As a result, we develop a secure attachment style. However, if our caregiver doesn’t consistently respond to our needs or meets us with rejection, neglect, or abuse, we will develop one of three insecure attachment styles:

Attachment and Attachment Trauma

What Is Attachment Trauma?

When our caregivers are unable to meet our emotional needs as children, attachment trauma occurs. Attachment trauma is a form of relational trauma involving a severe disruption in the bond between a caregiver and their child. Although this disruption can manifest in different ways, it typically involves the absence of healthy amounts of nurture, care, and reliable caregiving. But it’s a little more complicated than this, so let’s explore it in detail next. 

Common Causes of Attachment Trauma

There is no single cause of attachment trauma–many factors can affect the bond between a caregiver and their child. However, the typical causes tend to fall into two categories: overt or covert. 

The most common overt causes of attachment trauma are:

  • When the caregiver is a source of fear, abuse, or neglect
  • The death of a close family member (i.e., a primary caregiver or sibling)
  • Experiencing domestic violence within the home
  • A caregiver struggling with substance abuse issues
  • The absence of a caregiver due to divorce

Common covert causes of attachment trauma include:

  • A general lack of affection from the caregiver toward their child
  • When the caregiver is physically or emotionally unavailable (for example, due to a severe physical or mental health condition)
  • Postpartum difficulties, such as postpartum depression
  • Poor boundaries within the home, including parentification
  • When a caregiver manipulates or attempts to control their child by withdrawing affection or evoking shame and guilt. 

As you can see, the causes of attachment trauma can vary drastically. As a result, it can be difficult to pin down whether you have attachment trauma. However, we can learn to recognize attachment trauma by looking for common signs. 

How Do You Know If You Have Attachment Trauma?

Unprocessed attachment trauma can show up in many ways. Yet, the signs of attachment trauma in adults differ from those in children. So, let’s look at each in turn. 

Signs of Attachment Trauma in Children

The emotional bond between a child and their caregiver is essential for healthy emotional development. When there is a disruption in this relationship, there may be tell-tale signs right from early childhood. These may include, but are not limited to:

Avoidant behavior toward the caregiver

When a child seeks closeness from their caregiver but is met with rejection, they may learn to down-regulate their emotions to maintain closeness. As a result, the child may cry out less for their caregiver, not protest when they are left alone, and use distancing or self-soothing behaviors when their caregiver returns.

Anxious behavior toward the caregiver

When a caregiver doesn’t consistently meet their child’s emotional needs, the child may become unsure whether their caregiver will be available in times of distress. This can manifest as anxious behaviors, such as clinginess, dependence, and intense emotional outbursts that aren’t easy to console.

Conflicting behavior

A child who learns to fear their caregiver may alternate between avoidant and anxious behaviors, avoiding eye contact one minute and acting out for attention the next. They may also act distrustful toward their caregiver, demonstrating the lack of certainty they feel in their caregiver’s ability to care for them.

Difficulties regulating emotions

A fundamental feature of a healthy caregiver-child bond is co-regulation; when the caregiver helps their child regulate their emotions through soothing, such as rocking back and forth, using a soothing voice, or providing comforting physical touch. When this occurs, the child learns how to self-soothe and regulate their own emotions. However, when a child experiences attachment trauma, they often miss this important lesson, leading to emotion regulation difficulties as they develop.

What is Attachment Trauma?

Developmental delays

Our brains grow and restructure across the lifespan, but especially so in childhood and adolescence. During this period, we develop many important brain connections relating to safety and security. When a caregiver provides nurturing, supportive, and consistent care, this provides a foundation for their child’s healthy development. However, if a child experiences attachment trauma, they may develop at a slower rate.

Friendship difficulties

Studies repeatedly show us that relationship difficulties between the caregiver and child can make friendships more challenging in early childhood and adolescence. Children with attachment issues may find it difficult to make friends, are typically more susceptible to bullying, and may struggle to form healthy romantic relationships as adolescents.

Persistent uncooperative or aggressive behaviors

Children who experience disruptions in their early relationships may be more likely to show externalizing behaviors such as resistance, uncooperativeness, and aggression. Research also shows that babies and young children who experience attachment issues are more at risk of developing behavioral problems such as conduct disorders.

Mental health difficulties

While some children with attachment trauma develop externalizing behaviors, others internalize their difficulties, which often leads to mental health issues such as mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

Signs of Attachment Trauma in Adults

As we progress into adulthood, the symptoms of unprocessed attachment trauma often shift and change. The signs we show may depend on our attachment style, but, typically, relationship difficulties remain. 

Below, we explore common signs of attachment trauma in adults for each insecure attachment style. 

Avoidant Attachment

Trauma-blocking behaviors are one of the main signs of attachment trauma in avoidant attachers. This may involve avoidance of specific places, situations, or people that evoke triggering memories or avoidance of intimacy and dependence due to beliefs that others are unreliable and untrustworthy. Trauma-blocking behaviors may also manifest as escapism, like working excessively or using distractions. 

Another sign of attachment trauma in avoidant attachers is self-sabotage. Research indicates that avoidant attachers are more likely to have difficulties with substance abuse than secure and anxious attachers. Experts suggest that substance abuse may act as another blocking behavior, as the avoidant attacher tries to keep their difficult feelings and memories at bay. 

Mental health difficulties are also a common sign of attachment trauma in avoidantly attached adults. Evidence shows that avoidant attachers are more at risk of developing depression than securely attached individuals, partly due to continually suppressing their emotional needs. 

Anxious Attachment

Chronic pain is a common sign of attachment trauma in anxious attachers. Anxious attachers are unsure if their caregiver can adequately meet their needs in childhood, which can cause a cumulative build-up of stress over time, as they fear for their survival. As a result, anxious attachers can develop an overactive stress response system, which may result in long-term chronic pain. 

An anxious attacher’s overactive stress response system is also behind another sign of attachment trauma in anxious attachers–hypervigilance. Due to their heightened stress system, anxious attachers are often extremely sensitive to relational cues and their environment. They may be constantly on the lookout for signs of rejection, abandonment, or threats. This can cause problems in romantic relationships, as anxious attachers may become jealous or overly concerned about small details instead of being present in the moment. 

Anxious attachers also display self-sabotage as a sign of attachment trauma, but not in the same way as avoidant attachers. Instead of blocking behaviors, self-sabotage typically manifests as reassurance-seeking behaviors, overthinking and overanalyzing situations, acting in ways that conform to their negative self-beliefs, and suppressing their own needs to accommodate others’ desires. These behaviors are often driven by a fear of abandonment, which typically develops due to the unreliability of their caregivers when they were a child.

Disorganized Attachment

Disorganized attachers display their attachment trauma through an anxious and avoidant behavioral cycle. Due to their caregiver’s unpredictable behaviors, they tend to experience fear of both intimacy and abandonment, which can both feel and appear extremely confusing. As a result, a disorganized attacher may crave intimacy one minute through intense closeness seeking, then push a loved one away when they become too close and activate the disorganized attacher’s fear of intimacy. 

Like the other insecure attachment styles, one sign of attachment trauma in disorganized attachers is self-sabotaging behaviors. In disorganized attachers, this often manifests as substance abuse, impulsive behaviors, sabotaging relationships, isolating themselves, continual self-criticism, and repeating traumatic patterns in romantic relationships. 

Another common sign of attachment trauma in disorganized attachers is unpredictable reactions to stress. Although all insecurely attached individuals are usually not taught how to regulate their emotions in effective ways, disorganized attachers appear to struggle with this the most. This may be due to their caregiver’s extremely unpredictable behaviors, resulting in stress not only feeling scary but traumatic. Therefore, when a disorganized attacher feels stressed, they may display extreme reactions such as rage, anxiety, or dissociation.

Healing Attachment Trauma

Attachment trauma can have a significant impact on our lives as children, and many of these difficulties progress into adulthood. As a result, we may struggle with several aspects of our lives, such as our friendships, relationships, and mental health. But it’s important to know that it’s entirely possible to heal attachment trauma and overcome these problems.

#1 Attachment and Trauma Therapy

Therapy can help us address our attachment trauma through assisting us in understanding our experiences and expressing our emotions. 

Therapy can also support us in healing attachment trauma through reparenting. Reparenting refers to how your therapist attunes to your unmet emotional needs (much like a primary caregiver), helping you to move on from your past experiences. 

Furthermore, the relationship with your therapist will help you identify the important features of a healthy relationship, such as boundaries, empathy, compassion, and non-judgment, which you can then apply to your other relationships.

#2 Form Healthy Relationships

Unhealthy relationships are what attachment trauma stems from. So, one way to overcome attachment trauma is to form healthy relationships in your adult life. This involves building relationships built on trust, empathy, boundaries, and safety. But it also encompasses identifying people that don’t fit into this box – are there any people in your adult life that make you feel unsafe? That trigger your attachment trauma? Recognizing this can help you form healthier relationships with these individuals by putting boundaries in place or by removing them from your life.

#3 Learn to Regulate Your Emotions

As we now know, emotional regulation is one lesson many insecure attachers don’t learn in childhood. Therefore, to heal from attachment trauma, we need to learn how to understand and regulate our emotions. 

Relaxation techniques like meditation, mindfulness, and yoga can help us develop the self-awareness we need to understand our emotions and how they feel in our bodies. Likewise, exercise can help us become more in tune with our bodies and regulate difficult emotions.

Final Word on Attachment Trauma

When a child experiences a disruption in the bond between themselves and their caregiver, attachment trauma occurs. This attachment trauma can manifest in avoidant, anxious, or disorganized behaviors in childhood, which can progress into adulthood. Adults with unprocessed attachment trauma may also show self-sabotaging behaviors relating to their insecure attachment style.

Despite the difficulties attachment trauma may cause, we can overcome our childhood experiences. By seeking support from a therapist, forming healthy relationships, and learning how to regulate our emotions, we can begin to heal from attachment trauma.

When a child experiences a disruption in the bond between themselves and their caregiver, attachment trauma occurs. This attachment trauma can manifest in avoidant, anxious, or disorganized behaviors in childhood, which can progress into adulthood. Adults with unprocessed attachment trauma may also show self-sabotaging behaviors relating to their insecure attachment style.

Despite the difficulties attachment trauma may cause, we can overcome our childhood experiences. By seeking support from a therapist, forming healthy relationships, and learning how to regulate our emotions, we can begin to heal from attachment trauma.

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