Attachment trauma is a disruption in the bond between a child and caregiver or parent. This form of trauma can result from experiences like neglect, abandonment, or abuse. People who experience attachment trauma may struggle emotionally and socially in adulthood. Fortunately, there are ways to heal from attachment trauma with the help of self-care and therapy.
What Is Attachment?
Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby and later expanded on by Mary Ainsworth, refers to the connection between an infant and their caregiver.1,2 When a caregiver is attentive to a child’s needs, consistently provides warmth and support, and soothes them when they are distressed, the child feels securely attached.3 Attachment theory states that the quality of the infant/caregiver attachment impacts how a child connects with other people throughout their lives. This initial relationship with a caregiver lays the foundation for future relationships.
Types of Attachment
According to experts, people develop attachment styles based on their relationships with early caregivers.3 A securely attached child feels that their caregiver is sensitive to their needs, loving, and is able to provide comfort and support if they are in distress. This attachment style is associated with the best outcomes in childhood and adulthood. When children are raised with caregivers who do not consistently provide care and support, they may develop an insecure attachment. As a result, the child develops coping mechanisms to deal with the distress of not having their needs met, such as avoidance or extreme clinginess.
The four types of attachment styles are:
- Avoidant: This is an insecure attachment style that develops when a child cannot count on a parent to consistently meet their needs. As a result, the child becomes detached and avoids closeness with other people as a way to cope.
- Anxious: This insecure attachment style develops when a caregiver is inconsistent. The child cannot trust that they will always be cared for, which creates anxiety. People with an anxious attachment often struggle with separation.
- Disorganized: This is another insecure attachment style that develops when a child is raised in an unpredictable environment with inconsistent caregivers, and can be considered a mix of anxious and avoidant attachments. Children who develop a disorganized attachment style often grow up in families where abuse and substance use are present.
- Secure: This healthy form of attachment develops when a parent consistently responds to a child with love and warmth and soothes them when they are distressed. The child feels safe, loved, and trusts that they can count on the parent to meet their needs.
What Is Attachment Trauma?
Attachment trauma is a form of trauma that occurs when an infant or child’s needs for safety, closeness, and support are not met by a caregiver.4 It involves a disruption in the attachment bond between a child and parent. These traumas could be overt, like in cases of abuse, or more subtle, such as being emotionally neglected by a parent. A loss of a parent to death, divorce, or abandonment can also cause attachment trauma. In these instances, a child is left without a supportive, stable caregiver who can help them regulate distress.
With attachment trauma, the caregiver is either not present, or is present but interacts in a way that leads the child to develop insecure attachment styles and different types of anxiety, such as separation anxiety, panic, and fear.4 The child feels alone and learns that others cannot be trusted. Attachment trauma is associated with developing insecure attachment styles. Children who have experienced attachment trauma may experience emotional disorders, such as emotional dysregulation, and may struggle with relationships as they get older.
How Much Do Infants Remember When It Comes to Traumatic Experiences?
Infants can remember traumatic events that occur before they are able to communicate.5 Research shows that infants and toddlers feel pain when exposed to traumatic events. These events are stored in a child’s memory and can later affect their learning and behavior.6 Attachment trauma also affects the brain’s stress coping systems. This puts children at risk for future mental health problems and impacts the functioning of the right hemisphere of the brain.
What Causes Attachment Trauma?
Attachment trauma can occur when there is a disruption in the bond between a child and caregiver. Every parent has moments where they become frustrated, angry, or lack patience with their children, and minor instances of this are common. However, attachment trauma refers to serious events that disrupt the parent/child relationship, such as a parent abandoning, abusing, or neglecting a child.4
Some potential causes of attachment trauma might include:4
- Physical, emotional, or sexual trauma
- Parental mental illness
- Death of a parent
Signs of Attachment Trauma in Adults
Attachment trauma can lead to insecure attachment in adults.7 People who have experienced attachment trauma may struggle in relationships, especially romantic ones. They may suffer from relationship anxiety and become fearful that their partner may leave, or they may stay distant and avoid intimacy altogether.
Other common signs of attachment trauma in adults may include:7
- A strong need for independence, autonomy, and control in relationships
- Difficulty feeling closeness with others and avoiding relationships that require closeness
- OR, strong need for closeness with others, to the point that it may drive other people away
- Being on alert for signs that another person is unhappy in a relationship
- Questioning one’s self-worth
- Viewing a romantic partner in black-or-white terms, such as all good or all bad
Consequences of Poor or Incomplete Attachment
Experiencing attachment trauma as an infant or child can lead to an insecure attachment style in adulthood.7 This can affect a person’s sense of self, as well as their relationships.
The impact of attachment trauma may vary from person to person, but some common consequences include:
Difficulty in Interpersonal Relationships
Experiencing a negative and unsupportive relationship with a primary caregiver can make it difficult to establish healthy and supportive connections as you get older. You may find yourself constantly worried and anxious that your partner or friends might leave you, causing you to come off as clingy, or you may take a different approach and remain detached toward others, which can cause people to experience you as cold or distant.
Unstable or Negative Sense of Self
Attachment trauma can also affect your feelings toward yourself. You may struggle with low self-esteem, a fragile sense of self, or a tendency to be extremely self-reliant. Even though self-reliance may seem like a positive trait, excessive self-reliance can be harmful and may lead to burnout.
Coping With Attachment Trauma
While attachment trauma can be painful, healing from trauma is possible. By taking steps to care for yourself and seeking support, you can work through your past trauma.
Here are five ways to begin healing from attachment trauma:
1. Understand the Impact of Your Past
Acknowledging the impact of your past is an important early step in healing from childhood trauma. It can be painful to think about your early childhood experiences, but empathizing with how you felt as an infant or child is important. You can then shift your focus to the present by reflecting on how your early childhood has impacted how you behave in your adult relationships. Understanding your patterns is one of the first steps toward change and healing.
2. Develop Connections That Encourage Strength & Resilience
Once you are aware of your patterns in relationships and how your past has shaped them, you can choose to approach building connections in a different way. Seek out relationships that are mutually beneficial. If you feel like you are being taken advantage of, put down, or abused, you can choose to end those relationships or set healthy boundaries. If you are struggling in this area, a good therapist can help you. You can also consider support groups, group therapy, or recreational activities where you can meet like-minded people. And remember that building relationships is a process that takes time.
3. Get Comfortable With Honest Communication
Communication is an important life skill that most of us are not taught. We tend to follow the examples set by our family and peers. Assertive communication involves expressing your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a clear manner. It is firm, but respectful. It differs from passive communication, where you give in to others, and aggressive communication, where you aggressively demand from others. If you’re struggling with healthy communication, you may consider learning more about the topic, practicing, or seeking therapy for more help.
4. Connect With Your Body
Attachment trauma can impact how you feel about yourself and your body. Making an effort to connect with yourself and your body can help you heal. There are many ways you can approach this, including doing a body scan meditation, meditation, mindfulness, exercise you enjoy, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga. Breathwork, taking note of how your body feels when you move, and establishing your own limits and boundaries for your body can help you feel more connected and in control. Research on yoga for trauma is still emerging, but shows promising results.8 If possible, it may be best to find a yoga teacher that specifically works with trauma healing.
5. Consider Trauma-Focused Therapy
Therapy can help you explore your attachment trauma and understand its impact on you today. Developing a therapeutic relationship with a provider you trust also gives you the opportunity to experience a secure attachment. This experience can be transformative and can help you cultivate other safe connections in your life.
A trauma-focused therapist can also teach you healthy ways to communicate, set boundaries, and cope with negative feelings. There are several different types of therapy that treat trauma, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).9 You can find a therapist by asking for a referral from a friend or healthcare provider, or by searching an online directory.
Signs That You’re Healing From Attachment Trauma
Healing from attachment trauma is a complex process. It involves working through your past traumas, understanding how they have impacted you, and developing new beliefs and behaviors in relationships. It can be hard to know if you’re healing. Depending on the person, the process can take months or even years.
Some signs that you’re healing from attachment trauma can be:
- You have close and meaningful relationships
- You’re able to communicate your feelings to others
- You’re able to set healthy boundaries in your relationships
- You have a healthy view of others and understand that people are imperfect
- You accept your past
- You have self-confidence
If you’re working on healing from attachment trauma and are not seeing results, don’t panic. It takes time to heal. You may consider trying something that you haven’t tried before, like seeing a therapist. Either way, don’t give up. Healing from attachment trauma is possible.
Attachment trauma is painful, but healing is possible. It can be difficult to do on your own, but therapy, self-care, learning new ways to communicate, and connecting with yourself and others can be helpful. If you are struggling, working with a therapist that specializes in attachment issues can help you work through your past and start the healing process.