Attachment trauma is the interruption of important bonding processes between an infant or child and its primary caregiver. This trauma can be overt abuse or neglect, or it can be less obvious, such as a lack of consistent emotional care from the primary caregiver.Attachment trauma can take the form of basic interpersonal neglect (neglect trauma) or physical, psychological, or sexual abuse (commission trauma). In many cases, both types of injuries are combined. Attachment trauma often results in “disoriented-disorganized” attachment. Attachment trauma is an early form of relational trauma that occurs when the healthy bond between an infant or child and its primary caregiver is disrupted.
Healthy attachment occurs when a caregiver regularly and consistently provides comfort, care, and basic needs. Poor attachment, inappropriate responses to infant distress, lack of attachment, abusive behavior, and absence of caregivers can contribute to children’s traumatic experiences.
The effects of attachment trauma can be profound, as a positive caregiver-child bond helps build patterns for healthy development, self-esteem, self-regulation, and the development of other relationships. Trauma to this important bond can lead to problems ranging from poor social development to severe mental illness.
While conversations around terms like attachment style and attachment theory are becoming more popular, little is said about how attachment trauma affects our lives physically, mentally, and emotionally. Attachment trauma is felt physically.
Relationships cause your nervous system to go into fight, flight, or freeze mode,” Monroe explains. Monroe, who is also a trauma therapist, said relationship trauma can be an ongoing, cumulative stress that builds up in the body over time in visible and invisible ways.
Attachment trauma often results in disoriented-disorganized attachment, a pattern that in turn increases the risk of further abuse and neglect. In addition to relationship problems, attachment trauma is also linked to our overall mental health, according to a 2012 study.
What is an attachment?
In psychology, attachment refers to the primary social and relational connections a child has with, for example, a mother or father. The main caregiver in a child’s life is usually the person to which he or she is attached, and that is usually the mother. It can also be the father, older sibling, grandparent, or another guardian who spends the most time with the child and provides the majority of care.
The process of attachment begins very early in childhood. This process involves many elements of the infant-caregiver bond, including comfort, physical attachment, meeting basic survival needs, and developing a sense of self for others. How this process works, and whether it is healthy, deficient, or trauma-related, can have a profound effect on a person’s relationships with others throughout life.
Types of attachment
Attachment theory in psychology outlines four different types of attachment that a child develops with his or her primary caregiver. These styles influence how a person later develops relationships and whether he or she is largely successful or experiences many conflicts and problems.
According to researchers, about 60 percent of people develop a secure attachment style. The caregivers of these people are loving and devoted and respond appropriately and sensitively to the distress of the infant or child.
Secure. With a secure attachment, a person feels comfortable expressing emotions, is more secure in relationships and is more likely to deal with negative situations and emotions in a healthy way.
Avoidant. Attachment avoidance or attachment avoidance occurs when the caregiver is insensitive or unresponsive to the child’s distress. Then the child is more likely to avoid showing emotions or turn to the caregiver for comfort. Later in life, a person can be emotionally distant and lack expression.
Anxious. Anxious or preoccupied attachment results from caregivers’ inconsistent or unpredictable comfort and response to distress. The child may use strategies such as needs or extreme emotional reactions to get the caregiver’s attention. In adulthood, the person who forms this attachment may feel very insecure in relationships and may seem needy and brooding, always looking for comfort.
Disorganized. Disorganized attachment occurs when the caregiver’s behavior is atypical or frightening in some way. Children do not have a clear strategy for seeking comfort or attention, which can lead to chaotic relationships later in life.
What causes attachment trauma?
“Your nervous system is constantly learning how to communicate with people. Most importantly, is it safe to communicate? There are all these obvious ways to feel insecure, but there are also really hidden ways that we start to feel insecure, shut down, or embolden,” Monroe said.
Monroe explained that attachment trauma has both obvious and hidden causes. The obvious causes of attachment trauma are:
- Family separation
- Family loss, such as the death of a parent or sibling
- Postpartum problems
- Physical neglect, such as lack of basic needs such as food or water
- Abuse that can be physical, sexual, or emotional
- Relatives facing life-threatening illnesses
- Caregivers with substance use disorders
- Domestic violence
Hidden causes of attachment trauma include a primary caregiver or relative:
- Physically or emotionally unavailable
- Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or eating disorders may prevent them from being with their children
- Inherited traumas that they have not dealt with and unwittingly pass on to their children
- Poor boundaries and a tendency to treat children as a friend
- Objectify the child’s body
- Use mind manipulation strategies such as not being affectionate, humiliating the child, or not validating their feelings through gaslighting
Different types of attachment disorders
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) recognizes that there are several different types of these disorders. Both types of disorders have symptoms associated with children and adults.
Reactive Attachment Disorder
Symptoms appear in early childhood if the child is exposed to abuse or neglect.
- Children have a lower level of interaction with others.
- Little or no emotion may be shown in social interactions.
- They may have difficulty calming down in stressful situations.
- They may seem sad, unhappy, irritable, or scared when going about their normal activities with their caregivers.
- Resist emotions
- Can’t read other people’s emotions
- Difficulty expressing love
- Anger problem
- Low confidence
- Difficulty maintaining relationships
Social Participation Disorder
This disorder occurs when a child is socially neglected and lacks stable attachment from a parent or caregiver in the first two years of life. Children with this disorder may experience the following symptoms:
- Few social boundaries
- Extreme social skills
- Ability to approach and converse with strangers
If children are not trained well in this area, they may experience the following symptoms:
- Complete lack of awareness of social boundaries
- Extreme trust in strangers
- Ask pressing questions of someone you’ve just met
- Other behaviors that indicate a lack of inhibition
Treatment of attachment trauma in adults
As image-bearers of God, we were wired and created to develop and enjoy intimate bonds with others. In turn, attachment wounding often causes deep distress and creates difficulty in truly connecting with others. Healing from attachment trauma is rarely a straightforward journey and is one that requires the attuned presence and skilled guidance of a therapist who is well-trained in working with attachment difficulties.
Treatment for attachment trauma is usually administered through psychotherapy. You can receive help and support as you process attachment trauma and learn to live and love in a positive, healthy way.
Group therapy is also an option because the group is a safe base from which you can express what you have experienced as a child and as an adult. Medication may be needed to treat depression or anxiety.
If you are an adult with attachment trauma, you can get help. Please get in touch with our offices and speak to a Christian counselor with experience in treating people with attachment trauma.
“Newborn”, Courtesy of Nathan Dumlao, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Child with Arms Crossed”, Courtesy of Chinh Le Duc, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Reaching Out”, Courtesy of Toa Heftiba, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hands of Love”, Courtesy of Bhuvanesh Gupta, Unsplash.com, CC0 License