Skip to Content

Attachment Trauma: Causes, Effects & 7 Tips On How To Heal

What Is Attachment Trauma

Attachment trauma occurs when there is a disruption or disturbance in forming a secure emotional bond between a child and their primary caregiver, typically the parent or guardian. This attachment rupture may happen due to separation, deprivation, bereavement, child abuse, or maltreatment.

Since it happens in the context of a relationship during a child’s formative years, attachment trauma is also referred to as relational trauma, developmental trauma, or complex trauma.​1​

boy cries has attachement trauma

The Importance of Attachment

Attachment is a deep, emotional bond that forms between a child and their primary caregiver.

According to the attachment theory, developed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1940s and further expanded by American psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1950s, the quality of these early bonding significantly influences a child’s emotional, social, cognitive, and brain development throughout their life.​2​

Children are biologically predisposed to form an attachment bond with their caregivers for survival. They form attachments to those they have learned through experience as available and dependable.

The development of attachment provides a sense of safety, trust, and security, enabling the child to explore their environment and develop a sense of self. 

Caregivers who are consistently available, sensitive, and responsive to a child’s needs foster the development of secure bonds. 

They serve as a secure base that allows young children to effectively develop trust, emotional regulation, social skills, and cognitive abilities.

Four distinct attachment patterns can develop based on the caregiver’s responsiveness and attunement.​3​ They are:

  1. Secure attachment style
  2. Anxious attachment style (insecure)
  3. Avoidant attachment style (insecure)
  4. Disorganized attachment style (insecure)

A child who has experienced attachment trauma may develop an insecure attachment style,​4​ associated with negative outcomes in adult life.

Also See: 5 Tips on How to Deal with Emotional Trauma From Parents

girl sitting alone with teddy bear trauma attachment

What Causes Attachment Trauma

Children experience attachment trauma when there is severe distress in the parent-child bonding process. This distress typically results from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) the child undergoes or specific traits the parent has.

Overt experiences that can cause attachment trauma include​5​

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical neglect
  • Medical neglect
  • Orphanage or institutional care
  • Family conflicts
  • High-conflict divorce
  • Hostile marital discord
  • Sudden death of a parent
  • Domestic violence
  • Life-threatening illness in the parent
  • Forced separation from parents
  • Community violence

Covert traumatic experiences that may lead to attachment issues include​6​

  • Absence of help when the child experiences emotional distress
  • The child is parentified by taking on adult responsibilities
  • The child alienates one parent under the influence of the other

Characteristics of a traumatizing attachment figure include

Also See:
Trauma types
Trauma triggers
Signs of attachment trauma in adults

teenage boy sad

Effects Of Attachment Trauma

Attachment trauma can impact a child’s cognitive development, emotional health, mental health, and future relationships. Attachment injuries can extend into adulthood.

Emotional dysregulation

Attachment trauma can have a lasting impact on the victim’s life because this type of trauma occurs when the brain is in a crucial stage of a child’s development. Children are particularly susceptible to external influences because the maturation of their emotion-processing right brain is experience-dependent.​7​

Children with attachment trauma often lack the necessary support to cope with the distress it causes and to develop emotional regulation skills.

Therefore, individuals with unresolved childhood trauma often have difficulty recognizing, expressing, and managing their emotions effectively. They may have extreme mood swings, anger, anxiety, or depression and are predisposed to violence and aggression.​8​

C-PTSD (Complex post-traumatic stress disorder)

The ongoing nature of most attachment trauma, such as neglect, abuse, or emotional unavailability, can have a cumulative effect on the child’s psychological well-being. Chronic stress can result in C-PTSD, characterized by more extensive and pervasive symptoms than traditional PTSD, including intrusive flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, and dissociation.​9​

Low self-esteem

A history of attachment trauma can contribute to low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness. The individual may internalize the belief that they do not deserve love, care, and support.​14​

Reenactment

Reenactment occurs when individuals unconsciously recreate patterns of behavior, emotions, or relationships that mirror their experience of trauma.

They might find themselves engaging in relationships that resemble the dynamics of their early attachment figures, such as choosing partners who are emotionally distant or unresponsive to their needs.

This reenactment can reinforce feelings of unworthiness and perpetuate the belief that they are undeserving of love and support, perpetuating negative self-view and preventing them from healing.

Mental illness

Children with early attachment trauma are at risk for developing mental problems.

Mental disorders, such as stress, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders, dissociative disorders, and borderline personality disorders, are more prevalent in traumatized children.​10​

Attachment disorders

Those who have experienced attachment trauma are at risk of developing attachment disorders, such as reactive attachment disorder and developmental trauma disorder.​12​

Maladaptive coping

Attachment failures impair the development of stress coping in the human brain. As a result, these individuals tend to adopt maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with distress, such as alcohol use, drug addiction, self-harm, disordered eating, etc. ​11​

Relationship difficulties

Children who grow up with insecure or trauma attachment view themselves, others, and relationships negatively. They struggle to form and maintain secure, trusting adult relationships. They may have difficulties with intimacy, commitment, communication, and trust.​13​

Also See: How trauma affects the brain

man calming sad woman

How To Heal From Attachment Trauma

If you are an adult with attachment trauma, here are some strategies and approaches to facilitate healing.

Recognize and acknowledge

Trauma isn’t always marked by physical wounds; it can also stem from fear when trapped with someone who hurts you, but you depend on. Some trauma survivors may not recognize their history or feelings until reading about it, while others might ignore or deny their past and self-blame.

Understanding your feelings and behavior is the first step toward healing.

Remember that attachment trauma is never your fault; you were just a child.

By acknowledging the trauma, you can process the emotions and memories tied to it, allowing you to work through the pain and start healing.

Establish a secure therapeutic relationship

Attachment trauma is characterized by the absence of a secure emotional connection, often caused by adverse relational experiences.

Healing from attachment trauma, therefore, involves reestablishing an emotional connection within a trusting relationship that provides feelings of safety and security.

A mental health professional experienced in attachment types issues can provide you with a safe space to make sense of your painful memories.

Choose from the different types of therapy with the help of a licensed professional counselor.

If cost is a concern, look for free therapy or low-cost professional help offered by non-profit organizations.

Check Out:

Cultivate healthy relationships

Trusting others might be difficult if you have been harmed by early trauma. But establishing secure, supportive, and nurturing connections can help to heal attachment trauma.

A healthy relationship provides a safe environment to experience trust, empathy, and emotional support.

Reach out to friends and family, or look for a support group to help you make new connections and start healing.

However, choose wisely.

Not everyone can understand the experience of trauma. Those who haven’t experienced it may not understand or may say things that make you feel discouraged despite their best intentions.

Don’t let that stop you from making connections with others. These are not the people you can share your struggles with but can still be good friends.

You can also look for a local support group to meet others tackling the same problem.

The key is relationships heal relational trauma. So don’t give up connecting with trusted people.

Develop emotional awareness and regulation

Emotional regulation is one of the most essential life skills.

Learning to identify, express, and manage emotions effectively is critical to the healing process.

Techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can help you overcome the complete lack of awareness. Managing your emotions becomes easier when you are more self-aware.

Get help to stop maladaptive behavior

Trauma survivors often resort to maladaptive coping strategies that impede their recovery. Identify these issues and seek help to address them.

If you are facing mental issues or drug addiction, call the SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for treatment referrals.

If experiencing suicidal thoughts or self-harm urges, dial 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text 988 to connect with immediate support.

Avoid unhealthy relationships

Adults with attachment trauma are more likely to get involved in unhealthy romantic relationships.

If you are in such a stressful situation, seek help to protect yourself, establish healthy boundaries, and avoid abusive intimate relationships.

Call National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or text START to 88788.

Self-compassion and self-care

Healing from childhood trauma takes time, patience, and self-compassion. 

Self-care doesn’t mean indulgent spas or massages; it’s about taking good care of yourself and treating yourself kindly.

Participate in activities that make you feel good.

For some, self-care might include maintaining a balanced diet, exercising, or prioritizing sleep. Others may find solace in reading an enjoyable book, completing a long-forgotten craft project, or reconnecting with friends.

While it may sound simple, it’s not always easy. However, it’s achievable.

It’s important to begin somewhere.

Pick one of the things on this page and start moving forward.

Love yourself even though those who were supposed to didn’t.

Also See:
The Book For Childhood Trauma Survivors
How to Recover from Authoritarian Parenting

References

  1. 1.
    Rahim M. Developmental trauma disorder: An attachment-based perspective. Clin Child Psychol Psychiatry. Published online May 16, 2014:548-560. doi:10.1177/1359104514534947
  2. 2.
    Bretherton I. The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology. Published online September 1992:759-775. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.28.5.759
  3. 3.
    Fearon RMP, Roisman GI. Attachment theory: progress and future directions. Current Opinion in Psychology. Published online June 2017:131-136. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.03.002
  4. 4.
    Erozkan A. The Link between Types of Attachment and Childhood Trauma. ujer. Published online May 2016:1071-1079. doi:10.13189/ujer.2016.040517
  5. 5.
    Breidenstine AS, Bailey LO, Zeanah CH, Larrieu JA. Attachment and Trauma in Early Childhood: A Review. Journ Child Adol Trauma. Published online December 2011:274-290. doi:10.1080/19361521.2011.609155
  6. 6.
    Liotti G. Conflicts between motivational systems related to attachment trauma: Key to understanding the intra-family relationship between abused children and their abusers. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation. Published online March 20, 2017:304-318. doi:10.1080/15299732.2017.1295392
  7. 7.
    Schore AN. Relational Trauma and the Developing Right Brain. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Published online April 2009:189-203. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04474.x
  8. 8.
    Grych JH, Kinsfogel KM. Exploring the Role of Attachment Style in the Relation between Family Aggression and Abuse in Adolescent Dating Relationships. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma. Published online August 30, 2010:624-640. doi:10.1080/10926771.2010.502068
  9. 9.
    Ford JD, Courtois CA. Complex PTSD, affect dysregulation, and borderline personality disorder. Bord Personal Disord Emot Dysregul. Published online 2014:9. doi:10.1186/2051-6673-1-9
  10. 10.
    Dillon J, Johnstone L, Longden E. Trauma, Dissociation, Attachment and Neuroscience: A New Paradigm for Understanding Severe Mental Distress. De-Medicalizing Misery II. Published online 2014:226-234. doi:10.1057/9781137304667_14
  11. 11.
    Schore AN. The effects of early relational trauma on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal. 2003;22(1):201-269.
  12. 12.
    Spinazzola J, Kolk B, Ford JD. Developmental Trauma Disorder: A Legacy of Attachment Trauma in Victimized Children. Journal of Traumatic Stress. Published online May 28, 2021:711-720. doi:10.1002/jts.22697
  13. 13.
    Negrini LS. HANDBOOK OF ATTACHMENT, THIRD EDITION: THEORY, RESEARCH, AND CLINICAL APPLICATIONS JudeCassidy and Phillip R.Shaver (Eds.), New York: Guilford Press, 2016, 1,068 pp., ISBN 978-1-4625-2529-4. Infant Ment Health J. Published online August 22, 2018:618-620. doi:10.1002/imhj.21730
  14. 14.
    Suzuki H, Tomoda A. Roles of attachment and self-esteem: impact of early life stress on depressive symptoms among Japanese institutionalized children. BMC Psychiatry. Published online February 5, 2015. doi:10.1186/s12888-015-0385-1

Updated on May 20th, 2023 by Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

    Disclaimer

    * All information on parentingforbrain.com is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *