Attachment trauma arises when there is an interruption in the development of a secure emotional bond between a child and their primary caregiver, typically the parent or guardian.
Attachment is the strong emotional connection a child forms with their primary caregiver, and it can affect a child’s emotional, social, and cognitive development throughout their life. Attachment trauma develops when there is chronic stress in the parent-child relationship. This can lead to long-lasting effects on the child’s mental health, emotional well-being, and interpersonal relationships, and the effects can persist into adulthood.
Healing from attachment trauma is possible by reestablishing an emotional connection within secure and trusting relationships that can foster feelings of safety and security.
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 disturbance can be caused by factors such as child abuse, neglect, separation, or inconsistent parenting.
Since attachment trauma happens in the context of a relationship, this type of trauma is also referred to as relational trauma. Attachment trauma is a type of developmental trauma because it happens during a child’s formative years and is also called complex trauma because the symptoms tend to be more complex and difficult to treat.1
What is attachment?
Attachment is the strong emotional connection a child forms with their primary caregiver, and it can affect a child’s emotional, social, and cognitive development throughout their life.2
The attachment theory, proposed by John Bowlby and further developed by Mary Ainsworth, suggests that children naturally seek to create these bonds with caregivers for survival.
When the caregiver is consistently present, understanding, and meets the child’s needs, a secure attachment forms. This attachment bond helps the child feel safe and confident to explore and develop a sense of self. The secure relationship also helps the child learn to trust others, manage emotions, and interact socially.
Four distinct attachment patterns can develop based on the caregiver’s responsiveness.3
- Secure attachment style
- Anxious attachment style (insecure)
- Avoidant attachment style (insecure)
- Disorganized attachment style (insecure)
A child who has experienced attachment trauma may develop an insecure attachment style associated with negative outcomes in adult life.4
What Causes Attachment Trauma?
Children experience attachment trauma when there is overwhelming 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 the following.5
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Emotional neglect
- Physical neglect
- Orphanage or institutional care
- Family conflicts
- Domestic violence
- High-conflict divorce
- Hostile marital discord
- Sudden death of a parent
- Life-threatening illness in the parent
- Forced separation from parents
- Community violence
Covert traumatic experiences that may lead to attachment issues include the following.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
Here are the characteristics of a traumatizing attachment figure.
- Emotionally unavailable
- Emotionally immature
- Postpartum issues
- Parental substance abuse
- Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Disassociative disorders
- Unresolved attachment trauma
Signs of attachment trauma in adults
Early life attachment trauma can impact a child’s cognitive development, emotional health, mental health, and future relationships. Attachment injuries can extend into adulthood. Here are the common symptoms of trauma from attachment issues.
Childhood attachment trauma can have a lasting impact on the victim’s life because this type of trauma occurs during the crucial stage of a child’s brain 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, severe 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 pervasive symptoms than traditional PTSD, including intrusive flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, and dissociation.9
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.
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.10
Children with unprocessed 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.11
Those who have experienced attachment trauma are at risk of developing attachment disorders, such as reactive attachment disorder and developmental trauma disorder.12
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
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.
Also See: How trauma affects the brain
How to heal attachment wounds
If you are an adult with attachment trauma, here are some strategies and approaches to facilitate healing.
Recognize and acknowledge
Trauma from childhood isn’t always marked by physical wounds; it can also stem from fear when trapped with someone who hurts you, but you depend on it.
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 issues can provide you with a safe space to make sense of your traumatic memories.
Choose from the different types of therapy with the help of a licensed professional counselor.
If cost is a concern, seek free therapy or low-cost professional help from non-profit organizations.
Cultivate healthy relationships
Trusting others might be difficult if you have been harmed by early trauma. However, 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.
Identifying, expressing, and managing emotions effectively is critical to the healing process.
Techniques such as mindfulness and meditation can help you overcome the 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 the 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.
- Therapy options include live video, voice chat, and messaging
- Diverse tools include yoga, journaling, worksheets, and activity plans
- Parenting For Brain visitors get 20% off the first month
- Convenient online therapy with quick client-counselor matching
- Chat with your therapist or have live video sessions
- Parenting For Brain visitors get 25% off
- 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.Bretherton I. The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology. Published online September 1992:759-775. doi:10.1037/0012-1618.104.22.1689
- 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.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.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.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.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.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.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.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
- 11.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
- 12.Spinazzola J, van der 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.Negrini LS. HANDBOOK OF ATTACHMENT, THIRD EDITION: THEORY, RESEARCH, AND CLINICAL APPLICATIONSJudeCassidy and Phillip R.Shaver (Eds.), New York: Guilford Press, 2016, 1,068 pp., ISBN 978‐1‐4625‐2529‐4. Infant Mental Health Journal. Published online August 22, 2018:618-620. doi:10.1002/imhj.21730