Attachment trauma is the imprint left on a person when they suffer from child abuse and neglect. Most people have an idea of what they imagine “trauma” to mean. Their minds might conjure up images of war, abuse, illness, injury, or grief. All of these are correct, however, there are also more subtle forms of trauma that deserve attention. This is where attachment trauma comes into play.
When you’re a baby or young child, the bonding process with your primary caregivers is vital. That process can be disrupted due to neglect, abuse or abandonment. It can be derailed by frightening events taking place in the home. Despite their seeming lack of awareness, a baby is indeed impacted by family environment. Adverse childhood experiences like divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse, and parents with mental health issues all can leave their mark on the child’s forming brain and nervous system . The long-term result manifests as a struggle with symptoms of attachment trauma which last well into adulthood.
Attachment trauma isn’t rare, although it is widely unrecognized. Approximately 1 out of every 7 children in the U.S. suffers from abuse or neglect. Sadly, the overwhelming risk to children lies within the home. In fact, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2018 report on child maltreatment states that “76% of child perpetrators are the child’s parent“.
Attachment trauma occurs when a child suffers unmanageable, overwhelming stress. Some examples are:
- The caregiver is consistently unable to protect a child from harm
- Parent or caregiver is fails to sooth and emotionally regulate a child
- The child’s caregiver is unreliable, or is a source of fear to the child
Child maltreatment has a pervasive effect on the growth and development of the human brain. Physical as well as mental health issues are common symptoms of childhood trauma in adults.
What Is Meant By “Attachment” in Attachment Trauma?
You probably have heard the word “attachment” and might even have a basic idea of what attachment theory is. This theory posits that the nature and quality of our early relationships with our caregivers, shapes how we bond. It is through our experiences with our parents, for example, that we learn what sort of care we might expect from loved ones. Still, as a refresher, let’s highlight the four main attachment styles:
- Secure: As the word implies, this is the result of a healthy childhood. You can flexibly reach out to others for closeness and support, and at the same time, you also regulate your own feelings pretty well. You expect relationships to feel safe and to be a smooth dance between independence and dependence.
- Anxious-Preoccupied: Early events can leave you wanting to be close to others but thinking they aren’t consistently interested. This leaves you frequently anxious and reliant on others to regulate your feelings. You also likely suffer with fears of abandonment.
- Fearful-Disorganized: In this case, you might wish to be close but fear that others will reject and hurt you. At the same time that you reach out for support, your body simultaneously activates other threat responses like fight, flight, freeze or submit. Therein lies a deeply engrained conflict. People with this attachment style tend to have very unstable relationships.
- Dismissive-Avoidant: Attachment trauma may leave you feeling distanced and detached. You are self-sufficient, you tell yourself, and you don’t need others. This leads you to be excessively self reliant and thereby you “dismiss” or “avoid” you own attachment needs. You tend to overly rely on self regulation, and avoid reaching out to others for support and emotional intimacy. Many with this style are disconnected from their own feelings, are highly intellectualized and have difficulty recognizing and naming their feelings.
The last three styles can be created during childhood that involves any kind of trauma. But remember, through trauma informed therapy, adults can attain “earned security”. This term is used to describe the security that is attained when someone does the necessary therapeutic work to overcome and resolve attachment trauma.
But let me illustrate two forms of attachment trauma that manifest in children. To give you a window into how some attachment trauma symptoms might show up in a little person, consider two childhood diagnosis that are listed in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The DSM is the guidebook that mental health clinicians use to for diagnosis. It describes:
Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
Children with RAD:
- Typically shy away from socializing
- Seem to be numb or detached when they do interact with others
- Less likely to display joy or comfort — even when playing
- Do not recover well from any stressful scenario
Adults with RAD:
- Uncomfortable with giving or receiving affection
- Don’t trust easily
- Can’t “read the room,” see detached
- Miss obvious social cues
- Can be impulsive and quick to anger
- Never seem to stay in a relationship for long
- Display a negative self-image
Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED)
Children with DSED:
- Lack boundaries to the point of riskiness
- Lack of awareness or safety around strangers
Adults with DSED:
- Hyperactivity continues into adulthood
- Also continuing is a lack of boundary awareness and a tendency to trust people they don’t even know
- Boundary issues cause behaviors like asking inappropriate questions and being nosy
So indicators of attachment trauma can show up early in life. Without proper treatment, they will continue on throughout our lifespans. But here is the good news- we are capable of growth, change and healing.
Simple Steps You Can Take If You Struggle With Attachment Trauma
Learn about attachment theory and educate yourself about how trauma effects people. Recognize your own patterns and what you need to address. Work to identify the sources of these patterns.
Find a Partner with a Secure Attachment Style
We have wish lists when it comes to dating and dating apps. What could be more important than connecting with someone who has done the work to relate from a place of security?
Get Comfortable With Honest Communication
Practice in the mirror if you must but make the commitment. All relationships require healthy communication to remain secure. Make this a priority in your life.
Top Priority: Find a Qualified Therapist
Finally, let’s begin with the presumption that you are already in a relationship. Perhaps you have not matched up with someone with a secure attachment style. If this is your situation, couples counseling can be extremely helpful. If you’re not connected with someone at the moment, individual counseling is often life-changing.
Either way, a therapist with a strong background in treating attachment trauma can make all the difference. Self-care steps can help with treatment but you could benefit greatly from professional guidance.
Most of all, please understand that attachment trauma is not a reason for shame. I’m here to help. I invite you to reach out at your earliest convenience. We can arrange a confidential consultation to answer many more of your questions. Please read more about trauma treatment. Let’s connect soon to start on the road to recovery.