Attachment Trauma: Did Your Childhood Hurt?

The very first three years of our lives are often referred to as the attachment phase of our development. It is the time when a unique bond between a baby and his or her primary caregiver (parent) is formed. This bond, later on, will affect the way in which we build and maintain relationships with others.

Introduced in the 1960s by John Bowlby, The Attachment Theory is one of the most popular and scientifically grounded theories relating to parenting. Bowlby’s studies in childhood development and temperament led him to the conclusion that a strong attachment to a caregiver provides a necessary sense of safety and security. Bowlby believes that it is this attachment that forms the foundation to develop meaningful, healthy relationships as adults. Without having that safe and loving relationship in place, Bowlby found that a great deal of developmental energy is later expended in the search for stability and security.

Attachment styles

Children respond to their earliest relationships with their primary caregiver(s) by developing attachment styles which can be divided into 4 categories: secure, insecure ambivalent, insecure avoidant, and disorganized attachment. These attachment styles play a bigger role in relationships than you may first think, so let’s take a deeper look into them.

Secure

A secure attachment is formed when a primary caregiver is consistent, predictable and reliable. Of course, no one is perfect. Times of disconnection and misunderstandings are inevitable. However, a parent that is deemed “good enough” can repair these moments of disconnection and furthermore build a child’s capacity to handle stress. If you were a securely attached child, you would view your parent/s as a source of comfort and would deem life to be safe and secure. You would find it easy to explore, learn, and play. A child with a secure attachment knows that there is a safe base that he or she can always return to. Being securely attached as an adult gives you the ability to develop meaningful connections with others whilst also handling inevitable conflicts in a skilful manner.

Insecure ambivalent

If your primary caregiver was inconsistent and unpredictable, you will have most likely developed an ambivalent (also called anxious or preoccupied) attachment style. Often, times where you felt taken care of were interspersed with experiences of being yelled at or rejected for expressing your needs. These mixed messages often lead to feelings of uncertainty as you could not trust that your parent/s would be there for you when you needed them. As a result, in adulthood, you may be fearful of being abandoned, which leads to a pursuer approach towards others. A potential implication of this is the perception that you are needy or insecure.

Insecure avoidant

This attachment style forms when a primary caregiver was disengaged, distant, and most of the time, simply unavailable. Your needs to be loved, accepted, seen, and understood were dismissed or ignored. As a result, you learned to take care of yourself by becoming independent and self-reliant. In adulthood, it is common to maintain a dismissive attitude toward your own emotions by avoiding deeper connection with others. The tendency is to instead turn inward and search for internal resources and solutions. In this case, people could potentially complain about you being walled off or emotionally unavailable.

Disorganized

This attachment style arises when a primary caregiver was chaotic and abusive. Rather than being a source of love and care, the parent was a source of fear or even terror. Because we have an innate, biological drive toward attachment, children still attach to parents, even if they are aggressive and cruel perpetrators of abuse. There is an inherent and deeply confusing, double bind between our need for closeness and the equally strong need to escape danger. Over time, this unsolvable dilemma leads to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. In adulthood, it is common to alternate between feeling high arousal emotions of fear, irritability, or anger and low arousal emotions of defeat, despair, or depression. It is also incredibly common to repeat these horrible relational patterns learned in childhood either by choosing partners who are abusive or sometimes behaving in abusive ways yourself.

It is important to say that most of us are a combination of different attachment strategies. Rarely is someone purely avoidant or purely secure; partly because we often had more than one parent that treated us differently. Our primary caregivers could include grandparents or even a nanny, and we probably attached differently to each and every one of them.

What childhood trauma can actually “do” to you?

When we talk about attachment trauma, we are usually talking about childhood abuse which includes neglect. The nervous system of an infant is completely dependent upon caregivers to help them feel safe, connected, and calm. Growing up with parents who were dysregulated, abusive, or neglectful shapes a child’s vulnerable nervous system. In these instances, long-lasting patterns of emotional and physiological distress are often carried into adulthood. If that was your experience, then it’s highly likely to have impacted you in ways you may or may not be fully aware of.

Growing up with childhood trauma inhibits creativity and replaces curiosity with fear. Your ability to feel confident in your friendships or successful in school becomes hindered. Over time, feelings of insecurity and inadequacy inform your sense of self – soon to become a central part of your identity.

Attachment trauma can have a profound effect on an individual. From my perspective, things such as early neglect and abuse are often found in the histories of clients with severe depression, anxiety, and suicidality. Most personality disorders (e.g. borderline personality disorder) stem from early experiences of abuse and neglect.

Sometimes, memories of early abuse and neglect lead to strong emotions and body sensations that are difficult to explain or understand. That’s often because there may be parts of your memories that are unclear to you, or perhaps even deliberately forgotten.

Experiences of childhood trauma impact the internal ‘alarm system’ of our brains and leave our nervous system geared up for danger, even when the present reality is safe.

Early memories are stored as implicit memory (instead of explicit) and tend to be enacted and embodied rather than articulated in spoken language. In other words, when there is unresolved trauma, our bodies remain scared.

These experiences can evoke feelings of self-doubt and shame. As such, your ability to care for yourself as an adult is often a reflection of how you were cared for as a child.

So, is there a way out?

Yes, and this is where the power of healing relationships comes into play.

Recovery from attachment trauma (and any other relational trauma) requires you to have a reparative experience in a relationship. This is also called an “earned” secure attachment. Its essential component is to recognize the impact childhood experiences have on your sense of self. Knowledge about your attachment deficits allow you to practice reaching out for support and maintaining authentic connections.

If you grew up with abusive parents, developing healthy relationships will likely be a challenge at first. Initially, you may recreate relationships that match what you already know. After all, we seek out the comfort of what we are familiar with. Perhaps you unintentionally push people away and then feel angry that nobody ever calls you. Maybe you tend to choose partners who treat you poorly because, deep inside, this feels ‘normal’ for you.

In contrast, a healing relationship, such as one with a trusted therapist, will allow you to gently recognise and take responsibility for any part you may play in perpetuating unhealthy dynamics. In a trusting relationship, you can become more comfortable with your fears and learn that you will not be rejected, harmed, or shamed.

With the support of another – in this case, a compassionate therapist, you embrace experiences of confusion, discomfort, anger, grief, shame, and pain. A compassionate therapist offers a “container” for the feelings and memories that you might be unable to handle alone. I like to see this as reparenting our traumatised parts. In a healing relationship, you will have the opportunity to dismantle the hold your past has on you. Together, we will focus on building trust, gaining new perspectives, and finding healing tools that work best for you. This is how you build a future that is different from your past.

If you are ready to start your healing journey, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

If you’d like to learn more about attachment, I strongly recommend book “Attached” by A. Levine and R. Heller. It’s one of the simplest and most profoundly understandable resources available. You can thank me later 😉

If you’d like more guidance on deciphering your attachment style, you might like to try this quiz.

Until next time,

Ilona Zaleska