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Learning About Your Attachment Trauma

Trying to wrap your head around your attachment trauma diagnosis can be understandably distressing and confusing. You are in the early stages of building self-understanding about the roots of your self-defeating behaviors. However, it is important to remember that you are not alone in your diagnosis. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are unfortunately quite common yet detrimental to long-term well-being. Moreover, the CDC states that in the United States, approximately two-thirds of adults experienced at least one ACE, while one in six adults reported four or more ACEs.

Despite the prevalence of ACEs, understanding your attachment trauma can be a powerful tool for healing. At The Guest House, we believe untreated trauma is the root cause of self-defeating and/or self-destructive behaviors. The weight of distress can lead to unhealthy coping strategies that impede functioning in your daily life. Therefore, we are committed to helping you uncover the roots of your distress and self-defeating behaviors for your long-term healing.

Following your attachment trauma diagnosis, you have likely heard a lot of other terms like developmental trauma, maltreatment, and dysfunction. Hearing all these different terms in relation to trauma and your experiences may feel overwhelming. You likely have a lot of questions about your attachment trauma and what it means for your life. It may be helpful to begin by explaining what attachment trauma is and discussing its influence on your thoughts and behaviors.

What Is Developmental and Attachment Trauma?

According to Frontiers in Psychology, developmental trauma is born out of interpersonal traumatic experiences that happen in early childhood development. Moreover, interpersonal trauma that occurs during childhood is most often committed by a close person like a parent or caregiver. The repetitive and cumulative nature of developmental trauma over time can have a lasting impact on your well-being.

Now, you may question how developmental trauma specifically relates to your attachment trauma. You can think of your attachment trauma as a subcategory of development trauma. Thus, traumatic experiences form developmental trauma, and developmental trauma contributes to the development of attachment trauma. Your attachment trauma is a specific form of developmental trauma based on the dysfunctional relationships within those traumatic experiences.

Further, Frontiers in Psychiatry defines attachment as a principle that reflects the way you develop attachments with others for your social and emotional development. You start to form different attachment styles as you develop from your interactions with the people close to you in your early life. Commonly, your earliest attachments are typically parents or primary caregivers and siblings. The attachment style you form and often carry into adulthood is a reflection of the dynamic and function of those close relationships in early childhood. Therefore, your attachment trauma stems from unhealthy and dysfunctional attachment relationships in those early interpersonal relationships.

Your early attachments are important to your well-being in adulthood because infancy and early childhood are critical stages of development. Early childhood is a critical stage of development because it is the period of time when you start to learn those foundational skills for functioning. Additionally, in early childhood, your brain is more flexible in learning and changing potentially harmful behaviors. When you get older, it becomes more challenging to restructure learned thinking and behavior patterns because you have relied on them for so long.

Looking at the relationship between your developmental trauma and attachment trauma highlights the significance of those interpersonal relationships. While traumatic experiences can be harmful to your long-term well-being, having a healthy support network can be useful. Whereas, when the trauma stems from the distressing behaviors of the caregivers you rely on, your sense of security and support is fractured and warped. By increasing your knowledge of developmental trauma and attachment trauma, you can better recognize the signs and symptoms of your attachment trauma.

Signs and Symptoms of Your Attachment Trauma

As the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) points out, the attachment relationships you form in early childhood set the stage for long-term functioning. Through healthy attachment relationships, you learn how to regulate your emotions, form adaptive coping skills, and build mutually supportive relationships.

However, when your primary caregivers are unable or choose not to provide consistent safety, comfort, and protection, your ability to function in healthy ways becomes impaired. Not only is your ability to cope impaired but your ability to establish trust in others and form a sense of safety in the world is disrupted. While you were not aware of your attachment trauma until now, there are some signs and symptoms from your childhood that may feel more apparent now.

Listed below are some of the potential signs and symptoms of your attachment trauma in childhood and adolescence include:

  • Difficulties expressing and controlling emotions
  • Reacting with violence; aggression
  • Difficulties with authority figures
    • Teachers
    • Police officers
  • Sleep problems
  • Chronic physical ailments
    • Headaches
    • Stomachaches
  • Hypersensitivity to different sensory stimuli
    • Sounds
    • Smells
    • Lights
    • Touches
  • Reduced sensitivity to stimuli
    • Pain
    • Touch
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling worthless, shame, guilt
  • Thinking of yourself as a bad kid and or blaming yourself for the adult’s actions and reactions
  • Poor impulse control
  • High-risk behaviors
    • Self-harm
    • Risky sexual behavior
    • Speeding
    • Stealing
    • Getting into fights
    • Substance misuse
  • Frequent contact with the juvenile justice system
  • Dissociation
  • Poor school performance
  • Difficulties with thinking and learning
    • Learning new skills
    • Taking in new information
    • Concentration issues
    • Easily distracted
    • Making plans
    • Completing tasks
  • Developmental regression
    • Thumb sucking
    • Bedwetting
  • Not engaging in play with other children
  • Difficulty forming relationships with other children

When left unaddressed, the challenges you experience with coping with traumatic experiences in childhood follow you into adulthood. Some of the signs and symptoms of your attachment trauma that you may notice in your life as an adult include:

  • Continued difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships
    • Relationship conflict
    • Lacking trust in others
    • Challenges forming emotional bonds with others
    • Difficulties recognizing boundaries
  • Lack of or unhealthy romantic relationships
    • Seeking constant reassurance from a partner
    • Pushing your partner away to avoid getting hurt
    • Difficultes trusting partners
  • Chronic health conditions
    • Diabetes
    • Heart disease
  • Difficulties with mental health disorders
    • Depression
    • Other mood disorders
    • Suicidal ideation
  • Self-destructive behaviors
    • Substance use disorder (SUD)
  • Other risky behaviors
    • Smoking
    • Unhealthy diets
    • Eating disorders

Looking at the signs and symptoms of your attachment trauma in both childhood and adulthood showcases the destructive power trauma can have on your life. Being able to recognize and put a name to the self-destructive behaviors throughout your life increases your understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship between trauma and your attachment trauma. Now, you may find yourself thinking about the traumas of your childhood or what ACEs have led to your attachment trauma issues. You may even question how you did not recognize your experiences as traumatic or recognize the impact it has had on you.

However, it is important to remember that the idea that recognizing trauma should be obvious is inaccurate. Trauma is a complex and complicated experience that is unique to your life and relationships. Moreover, recognizing trauma in close interpersonal relationships with people like parents and caregivers is made more complicated by your age. Your family in early childhood is your first representation of how people function and relate to each other.

How can you clearly recognize the dysfunction and traumas in your family when those are the main types of relationships you were exposed to during your critical developmental stage? On the one hand, there are many examples of trauma like physical and sexual abuse that feel obvious as sources of your attachment trauma. However, there are some less obvious traumas that highlight the complexity of family and dysfunction as sources of attachment trauma. Therefore, understanding the causes of your attachment trauma can help you uncover and come to terms with the roots of your distress and those difficult familial relationships.

What Caused Your Attachment Trauma?

Your attachment trauma can stem from a variety of reasons but is most likely rooted in ACEs. As the 2022 article from Frontiers in Psychiatry notes, ACEs are potentially traumatic events that happen in childhood and adolescence. Many ACEs are interpersonal in nature and can be a result of abuse or neglect from a parent or caregiver. However, this is not a requirement for ACEs. Experiencing ACEs can also be situational experiences that are not a reflection of ill intent from an adult.

Listed below are some examples of different types of ACEs that you may have experienced in your childhood:

  • Abuse
    • Physical
    • Sexual
    • Emotional
  • Neglect
    • Abandonment
    • Rejection
    • Emotional support
    • Parents are unable or choose not to meet basic needs
      • Shelter
      • Food
      • Clothing
      • Medical care
  • Primary caregivers have poor parenting skills
  • Parental figures lack access to support resources
  • Exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV) and other interpersonal violence
  • Loss of a parent or caregiver
    • Death
    • Incarceration
    • Loss of custody
    • Adoption
  • Divorce
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Parent or caregiver with a mental health disorder
  • Frequent changes in caregivers
    • Shuffled between foster care provider

Moreover, while not all children will develop attachment issues, your attachment trauma is often a product of invasive, long-term interpersonal traumas. Your attachment trauma is more likely to have been born out of repeated severe and pervasive traumatic events that threatened your and or your caregiver’s sense of safety. The nature of ACEs, whether they stem from intentional or unintentional harm from your parent or caregiver, disrupts your ability to form secure attachments in childhood and adulthood. Therefore, looking more closely at the different types of attachment styles can provide insight into how ACEs contribute to different attachment impairments.

Understanding Attachment Styles and Your Attachment Trauma

According to attachment theory, as Frontiers in Psychiatry also notes, there are three pieces of criteria needed for secure attachment bonds to form in early development. Healthy emotional bonds can form in early childhood when:

  • Children engage in proximity seeking for their primary caregiver
    • The child engages in behaviors that highlight their desire to restore closeness with their caregiver
  • Caregivers provide a secure base for exploration of the world
    • Proximity-seeking helps form a secure base
    • The child knows there is a reliable base of comfort, safety, and security in their caregiver that they can return to
    • A parent or caregiver provides reassurance as the child learns, engages with the world, and when they face challenges
    • The secure base for exploration encourages confidence, competence, and resilience to eventually rely on themselves as they grow
  • Children protest when they are separated from their caregivers
    • Protesting a threat to their access to their secure attachment figure

Thus, looking at the different attachment styles can showcase where the three principles for secure attachment bonds formed and where they have been impaired by ACEs. Attachment styles are based on one secure type and three ensure types.

Listed below are the four attachment styles that can form in early childhood:

  • Secure attachment: The parent or caregiver is actively involved in their child’s care by providing safety and security and is able to calm and soothe the child while managing their own stress in healthy ways
    • In early childhood
      • Protest when their caregiver leaves
      • Visibly distressed
        • Crying
        • Unable to play
      • Uncomfortable with strangers without their caregiver present
      • Displays joy when their caregiver returns
        • Easily calmed
        • Able to return to play
      • Engages in proximity-seeking
    • Childhood/adolescence and adulthood
      • Healthy self-esteem
      • Adaptive coping skills
      • Forms healthy relationships
      • Comfortable expressing thoughts and feelings
      • Resilient to setbacks and challenges
  • Avoidant attachment: The parent or caregiver is emotionally unavailable or rejects the child and is unresponsive to the child’s needs and wants
    • In early childhood
      • They do not protest when their caregiver leaves
      • The child does not seem distressed
        • Able to still engage in play
      • Comfortable with strangers without their caregiver present
      • Does not appear to notice or react to the return of their caregiver
      • Internally the child is in great distress
        • Their behavior is an effort to avoid thinking about the distress of the separation
    • Childhood/adolescence and adulthood
      • Difficulty forming deep interpersonal bonds
      • Often desires close relationships
      • Fear of sharing close emotional and physical intimacy with others
      • Keeps others at a distance for fear of abandonment
      • Many engage in relationship sabotage to protect themselves
      • Overly independent
  • Ambivalent attachment: The parent or caregiver’s behavior and attitude (love, affection, and safety) toward the child are inconsistent
    • In early childhood
      • Displays significant emotional distress when their caregiver leaves
      • Shows a strong desire to be in close physical proximity to their caregiver when they return
      • The child’s behavior towards their caregiver fluctuates between clingy and avoidance
        • They want to control their uncertainty about their attachment to their caregiver
    • Childhood/adolescence and adulthood
      • Overly needy
      • Low self-esteem
      • Anxious and uncertain about their relationships
      • Always worried that their partners will leave them
  • Disorganized attachment: The parent or caregiver presents frightening or frightened behavior and is unresponsive to the child’s fear or distress from other frightening experiences
    • In early childhood
      • The child’s response to their caregiver leaving and returning is inconsistent
        • Separation may result in temper tantrums
        • Deep distress cannot be comforted
      • Caregivers return results in proximity seeking and avoidance
    • Childhood/adolescence and adulthood
      • Relationships are confusing
        • May engage in abusive behaviors
          • Controlling
          • Distrust
      • Prone to violent and aggressive behaviors
      • Fearful of intimacy
      • Avoid forming close relationships

Deepening your awareness of the four attachment styles and the impact of different parenting behaviors increases your understanding of the formation of your attachment trauma. With more understanding of your attachment trauma, you can start to dismantle the self-defeating behaviors that stem from your attachment trauma.

Learning How to Heal Trauma at The Guest House

At The Guest House, we believe that holistic healing of the whole body – a mind, body, and spirit approach – addresses your needs for healing as a whole person. Your distress and self-defeating behaviors are rooted in the traumas of your childhood. Therefore, true healing from mental health disorders and SUD cannot happen without understanding how your early experiences have impacted your life. With holistic healing, we are committed to being a source of support and guidance as you dig into your childhood for deeper self-awareness and understanding of your attachment trauma.

Through holistic care and a wide range of therapeutic modalities, we can help you uncover, understand, and heal from the traumatic experiences of your childhood. The attachments you formed in early childhood have been deeply intertwined in the way you think, behave, and engage in the world. However, your attachment trauma and unhealthy patterns do not have to be set in stone. There is always space to learn, grow, and change when you have access to tools that address your specific needs. With support, functioning in your daily life and forming meaningful long-lasting supportive relationships is not just an idea but a real path for long-term recovery.

Your attachment trauma is at the root of psychological distress, poor relationships, and self-defeating behaviors like substance misuse. Moreover, attachment trauma highlights the significance of your early childhood experiences on your long-term well-being. Thus, increasing your awareness of the relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), developmental trauma, and attachment types supports your understanding of trauma in your life. When you understand how close interpersonal trauma and family dysfunction impact your thinking and behavior patterns, you can start dismantling those unhealthy behaviors to support whole-person healing. At The Guest House, we are committed to providing holistic care and customizable support to help you dig into and heal from your childhood experiences. Call us at (855) 483-7800 today to learn more.