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Understanding Attachment Trauma and Its Healing Process

Contrary to what you may believe, most people struggle with attachment trauma in one way or another. The effects of attachment trauma are long-lasting, often interfering with personal relationships and mental health throughout adulthood. Understanding attachment trauma is an important part of your recovery journey, as adverse experiences are just as fundamental as positive experiences in shaping who you are as well as your perception of the world around you.

At The Guest House, we know that the adverse experiences of your life often go unwitnessed and unacknowledged. When your story goes untold, it can perpetuate self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that make it difficult for you to lead a life filled with self-love and understanding. Therefore, we believe by understanding how the traumas of your childhood have impacted you, you can open the door to self-understanding and long-term healing.

The Importance of Understanding Attachment Trauma

To understand attachment trauma, we must first recognize what attachment entails. According to an article from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), attachment is defined as your primary emotional relationship with your childhood caregiver. The relationship you form with your parents or guardians in your early development is an important part of how you form and engage in relationships well into your adulthood. As the VA notes, there are four styles of attachment that can form in your early life:

  1. Secure attachments:
    • Attentive and sensitive caregiver
    • Children can explore the world with a secure base in their caregiver
    • During a separation from their caregiver
      • Seeks comfort from their caregiver
      • Is easily soothed by their caregiver
  2.  Anxious-ambivalent attachments:
    • Insecure attachment
    • Unpredictable relationship with their caregiver
    • Children are less likely to explore their environment
    • Wary of strangers
    • Tends to be clingy toward their caregiver
    • During a separation from their caregiver
      • Difficult to soothe
      • May appear to be angry with their caregiver while seeking comfort
  3. Anxious-avoidant attachments:
    • Insecure attachment
    • Emotionally unavailable caregiver
    • The caregiver rejects the child
    • Children seek little physical contact with their caregivers
    • Tends to be unresponsive when held
    • May become visibly upset when they are not being held
    • During a separation from their caregiver
      • More likely to ignore or avoid their caregiver
  4. Disorganized attachment:
    • The caregiver is a source of comfort and a source of fear and stress
    • Facilitated by disorganized separation from their caregiver
      • Lacks organized coping strategies
      • Engages in unusual behaviors when they are reunited with their caregiver
        • Freezing in place
        • Turning in circles

Furthermore, understanding attachment trauma means understanding how the attachment style you form with your caregivers impacts how you learn to regulate emotions, develop social skills, and build coping strategies. These early relationships inform your self-concept and how you engage with the world around you. Therefore, having traumatic experiences in relation to your early familial relationships can cause a ripple effect that follows you into adulthood.

As stated in an article from the Universal Journal of Educational Research, having secure and healthy relationships early on can support healthier coping strategies when children encounter trauma. On the other hand, insecure and disorganized attachments in early childhood can increase exposure to trauma and have a negative impact on your physical and psychological well-being. Some of the consequences of developmental trauma and unhealthy attachment styles can include developmental delays, behavioral issues, mental health disorders, and substance use disorder (SUD).

Thus, understanding attachment trauma acknowledges the deep connection between attachment and developmental trauma.

The Relationship Between Attachment and Developmental Trauma

According to an article from Frontiers in Psychology, the cumulative collection of childhood traumas within familial attachment relationships is identified through overlapping terms. Often terms like developmental trauma and attachment trauma are used interchangeably. However, understanding attachment trauma can help you see those early childhood traumas are not interchangeable but rather can inform each other. Developmental trauma can be a single threatening event and or a continuative collection of experiences that are overwhelming, inescapable, and leave you powerless.

Moreover, many forms of physiological trauma occur in childhood during your early development with family members that you are dependent on. Understanding attachment trauma showcases its origins in the attachment relationships you form most often with caregivers and other family members. For example, growing up in a household where affection was conditional or withheld can impact how you engage in and perceive affection in adulthood. Therefore, not only can you develop trauma from events in childhood, but trauma can surface from the relationships with individuals involved in those adverse experiences as well.

Signs and Symptoms of Attachment Trauma

As the VA notes, understanding attachment trauma can help you recognize its signs and symptoms. Listed below are signs of poor attachment in caregiver-child relationships:

  • Behavioral difficulties:
    • Aggression
    • Withdrawal
  • Difficulties coping with stress:
    • Unable to be soothed or self-soothe
  • Maltreatment:
    • The caregiver is a trigger for re-experiencing the trauma
      • Difficulty trusting the caregiver
  • Traumatic events and strong emotions:
    • Frustration and anger toward the caregiver for not protecting them
    • Caregiver guilt

In addition, as the Universal Journal of Educational Research notes, understanding attachment trauma highlights the signs and symptoms in your relationships, as well as in your physical and psychological responses to the trauma. Some examples include:

  • In relationships:
    • Overly intimate
    • Unhealthy devotion
    • Promiscuous
  • Physical symptoms:
    • Chronic pain
    • Headaches
  • Psychological symptoms for insecure attachments:
    • Dismissing attachment type
      • Unresponsive caregivers
        • You may think of yourself as self-sufficient
        • Unable to rely on others
    • Preoccupied attachment type
      • Inconsistent caregivers
        • You may consider yourself unloveable
        • May be overly attentive when seeking support
        • Difficulty anticipating people’s responses
        • Unable to rely on cognition to anticipate danger
    • Fearful attachment type
      • Rejected by caregivers
        • You may desire intimacy but fear rejection
        • May approach and or avoid people

Moreover, understanding attachment trauma highlights a clear relationship between the types of attachment traumas and adverse childhood experiences (ACE). With that, you may wonder what ACEs are and how it can inform your relationships.

Understanding Attachment Trauma and ACEs

According to an article from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ACEs can have a profound impact on the choices you make in adulthood and your lifelong well-being. ACEs can come in many different forms, such as:

  • Experiencing trauma:
    • Violence
    • Neglect
    • Abuse
  • Witnessing trauma:
    • Violence at home or in your community
  • Threats to self or others:
    • A family member attempts suicide
    • Loss of a loved one to suicide
  • Environmental trauma:
    • Traumatic events that undermine your:
      • Safety
      • Stability
    • Impedes your ability to bond

Whether ACEs stem from your caregivers or come from outside your family, they can certainly impact your relationships in increasingly negative ways. As the Universal Journal of Educational Research article states, there are four types of attachment-related traumas that are impacted by ACEs:

  1. Attachment disruptions:
    • Unanticipated and or prolonged separation from the caregiver(s)
    • Little to no communication during the separation
    • No clear plan for a reunion
  2. Sexual abuse by caregiver(s):
    • Created emotion difficulties
    • Forms internal conflict
      • The attachment figure is both needed and feared
  3. Loss of caregiver(s):
    • Permanent separation from the attachment figure
      • Foster care/Adoption
      • Imprisonment
      • Death
  4. Attachment injuries from the neglectful caregiver(s):
    • Feeling abandoned by the present attachment figure when needed

Understanding attachment trauma and ACEs showcases that they are not always directly related to the actions and behaviors of the caregivers in your life. However, the relationships you form with your family members can have a significant impact on how you engage in relationships in adulthood, from romantic partnerships and parenting to friendships and other interactions. Thus, family dysfunction plays an important role in understanding attachment trauma.

What Is Family Dysfunction?

According to “Is My Family Dysfunctional?” from Mental Health America (MHA), a dysfunctional family can be defined as conflict-driven, abusive, and or rife with misbehavior. Existing in a dysfunctional family can leave you feeling trapped, neglected, unsafe, and unable to share your thoughts and feelings in an unpredictable environment. While reading this, you may wonder how to determine if you have a dysfunctional family. Moreover, you are probably remembering times in your life when people in your household yelled at each other.

Does conflict make your family dysfunctional? As the MHA article points out, every family is different and may experience some level of dysfunction. Therefore, recognizing dysfunction can deepen awareness of the psychological harm family dysfunction can cause when issues are not properly addressed.

Signs of Family Dysfunction

As noted by MHA and “Defining the Traits of Dysfunctional Families” from King University, some of the signs and traits of a dysfunctional family include:

  • Substance use:
    • Impacts the family’s emotional health
    • Family rules, roles, and relationships are changed to maintain the family
    • Can negatively impact multiple generations
  • Abuse and or neglect:
    • Continued behaviors can lead you to normalize harmful treatment
      • You expect to be treated in these harmful ways in all your relationships
    • Can create a generational cycle of harmful treatment
      • You engage in the same harmful behaviors
  • Unpredictability and fear:
    • Difficulty trusting
    • Unable to engage in self-expression
    • Anticipate all interactions to be conflict
  • Perfectionism:
    • Reduces playfulness and curiosity
    • Increases feelings of inadequacy
  • Conditional love:
    • Affection is tied to the expectations and wants of one person in the relationship
    • Love is withheld when you do not meet the other person’s demands
    • Increases desire to please others
    • No space to be yourself
  • Controlling or authoritarian behaviors:
    • Affection is a commodity
      • Children are forced to compete for caregiver(s) attention and affection
    • Your value is constantly compared to other family members
    • Encourages dependency on the controller
    • The controller negates your right to privacy
  • Issues with setting or maintaining personal boundaries:
    • Life decisions are made for you with no regard for your opinion
    • Discouraged from asserting your independence
    • Siblings taking on the parental role
    • Lack of autonomy
    • No space for self-expression
    • Increases likelihood of codependency in relationships
  • Poor communication:
    • Unable to truly listen to each other
    • Issues are ignored rather than discussed
    • Communication is disjointed rather than direct
      • Passive-aggressive behavior
      • Tension
      • Mistrust
    • Feel misunderstood and unheard
    • May feel unsafe voicing thoughts
  • Excessive criticism:
    • Verbal abuse
      • Physical appearance
      • Intelligence
      • Value
      • Abilities
    • Criticism can be direct or subtle
      • Teasing
      • Put-downs
    • Negative self-image
  • Intimacy deficiency:
    • No emotional support
    • Emotionally unavailable relatives
    • Relationships feel superficial
    • Increases difficulty in  knowing how to form close relationships
  • Lack of empathy:
    • Family members are more likely to respond with judgment than love
    • No effort is put into understanding the child’s feelings or point of view
    • Caregivers react with anger or ridicule
    • Negative internalized feelings
      • Guilt
      • Demeaned

Thus, the signs and traits of unhealthy family dynamics highlight the importance of family relationships and how they can impact your overall well-being.

Impact of Family Dynamics on Understanding Attachment Trauma

Looking at dynamics and dysfunction in your family can support understanding attachment trauma and its impact on your life. According to an article from Innovation in Aging, interdependence within relationships across your life are an important part of your long-term well-being. In particular, family members are important links in each stage of your life as sources of social connection and social influence. Beyond social connections and resources, your family connections can provide meaning and purpose in your life. Thus, high-quality family relationships can improve things like self-esteem, self-worth, and coping strategies.

Conversely, when family relationships are under stress or unhealthy dynamics form, it decreases your wellness. According to an article from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, family relationships and attachment theory supports understanding attachment trauma. Forming a close relationship with a caregiver in early childhood can increase the chance of positive emotional and social development. Thus, healthy family dynamics mean you are more likely to grow up feeling safe and supported through a high level of family cohesion.

What Is Family Cohesion?

Family cohesion focuses on the degree of closeness you experience with your family; it is a reflection of the emotional bonds you and your family share with each other. Some common features of high family cohesion include warmth, affection, involvement in each other’s lives, consistency, and a sense of connectedness. With high levels of family cohesion, you are more likely to be healthier physically and mentally.

On the other hand, poor levels of family cohesion highlight unsupportive and neglectful characteristics along with higher degrees of conflict. With low levels of family cohesion, you are more likely to have worse physical and mental outcomes across your life. Thus, there is a correlation between the type of relationship dynamics you form and the attachments you carry into adulthood. For example, if you share healthy communication strategies in your family, you are more likely to engage in clear and supportive communication in your relationships.

Being consistently verbally abused in childhood, for instance, means you are more likely to expect verbal abuse from romantic partners and friends and even perceive it as love. In addition, growing up with verbal abuse also increases the likelihood that you are verbally abusive to people in your life, like your romantic partners and or children. You learn many of your core values and beliefs from the people you grow up with, as those are the most formative time of your development.

In early childhood, you learn by mimicking the people around you, like talking, walking, and laughing. Similarly, you learn unhealthy behaviors like teasing, criticism, yelling, perfectionism, and conditional love by mimicking the behaviors of the adults around you. Attachment trauma becomes clearer when you can recognize all the self-defeating behaviors you have mimicked and carried with you into all your relationships now.

Understanding Attachment Trauma at the Guest House

At The Guest House, we believe in the importance of understanding attachment trauma and its role in self-defeating behaviors. It is not uncommon to find yourself perplexed over the cause of your unhealthy thinking and behavior patterns. One of the difficulties in gaining self-understanding is the inability to reflect deeply on yourself and your life. Moreover, time is often a barrier to self-reflection as the core of self-defeating behaviors formed in your early childhood. Thus, the memory of the trauma may be locked away, but you have carried the echo of its pain with you throughout your life.

The traumas of your early childhood often go hand in hand. However, we know that understanding attachment trauma means our treatment must go beyond the ACEs themselves. Understanding attachment trauma at The Guest House means not only looking at the impact of early traumatic experiences but also how those experiences are interconnected to your familial relationships. Therefore, recognizing and examining the impact of dysfunctional family relationships on your long-term well-being can give us the necessary information to start dismantling unhealthy behavior patterns.

Uncovering the traumas of your early childhood can be a long and emotionally difficult process. However, we know forming an achievable path to long-term recovery is worth the journey. Understanding attachment trauma in your life provides an opportunity to build and maintain healthy relationships, increase your emotional and mental wellness, and develop life skills to support an independent life in recovery.

When people think about trauma, they often think about traumatic experiences like war and sexual assault. However, trauma can also happen in the relationships you form in early childhood. For instance, neglect and or verbal abuse from your caregiver are forms of attachment trauma that can create unhealthy attachments that you carry with you into adulthood. Understanding attachment trauma can help you dismantle self-defeating behaviors as you reflect on the unhealthy patterns in your early relationships. Moreover, at The Guest House, we believe addressing trauma can be an important tool in deepening your self-understanding to support your healing in long-term recovery. Call us at (855) 483-7800 to learn more today.