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Understanding the Impact of Early Relationships on Trauma Recovery

The early relationships you form in the first stage of your life are critical to your lifelong development. According to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, a child’s development is supported by their emotional relationship with the important adults in their life. Through your early relationships, you can see clear connections between your early relationships and relational health outcomes like:

  • Social
  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Cognitive
  • Neurobiological

Thus, the components of relational health in early relationships highlight the sense of connectedness that stems from relationships. Your early relationships are a reflection of the valued connections you share with caregivers, other family members, and your community in childhood. The valued connections you have with your caregivers are born from the early attachments you form during early development.

When children have access to healthy supportive relationships, there is space to build important skills like self-efficacy and self-regulation. Yet, your relational health can be disrupted or impaired by your early relationships as well. In particular, trauma in your early relationships can harm your well-being in childhood and adulthood.

At The Guest House, we know attachment trauma is often one of the factors at the root of self-defeating behavior. For many people, the signs of trauma rooted in early relationships often go unnoticed as you compartmentalize these early relationships. Therefore, you may not recognize the impact early relationship trauma has had on your well-being. As a result, we are committed to providing trauma-specific support that helps you dismantle the roots of your self-defeating behaviors

What Are Early Attachment Relationships?

According to the National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health (NCCMH), attachment in infancy is a collection of behaviors. Specifically, attachment behaviors allow infants to draw in caregivers to address their needs or distress. Moreover, attachment is a foundational adaptive survival strategy. Through attachment, infants utilize proximity-seeking behaviors like crying when they are scared, stressed, or sick to obtain proximity and reassurance from their caregivers. However, attachment in early relationships and into adulthood can go beyond basic survival.

At its core, attachment is how an exchange of comfort, care, and pleasure occurs in your relationships. Further, attachment theory highlights the interpersonal relational aspect of early relationships as important to child development. The attachment figures you have in your early relationships are often critical to how you conduct your intimate relationships across your lifespan.

It is through your early relationships that you learn how to communicate, regulate your emotions, and build relationships. In other words, how your primary caregivers responded to your needs and distress in early childhood can influence how you engage with stress and relationships throughout your life. As a result, different styles of attachment inform the quality of your relationships throughout adulthood.

Types of Attachment

Several different attachment styles showcase how different early relationships impact attachment behaviors. Looking at the different attachment styles can give you insight into how trauma in your early relationships contributes to the challenges you face now. Listed below are the four attachment styles found in early relationships:

Secure Attachment

  • Forms when caregivers can consistently fulfill the child’s physical and emotional needs
    • Children with secure attachment can be comforted by their primary caregivers in times of distress
      • Caregiver-child relationship: Children form a secure base that they can safely return to as they explore the environment around them
      • Characteristics of secure early relationships: Highlights how healthy attachments impact behavior in childhood
        • The child becomes upset when the caregiver is absent, but is comforted by the caregiver’s return
        • Can separate from the caregiver to explore
        • Prefers receiving comfort from their caregiver over strangers
      • In adulthood, you have the tools to form and maintain healthy supportive relationships
        • Relationships built on trust
        • Able to effectively communicate thoughts and feelings
        • Will seek out social support when needed
        • Higher self-esteem and self-worth

Insecure Avoidant Attachment

  • Forms when caregivers do not or are unable to provide adequate emotional support
    • Children with avoidant attachment mask their need for comfort by appearing to manage their distress independently
      • Caregiver-child relationship: Children learn that they cannot rely on others to meet their emotional needs
      • Characteristics of avoidant early relationships: Neglecting emotional needs impacts behavior in childhood
        • Are less likely to seek contact or comfort from their caregiver
        • Will show little to no preference for their caregiver over a stranger
      • In adulthood, you overcompensate for that lack of emotional connection and support by being overly self-sufficient
        • Unwilling or unable to share your thoughts and feelings with others
        • More likely to avoid intimacy in relationships with excuses
        • Less likely to experience distress over the end of relationships
        • Emotionally guarded in your relationships with others
        • Unlikely to seek out emotional comfort from others or know how to provide emotional comfort to others

Disorganized Attachment

  • Forms when there is an erratic relationship marked by traumatic experiences with the primary caregiver
    • Children with disorganized attachment do not present with clear attachment behaviors
      • Caregiver-child relationship: Children cannot fully trust their caregiver because they can be the source of both comfort and harm
      • Characteristics of disorganized early relationships: Showcases inconsistencies in a caregiver’s behavior and how they impact behavior in childhood
        • The child displays confused, apprehensive, or dazed behavior in the presence of their caregiver
        • More likely to display a mix of avoidant and resistant behavior in response to their caregiver
        • Older children may take on parental roles: Engage in compulsive caregiving or coercive controlling behaviors toward their caregiver
      • In adulthood, the presence of comfort and harm in your early relationships contributes to irrational, unpredictable, and intense behavior in your relationships
        • More likely to experience challenges with mental health disorders that can impair healthy relationship-building skills
        • Desires close relationships, but often pushes others’ a way when attention is given

Insecure Ambivalent Attachment

  • Forms when caregivers do not or are unable to meet the child’s physical and emotional needs consistently
    • Children with ambivalent attachment try to maintain proximity to their caregiver by increasing their attachment behaviors when separated from their caregiver
      • Caregiver-child relationship: Children learn that their needs may not be met and they cannot rely on their caregiver
      • Characteristics of ambivalent early relationships: Highlights a lack of physical and emotional support that impacts behavior in childhood
        • The child becomes incredibly distressed and angry over the absence of their caregiver
        • Are more likely to resist any contact with their caregiver when the caregiver returns
        • Less likely to be soothed quickly when comfort is offered
        • Are more wary or suspicious of strangers
        • Less likely to feel confident exploring their environment with and without a present primarily caregiver
      • In adulthood, your anxiety can make you appear clingy, overly dependent, or untrusting in your relationships
        • Thoughts are often consumed with worries that your loved ones will abandon you and do not love you
        • Constantly seeking reassurance that your relationships are safe
        • More likely to feel reluctant about getting close to people
        • Becomes overly distressed when relationships end

Looking at the different attachment styles showcases the impact of early relationships on functioning. The way your primary caregivers interacted with you in your early stages of development can contribute to behavior later in life. Moreover, attachment styles highlight how different levels of trauma can disrupt well-being across your lifespan. Thus, the interpersonal difficulties that occur in your early relationships manifest as attachment trauma.

Yet, you may question what is attachment trauma. What kinds of traumas contribute to attachment trauma and the formation of attachment styles in early relationships?

Understanding Trauma in Early Relationships

As noted in Frontiers in Psychiatry, attachment trauma happens when you feel alone in an unbearable emotional state or when your attachment figure is the cause of your distress. The distress that accompanies attachment trauma is often found in adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs can come in many different forms, from witnessing violence to experiencing violence.

However, many of the traumas children experience, interrelated to attachment issues are interpersonal. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, ACEs can be broken into three groups and then further divided into subcategories like gender, race, age, and education. Listed below are the three main categories of ACEs that contribute to risk factors for poor health outcomes throughout life:


  • Typically interpersonal trauma that can include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse
    • Physical abuse: A primary caregiver and or other important adult harms you physically
      • Pushing
      • Grabbing
      • Hitting
      • Slapping
      • Throwing things
    • Sexual abuse: A primary caregiver, important adult, or stranger at least five years older engages you in sexual acts
      • Touched your body in a sexual way
      • Made you touch yourself or them in a sexual way
      • Tried to or made you engage in sexual intercourse
    • Emotional abuse: A primary caregiver and or important adult verbally harms you
      • Swearing at you
      • Talking down to you
      • Insulting you
      • Threatening you


  • Emotional neglect: Pattern of neglect in which your emotional needs are consistently ignored or disregarded by one or more family members
    • Never or rarely made you feel important
    • You rarely or never felt loved
    • People in your family were not close or seemed to care for each other
    • You could not rely on your family to be a source of support and strength
  • Physical neglect: Your primary caregiver and or an important adult in your household did not or was unable to meet your basic needs
    • There was rarely or never anyone around to take care of you or protect you
      • Often left alone for long periods
    • You never had enough food to eat
    • There were few options for clothing
      • Clothing was dirty, damaged, or the wrong size
    • You did not receive medical care when it was needed
    • There was never or rarely safe shelter
    • You did not attend or receive available education

Household Challenges

  • Typically direct or indirect exposure to trauma and or a lack of access to resources
    • Exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV): Typically witnessing violence against a female caregiver by a male caregiver or other male adult in the household
      • Pushed
      • Grabbed
      • Slapped
      • Kicked
      • Punched
    • Substance use disorder (SUD) in the household: A primary caregiver or other important adult in your household misused substances
    • Mental health disorders in the household: A primary caregiver or other important adult in your household had unaddressed mental health challenges and or suicide ideation
    • Parental separation or divorce: Loss of a primary caregiver due to the end of their relationship with another primary caregiver
    • Incarceration of a household member: Sense of abandonment due to the loss of a primary caregiver or other important adult to imprisonment

Understanding the different types of ACEs gives more insight into how important parental behaviors are to the presence of trauma. Therefore, early relationships, or more specifically the caregiver-child relationship can be instrumental in self-defeating behaviors. With more insight into the types of traumas caregivers can cause, you can understand the neurobiological impact of trauma on developing brains.

The Neurobiology of Early Relationships and Trauma

According to the Current Opinion in Psychology, the neurobiology of infant attachment highlights the impact of parenting on attachment and emotional development. Although it is natural for infants to form attachments to survive, the process of attachment formation is not fully innate. The process of attachment formation must be guided by experiential input and infant learning. Thus, the neurobiological mechanisms of attachment formation in early relationships are experience-driven. Moreover, an infant’s unique neurobiological mechanisms toward innate attachment are supported by preference learning and block aversion learning.

Therefore, infants will form attachments with multiple caregivers outside of the womb whether the stimulation is pleasurable or averse. However, poor parenting quality has significant consequences for emotional development. It is through early relationships with caregivers that infants develop behavioral and physiological regulation. Through the support of positive parent regulation, infant’s brains rapidly develop to support emotional regulation. Further, even when infants and parents are exposed to adverse environments, negative outcomes can be mitigated by sensitive caregiving.

Thus, quality parenting with nurturance when distressed and synchrony responsiveness to the child’s needs in sensitive caregiving can still support emotional and social learning. On the other hand, low-quality parenting can impede young children’s ability to learn how to effectively regulate their emotions. In addition, an adverse environment can further decrease parenting quality and sensitive caregiving. As a result, the long-term consequences of low-quality parenting and ACEs can increase your risk for mental health challenges and SUD.

Learning how significant your early relationship has been to how you function now is understandably distressing. You may question how you can overcome your self-defeating thinking and behaviors when they stem from your early relationships. Although you cannot turn back the clock on your early experiences, recovery is still possible. With the support of holistic therapeutic interventions, you can heal.

Supporting Personalized Care at The Guest House With Attachment Theory

With holistic care and an understanding of attachment theory, you can work in collaboration with clinicians to heal. Through therapeutic interventions supported by attachment theory, you can get to the root of your self-defeating behaviors. Moreover, with the support of attachment theory, you can learn how to rebuild trust in your relationships now. By healing the core challenges of your difficulties with the self and others, you can form healthier interpersonal relationships. Further, with healthier interpersonal relationships, you can foster a supportive network of people invested in your well-being. When you are surrounded by mutually supportive relationships, there is more space to build adaptive skills for the stressors of life.

At The Guest House, it is our fundamental mission to undercover the roots of your challenges. Therefore, we are committed to providing a wide range of holistic therapeutic modalities that acknowledge uniqueness in recovery. Through a trauma-specific approach to care, we recognize that everyone’s path to recovery is unique to them. Thus, you deserve access to a personalized plan of care to support your specific path toward healing. With our individualized treatment plans in a safe and non-judgmental space, you can repair relationships, regain trust, restore confidence, and rediscover yourself to lead a fulfilling life.

The early relationships you form with one or more primary caregivers in early childhood are vital to your functioning and relationships later in life. Low-quality parenting and a lack of sensitive caregiving can impede regulation and emotional development. Thus, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like physical abuse, emotional neglect, and exposure to parental substance misuse can lead to attachment trauma. Then the impact of trauma in early life can lead to insecure attachment styles, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized which contributes to unhealthy relationships and self-defeating thinking and behavior patterns. However, with a holistic and trauma-specific approach to care, you can find individualized care that addresses your specific challenges. To learn more, call The Guest House at (855) 483-7800 today.