Is Attachment Trauma Causing Your Relationship Issues?
From infancy to adulthood, childhood trauma can cause separation anxiety, self-esteem issues, difficulties forming intimate relationships, and more.
By: Sarah Fielding
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
December 12, 2023
Table of Contents
It’s no secret that our childhood experiences can profoundly impact how we feel and act as adolescents and adults. These first interactions with the world and those meant to care for us can inform so much of how we interpret our safety, trust, and relationship dynamics. When these early encounters are particularly harmful, they can lead to something known as attachment trauma—a condition that can have a lasting impact.
“Attachment trauma can form in infancy when caregivers are inconsistent or unresponsive to a child’s emotional and physical needs,” says Dr. Chelsi Clark, LPC, a nationally certified school psychologist and Charlie Health’s director of BIPOC Programming. “These early experiences can have profound emotional repercussions, leading to heightened anxiety, difficulty regulating emotions, and challenges in forming secure relationships.” Below, we delve into signs of attachment trauma, the link between attachment trauma and attachment style, and tips for healing attachment wounds.
Signs of attachment trauma
There are many ways attachment trauma can manifest, some of which depend on a person’s age. According to Clark, some signs of attachment trauma commonly seen in children and teens are as follows.
- Disrupted emotional regulation, including behavioral issues
- Difficulty forming secure connections with caregivers or withdrawing from caregivers
- Difficulty trusting others or developing healthy relationships
- Separation anxiety
- Self-esteem issues, such as insecurity
- Poor school performance
- Memory and problem-solving issues
Many of these signs of attachment trauma can also be related to other mental health conditions, so it’s critical to look at the whole picture when assessing someone’s well-being, Clark adds.
Attachment trauma experienced during childhood can continue to have an impact well into adulthood. “The enduring effects of attachment trauma on mental development may contribute to long-term challenges, including impairments in executive functions and an increased vulnerability to mental health issues later in life, emphasizing the critical role of early attachment experiences in shaping both emotional and cognitive well-being,” says Clark. She says that some common signs of attachment trauma in adults are as follows:
- Difficulty trusting others and forming healthy intimate relationships
- Emotionally withdrawal, such as an ambivalent attachment style
- Clinginess, often stemming from an insecure attachment style
- Low self-esteem
- Disrupted emotional regulation
- Anxiety and uneasiness in relationships
Attachment trauma and attachment style
Based on attachment theory, peoples’ bond with childhood caregivers lays the foundation for how they relate to future relationships, also known as their attachment style. Attachment trauma, therefore, can impact people’s attachment style—a claim substantiated by research.
For example, a 2016 study found that childhood trauma (including physical and emotional abuse or neglect) positively correlated with attachment styles based on fear, dismissing, and preoccupation, namely, anxious attachment style, avoidant attachment style, and disorganized attachment style. At the same time, childhood trauma decreases a person’s likelihood of having a secure attachment style, the study found. Another study from 2019 found that childhood trauma increased the likelihood of a person exhibiting an insecure attachment.
“In adults, attachment trauma can manifest through relational challenges in romantic partnerships, friendships, or professional connections,” says Clark. “Individuals contending with unresolved attachment trauma typically display behavioral patterns and psychological symptoms that significantly impact the quality of their adult lives, especially in terms of their choices in relationships.” At its core, attachment trauma can cause people of all ages to develop general attachment difficulty.
3 tips for healing and coping with attachment trauma
Being able to identify the signs of attachment trauma is the first step—then comes learning to heal and cope with the developmental trauma. As with any mental health condition, there are a range of techniques that can be beneficial, but the key is figuring out which ones are the right fit. “By integrating these approaches, individuals can progressively mend attachment trauma, reconstructing a foundation for resilient and fulfilling connections with others,” says Clark. Here are three methods for healing and coping with attachment trauma that she recommends.
Use secure relationships as a template
Consider support groups
1. Use secure relationships as a template
Plenty of adages exist about fully healing and loving yourself before you can be there for someone else. No, you don’t necessarily want to enter into a relationship (platonic or romantic) that you’re not equipped for, but cultivating healthy, mutually beneficial relationships can be really helpful. “One pivotal avenue for this recovery involves engaging with individuals possessing secure attachment styles, as their emotional stability and supportive dynamics can serve as a reparative force,” says Clark. “These relationships act as a living template for secure connections, offering a tangible experience of safety and trust that counteracts the lingering effects of past trauma.”
This shift can also mean devoting more time to existing healthy relationships in your life and considering how a secure attachment feels compared to relationships with an insecure attachment style. These connections can also provide a space for you to safely talk about your experience with attachment trauma and be honest about the work you’re doing to heal from it.
2. Consider support groups
Talking to friends and loved ones about your feelings can be tremendously freeing and beneficial. But, you might find something is missing and have an urge to speak with other people who have similar experiences, both as children and in the present day. A support group can provide a safe space to share your thoughts and learn from other people who understand attachment trauma. A mental health professional might be able to recommend one to you, or local clinics and charities might run one in your area or online. Group therapy can also provide a chance to explore these feelings.
3. Seek therapy
Speaking of therapy, it can be an incredibly beneficial option for trauma recovery. “Specific therapeutic modalities, such as attachment-based therapy and therapeutic interventions, play a central role in the healing journey, providing a structured space for individuals to explore and understand their attachment patterns,” says Clark. “Skilled therapists guide the process of unraveling past attachment wounds, fostering more secure attachments and empowering individuals to develop adaptive relationship skills.” Attachment therapy can also help you understand your attachment style and any attachment issues or attachment wounds you might be dealing with.
Support for attachment trauma at Charlie Health
If attachment trauma symptoms are impacting your mental health, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people dealing with complex mental health conditions, including people dealing with trauma, attachment issues, or an attachment disorder. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based trauma therapy, like trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With treatment, managing an attachment disorder is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.