What Is Attachment Trauma?

Attachment trauma comes from a rupture in the bonding process between a child and their primary caregiver. Its effects can last well into adulthood.

If you struggle with relationships, there’s a dominant cultural narrative that assumes there is something wrong with you.

But science offers us a more expansive view: Our relationship challenges may be rooted in what’s known as attachment trauma.

Attachment trauma is “a consistent disruption of physical and emotional safety in the family system. It is not what happens to you, but what happens inside you,” says Heather Monroe, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in Nashville, Tennessee, who specializes in treating relational trauma.

A child’s early life experiences shape their adult life, and the relationship with their primary caregiver is among the most important for their development.

If a child doesn’t have their early relational needs met, this can show up later in life in their mental health, relationships, and sense of self.

As we develop as children, we look to our caregivers for access to a variety of human needs, from shelter to affection. When those needs go unmet, some children can feel alone in highly charged emotional states.

Attachment trauma can occur when a caregiver is a source of overwhelming distress for the child. This is a form of relational trauma, which is trauma that occurs in the context of a relationship with another person.

It’s also closely linked with complex trauma, which is trauma from repeated events, such as ongoing emotional abuse or childhood neglect.

While conversations around terms such as “attachment styles” and “attachment theory” are growing in popularity, what is less talked about is how attachment trauma can affect how we move through the world physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Attachment trauma can be felt physically. “Relationships can trigger your nervous system to go into fight, flight or freeze,” explains Monroe.

Monroe, who is also a trauma educator, says relational trauma can be a constant, cumulative stress building up in the body over time in both visible and invisible ways.

Attachment trauma often leads to a “disoriented-disorganized” attachment — a pattern that, in turn, imparts an increased risk of further abuse and neglect.

In addition to relationship difficulties, attachment trauma is also linked to our overall mental health, according to a 2012 study.

“Your nervous system is constantly learning how to be in connection with people. And the biggest thing around that is, is it safe to be in connection or not? There’s all these overt ways that it can feel not safe, but also really covert ways that it can start feeling unsafe and shutting us down or revving us up,” says Monroe.

Monroe explains there are overt and covert causes of attachment trauma.

Overt causes of attachment trauma include:

  • divorce in the family
  • loss in the family, such as death of a parent or sibling
  • postpartum issues
  • physical neglect, such as going without basic needs, like food or water
  • abuse, which could be physical, sexual, or emotional
  • caregiver(s) facing a life threatening illness
  • caregiver(s) having a substance use disorder
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