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What is Attachment Trauma? Causes and Healing

What is Attachment Trauma? Causes and Healing, by Zachary Duty

Before addressing attachment trauma and its signs we must acknowledge that life is built on relationships. Without relationships, it is difficult to find meaning and motivation in our daily activities and work towards major goals. Relationships with secure attachments give meaning and add value to our lives. Luckily we are born with a mother and father who love and nurture the first relationship of our lives. This builds trust and establishes a comfortable and safe place to return when a child is fearful or unsure of a situation. Children often run back to the safety of their mother or father’s arms when faced with a new and unsure situation.

We draw on this attachment experience with our parents throughout our lives as we do our best to navigate new relationships with friends and partners.

The Causes and Consequences of Attachment Trauma

In a healthy relationship environment secure attachment comes naturally. Unfortunately, many children seek a secure attachment with their parents and are met with discomfort in the form of neglect and abuse. Trauma is our response to a negative event in which we feel trapped, hurt physically, or hurt mentally and emotionally. This can occur in the form of an accident, natural disaster, or abuse.

Young woman holding her head in her hands

These negative events are traumatic for the child. The failure to build a secure attachment with parents can lead to a lifelong struggle with relationships. This attachment trauma can also occur in an older child in a variety of relationships. The most common is likely divorce. Not all divorces are created equal, some parents separate and do an excellent job of continuing to show their children trust and love, despite their separation. Other divorces are not as civil and often leave the child feeling alone and full of mistrust. Attachment trauma is most common among children who spend time in the foster care system but can occur with the loss of a parent or meaningful relationship.

Someone who has experienced attachment trauma is likely resistant to close relationships. They may push people who love them away in an effort to protect themselves from the hurt they have felt in the past.

Healing from Attachment Trauma

So how do you build a secure attachment as an older child or even as an adult? Attachment trauma can lead to extremely volatile and reactive behavior. Learning or relearning to trust in a relationship can require some work on your part. You may need to revisit your relationship with your trauma. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing) is a valuable tool in reprocessing and rebuilding your relationship with those traumatic memories. We will discuss EMDR further in a later article.

Develop a Narrative

Reprocessing traumatic attachment memories may be helpful in the form of talk therapy, building a trauma narrative. What exactly happened to you? It is possible you haven’t asked that question and you have never put the full story together. Doing so will allow you to see the events through a different lens which will help you understand it was not your fault and you are now in greater control of relationships.

Two women talking in front of a window with a view of a city

Regain Control

A key to resolving trauma is our control of the situation. Attachment trauma or trauma, in general, feels completely out of control and a common trauma response is acting out in an effort to gain control. This can occur in normal, seemingly calm situations when trauma is triggered followed by a potentially very intense trauma response. We must work through the cause of that trigger in order to respond more appropriately and learn that we are safe. Trauma responses are the way the body reacts to dangerous situations. They are our body’s way of keeping us safe. So, if we work through the trauma and understand our past memories to explain why we were in an unsafe situation, we can avoid reactive responses to trauma triggers by understanding we are safe.

Get Help

If you or a loved one struggles to build secure attachments, please reach out. There are a variety of therapists available who are capable of helping you understand your situation and build stronger meaningful relationships.

Zachary Duty, CSW

Zach Duty is a native Texan and a graduate of Southern Utah University with a bachelor’s degree in Outdoor Recreation. He went on to complete a master’s in social work at the University of Utah with an emphasis in child welfare. As a therapist, Zach has worked in residential treatment and for the state of Utah through the Division of Juvenile Justice.

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