Attachment injuries or traumas usually happen when the needs for closeness, comfort, and security are not met in childhood. Barriers to attachment develop that can result in negative feelings and an ongoing cycle of distressing interactions. It can affect an individual’s ability to form and keep relationships. Attachment trauma is a type of mood or behavioral disorder.
As Medical News Today explains, the way we learn how to form and maintain relationships stem from our “initial interactions with a parent or primary caregiver during childhood.” Attachment injuries or trauma occurs when a child is unable to have a consistent emotional connection with a parent or caregiver. The individual, as an adult, might have issues with trusting other people or feeling like they are safe and secure in a relationship. Often, this results in trouble forming and maintaining romantic relationships and friendships.
What Is Attachment Theory?
Attachment theory focuses on the relationships and bonds between people. In particular, it pertains to long-term relationships, including romantic partners and those of parent and child.
British psychologist John Bowlby described the earliest attachment theory as “a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” He wanted to understand the separation anxiety children feel when not with their primary caregivers, as Verywell Mind notes. He thought that attachment stemmed from the feedings infants received but later observed that attachment was distinguished by behavioral and motivation patterns.
Looking deeper into attachment theory, we can surmise that infants seek nurturing and safety from their caregivers. Children can indicate to their caregiver when they are sick, distressed, or afraid. How the caregiver responds to the indication determines what the child’s attachment style will be when they grow up and become adults.
Different Types of Attachment Disorders
There are several different types of this disorder as recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), the defining diagnostic guide.
Both of these disorder types indicate the symptoms that relate to children and later as adults.
Reactive attachment disorder – These symptoms originate in early childhood if the child was a victim of maltreatment or neglect.
- Children will have lower levels of interaction with others
- May show no or very little emotion in social interaction
- Will have trouble with calming down when stressed
- May seem sad, unhappy, irritable, or scared when they engage in normal activities with caregivers
If the child does not get treatment for this disorder, it might continue into adulthood. Adults with this disorder may display symptoms of:
- Resisting affection
- Not able to read others’ emotions
- Trouble showing affection
- Anger problems
- Lower levels of trust
- Trouble maintaining relationships
Disinhibited social engagement disorder – This disorder can develop if the child was subjected to social neglect and a lack of steady attachment from a parent or caregiver during the first two years of life. Symptoms children with this disorder may experience are:
- Very few if any social boundaries
- Extreme sociability
- Able to approach and converse with strangers
If the child is not treated, as an adult, they may display symptoms of:
- Complete lack of awareness of social boundaries
- Extreme trust in people they don’t know well
- Asking intrusive questions to people they just met
- Other behaviors that display a lack of inhibition
Secure Attachment Characteristics
Adults with secure attachments probably had a positive emotional bond with parents or their primary caregiver. They feel secure and comfortable in relationships and generally have low levels of anxiety in them. The key characteristics of secure attachment are:
- Displays empathetic qualities
- Is able to respond to their needs and those of others
- Will react with appropriate emotions in most situations
- Displays feelings, thoughts, and actions that serve themselves and others
- Keeps a comfortable level in intimate relationships
Insecure Attachment Style
There are three types of insecure attachment. They are:
Anxious attachment – This is sometimes called the anxious-ambivalent attachment style. It is mostly characterized by feeling anxious and insecure in relationships. Children and adults with this attachment style may be obsessed with worry, clinginess, and needing constant reassurance and validation.
Avoidant attachment – This is characterized by dismissive behavior. Children and adults with this attachment style avoid intimacy and emotional closeness. They may also struggle to ask for help when needed.
Fearful-avoidant attachment – This is also called the disorganized attachment style. It is characterized by volatile and unpredictable behaviors. Children and adults won’t have strong coping strategies when in relationships.
Let’s take a look at some of the signs that a child and adult might display if they have an insecure attachment style.
- Very clingy to parent or caregiver
- Also actively avoids parent or caregiver
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Represses or hides emotions
- Becomes panicked or upset when the parent or caregiver leaves them
- Puts forth an independent display when they secretly want attention
- Afraid of new situations and has a fear of exploring
- Very clingy or dependent on a partner
- Low sense of self-esteem and self-worth
- Has trouble asking for help
- Resistant to engage in intimacy with a partner
- Always needing reassurance in a relationship
- Pushes others away
- Afraid of abandonment
- Feels jealous and threatened by their partner’s independence
Trauma and Dissociation
People who experience trauma in their lives, whether as a child or an adult, may find that the trauma is easier to cope with by dissociating. When you don’t want to remember or relive the traumatic event, your brain uses coping strategies that help block out the painful memories. This is called disassociation. Basically, the brain creates a mental block between your awareness and the experiences that are too frightening to know or remember.
Children are more likely to disassociate to get away from emotional or physical pain, whether from family issues, neglect, or one of the insecure attachment styles. They use disassociation to make it through the experiences that make them not feel safe. They disconnect to feelings, memories, and body sensations that are too much to handle. This often works well in childhood, but when they are adults, it does not work that great.
PsychCentral says that disassociation is “a state of disconnection from the here and now.” When you dissociate, you are not aware of your surroundings or sensations. This is how some people cope with the memories that evoke a sense of danger. In this state, you stop feeling. This type of coping mechanism usually works well for children in neglectful or abusive families.
Adults who have been through childhood trauma may use other ways to cope with painful memories, such as abusing drugs or alcohol or overeating, or not eating. Alcohol and drug use are often used to self-medicate. If continued, self-medicating could lead to addiction.
Understanding Adult Attachment Trauma
Adults who have attachment trauma are at risk of developing other problems can be mental, social, or physical. Depression and anxiety are common since adults with attachment trauma tend to internalize emotions. They are also likely to have emotional dysregulation, which may increase their anxiety, as PsychiatryAdvisor notes.
Alexithymia, when a person lacks emotional awareness, is also a possibility. Adults with attachment trauma have learned how to not express emotion. Eating disorders are also a potential problem as the adult with attachment trauma may use food as a way to cope with painful triggers or memories.
Addiction is a possibility because some adults may choose to self-treat themselves with alcohol or drugs and may do so every time a painful trigger or memory surfaces. If the trauma is not treated by a psychiatric professional, the cycle of abusing substances will continue, and addiction is a real possibility.
Treatment for Adult Attachment Trauma
Treatment for attachment trauma is usually psychotherapy. At Vista Pines Health, a mental health treatment center in South Florida, you can receive caring help and support as you work through your attachment trauma issues and learn how to live and love in a positive, healthy way. Group therapy is also an option, as the group serves as a secure base in which to express what you have endured as a child and adult. Medication may be needed to treat depression or anxiety.
We also provide residential treatment for those who prefer to reside in a safe environment temporarily. Other forms of therapy that you might participate in include coping skills, life skills, process groups, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and sessions in family dynamics. At Vista Pines Health, you will feel at home in our comfortable and safe center. You will not feel lost here as our client-to-staff ratio is low to give each person the time and space they need to heal.
There is help for you if you are an adult with attachment trauma. Our dedicated staff has decades of experience in working with many different mental health disorders and substance use. We are near the major South Florida airports and a short drive on the main interstate highways.