Navigating Early Attachment Trauma: Your Healing Guide

Jul 13, 2023

When it comes to understanding human wellbeing and what can go wrong, the study of early attachment trauma on individuals tells us more than nearly anything else. Early attachment trauma, an invisible adversary, can silently shape our lives, making us act and react in ways we might not understand.


Thrive Counselling Vancouver is committed to not only exploring the intricacies of early attachment trauma but also offering practical, constructive ways to its treatment. We believe that with knowledge comes the power to heal and that healing becomes a cornerstone for fostering healthier, more resilient connections.



What is Early Attachment Trauma?


Early attachment trauma is a distressing event or series of events that occur during the initial stages of a child’s life. Typically, it arises from significant disruption or inconsistency in the child’s relationship with their primary caregiver, laying the groundwork for potential difficulties in future relationships and emotional well-being. These experiences can be traumatic and profoundly affect a child’s psychological development, possibly extending into adulthood.


Symptoms of Early Attachment Trauma


Identifying early attachment trauma requires an understanding of the range of symptoms it can present. Though the symptoms can vary greatly between individuals, based on factors such as their temperament and the severity and duration of the trauma, some common symptoms generally manifest in those affected. Below are listed some common symptoms of early attachment trauma.


1. Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships


Individuals who have experienced early attachment trauma often struggle with initiating and sustaining both platonic and romantic relationships. They may find it difficult to trust others or to rely on them emotionally.


2. Trust issues


Given their early experiences, where their primary caregivers may have let them down, these individuals may have deeply ingrained beliefs that others are not reliable or trustworthy.


3. Difficulty managing and expressing emotions


People with early attachment trauma often have a fraught relationship with their emotions. They might suppress their feelings, leading to emotional numbness, or they might struggle to control their emotions, resulting in emotional volatility.


4. A chronic sense of fear or danger


Those with early attachment trauma might constantly feel under threat or unsafe, even in situations where there is no apparent danger. This often stems from their early experiences where their environment was unpredictable, and they felt continually at risk.


5. Problems with self-image or low self-esteem


If a child’s primary caregivers consistently disregard or invalidate their needs and feelings, they may grow up believing that they are unworthy of love and care, leading to low self-esteem and a negative self-image.


6. Resistance to love or comfort


Paradoxically, even though they crave emotional closeness, individuals with early attachment trauma might resist love and comfort, as these feelings can stir up memories of past betrayals and hurts.


Causes of Early Attachment Trauma


Early attachment trauma is often rooted in a child’s relationship with their primary caregiver. The causes can include:

  • Neglect: When the caregiver doesn’t respond to the child’s emotional and physical needs, it can lead to Early Attachment Trauma. This could involve physical neglect, such as insufficient nutrition, hygiene, and medical care, or emotional neglect, where the child’s emotional needs for love, affection, and security are unmet.
  • Abuse: Early childhood abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual, can cause trauma by breaking a child’s trust and causing serious emotional and psychological damage.
  • Separation or loss: The loss of a caregiver due to death, divorce or abandonment can be traumatic for a young child. The sudden absence can disrupt the child’s sense of security, impacting their emotional well-being and leading to attachment difficulties.
  • Inconsistent care: When caregivers are not consistently available, responsive, or attentive, it can confuse and unsettle a child. This unpredictable caregiving can make it challenging for the child to develop a secure attachment, possibly resulting in attachment trauma.


What is Attachment?


Attachment refers to the deep emotional bond that develops between a child and their primary caregiver during early childhood. It significantly influences a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.


The attachment theory, developed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1950s, suggests that this caregiver-child bond is crucial for a child’s survival. It shapes how we relate to others, cope with adversity and perceive ourselves.


According to Bowlby, a child is biologically driven to create an attachment with their caregivers to ensure survival. When the caregiver is responsive and sensitive to the child’s needs, the child develops a secure attachment. This creates feelings of safety and security, enabling the child to explore their environment confidently and develop a positive self-image.


Conversely, if the caregiver is neglectful, abusive, or inconsistent in their responses, the child may develop insecure attachment patterns. These patterns can be:

  • Avoidant – the child learns to rely on themselves
  • Anxious – the child becomes overly dependent on the caregiver for reassurance
  • Disorganized – the child displays a confusing mix of attachment behaviours.


Primary Caregiver’s Role in Early Attachment Trauma


The role of the primary caregiver in a child’s life cannot be overstated, especially concerning attachment and the potential for trauma. Early interactions with their primary caregiver significantly shape a child’s psychological and emotional development.


Impact of an Unavailable or Unstable Caregiver


When the primary caregiver is unavailable or unstable, it disrupts the formation of a secure attachment bond. The impacts of such disruption include:

  • Insecure Attachment Patterns: When a caregiver is neglectful, abusive, or inconsistent, the child is likely to develop insecure attachment patterns – avoidant, anxious, or disorganized.
  • Emotional Dysregulation: Children with attachment trauma often have trouble regulating their emotions. They might experience intense, overwhelming emotions and lack the skills to manage them effectively.
  • Difficulty Trusting Others: If the primary caregiver is unreliable or harmful, the child learns that they cannot trust others to meet their needs. This can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships later in life.
  • Low Self-Esteem: Children look to their primary caregivers for validation and approval. If a caregiver is unavailable or inconsistent, the child might internalize the belief that they are unworthy of love and care.
  • Chronic Fear and Hyper-Vigilance: Children with attachment trauma may constantly feel threatened and unsafe, leading to chronic fear and hyper-vigilance. They might be overly alert and anxious, constantly looking for danger.


Establishing a Healthy Relationship with Primary Caregiver


Establishing a healthy relationship between the child and their primary caregiver counteracts the damaging impacts of early attachment trauma. It involves the caregiver being consistently available, responsive, and sensitive to the child’s needs. They should provide comfort when the child is upset, celebrate with them when they are happy, and offer reassurance when they are scared.


A healthy caregiver-child relationship forms the foundation for secure attachment, emotional regulation, positive self-esteem, trust in others, and overall psychological well-being. It helps prevent early attachment trauma and its long-lasting effects.


Types of Attachment Issues and How They Impact Relationships


Understanding attachment issues is key to comprehending the impacts of early attachment trauma. The attachment patterns formed in childhood often persist into adulthood, affecting how we relate to others, respond to stress, and perceive ourselves. There are four main types of attachment issues: Secure Attachment Issue, Avoidant Attachment Issue, Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment Issue and Disorganized/Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Issue.


1. Secure Attachment Issue


Individuals with a secure attachment style feel comfortable with intimacy and are usually warm and loving. They have a positive view of themselves and their partners. They trust easily, can depend on others and allow others to depend on them. They are also unafraid of healthy space between themselves and others—comfortable with both closeness and distance.


2. Avoidant Attachment Issue


Those with an avoidant attachment style are often uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy. They have difficulty relying on others and rarely open up about their feelings. These individuals may appear independent and self-reliant, but at the core, they are usually suppressing their need for connection due to fear of rejection or abandonment. Folks with avoidant attachments tend to see distance as the solution to relationship stress.


3. Ambivalent/Anxious Attachment Issue


Individuals with an anxious attachment style often worry about their relationships. They are anxious that their partners do not love them or won’t stay with them. They seek reassurance from their partners and highly need approval and responsiveness. They have a negative view of themselves but a positive view of others. Folks with anxious attachments tend to see closeness—even excessive closeness—as the solution to relationship stress.


4. Disorganized/Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Issue


Those with a disorganized or fearful-avoidant attachment style have mixed feelings about close relationships. They desire closeness but fear intimacy. They have a hard time trusting and depending on others. They may experience emotional storms and have difficulty regulating their feelings. Think of the extraordinary stress they are under when the very thing they seek most is the source of their terror.



What Causes Attachment Trauma?


The primary causes of attachment trauma typically lie in the relationship between a child and their primary caregiver. The caregiver’s unavailability, inconsistency, or harmful behaviour disrupts the formation of a secure attachment bond, leading to traumatic distress symptoms. It can result from neglect, abuse, separation or loss, or inconsistent care—all types of what we call relational trauma.


The early years of a child’s life are a critical period for attachment formation. During this time, the brain is highly plastic, particularly susceptible to environmental influences. The experiences during this critical period can shape the brain’s structure and functioning, influencing the child’s development and future behaviour.


The child’s temperament, the severity and duration of the trauma, and the presence of supportive figures can also influence how the child responds to attachment trauma and how it affects their development.



The Consequences of Attachment Trauma


Attachment trauma can have far-reaching consequences, influencing various aspects of an individual’s life. Below are listed some of the consequences of attachment trauma.

  • Interpersonal Difficulties: People with attachment trauma often have difficulty forming and maintaining close relationships. They may struggle with trust, intimacy, and dependability.
  • Emotional Dysregulation: Individuals with attachment trauma might experience intense, overwhelming emotions and lack the skills to manage them effectively. This can lead to mood swings, anger outbursts, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
  • Negative Self-Image: People with attachment trauma may view themselves negatively. They might believe that they are unworthy of love and care, leading to low self-esteem and self-worth.
  • High Stress and Health Problems: Chronic stress and hyper-vigilance associated with attachment trauma can contribute to various health problems, including cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, and other physical health issues.
  • Increased Risk of Substance Use Disorders: Individuals with attachment trauma are at a higher risk of developing substance use disorders, as they might use substances to cope with their distressing emotions and memories.


Coping with Attachment Trauma


Coping with Early Attachment Trauma Infographic

Navigating the path to healing from attachment trauma is challenging, but healing from it is possible. With the right support and resources, individuals can recover from attachment trauma, build resilience, and establish healthy relationships. There are several strategies you can adopt to cope effectively with attachment trauma. Below are listed some major ones.


1. Understand the Impact of Your Past


Acknowledging the role of past experiences in shaping current behaviour and relationship patterns is vital. It involves recognizing the signs of attachment trauma and understanding its root causes. Self-reflection and introspection, facilitated by a mental health professional or self-help resources, can be instrumental in this process.


2. Develop Connections That Encourage Strength & Resilience


Establishing secure, supportive relationships can provide a strong foundation for recovery. Positive interactions and healthy relationships can foster a sense of security and belonging, promoting resilience and emotional wellbeing.


3. Get Comfortable With Honest Communication


Honest, open communication is a cornerstone of healthy relationships. This includes expressing your thoughts, feelings, and needs, listening to others, and resolving conflicts in a respectful way.


4. Connect With Your Body


Mind-body practices such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can enhance self-awareness, promote relaxation, and help manage stress. These practices can be particularly beneficial for individuals with attachment trauma, who often experience high levels of bodily tension and emotional distress.


5. Consider Trauma-Focused Therapy


Therapies specifically designed for trauma, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT), and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, can be extremely beneficial. These trauma therapies can help you process traumatic memories, develop healthier coping strategies, and improve your relationships and quality of life.


We at Thrive Downtown actively treat those with early attachment trauma through various mental health therapies, including EMDR therapy and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy.



Signs of Attachment Trauma in Adults


Signs of Attachment Trauma in Adults Infographic

While each individual’s experience of attachment trauma is unique, there are some common signs that can indicate unresolved attachment trauma in adults.


What are the Signs of Attachment Trauma in Adulthood?


Below are listed the most common signs of attachment trauma in adults.

  • Difficulty trusting others
  • Struggling with intimacy and commitment
  • Frequent feelings of insecurity or fear of abandonment
  • Tendency to either cling to or distance from others
  • Emotional dysregulation, such as mood swings or outbursts of anger
  • Low self-esteem and negative self-image
  • Persistent feelings of emptiness or loneliness
  • Substance use or other self-destructive behaviours as coping mechanisms
  • Persistent patterns of unstable and intense relationships.
  • Tendency to idealize potential caregivers or partners.
  • Fear of real or imagined abandonment.
  • Impulsivity in areas that could potentially harm themselves.
  • Recurrent suicidal ideation or self-harming behaviour.
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness.
  • Difficulty controlling anger.
  • Temporary, stress-related paranoid ideation or severe dissociative symptoms.



Consequences of Poor or Incomplete Attachment


Poor or incomplete attachment can adversely affect an individual’s well-being and relationships. The consequences vary from person to person, but the two major ones are listed below.


1. Difficulty in Interpersonal Relationships


Individuals with poor or incomplete attachment may struggle to form and maintain healthy relationships. They may find it challenging to trust others, express their needs and feelings, and manage conflicts effectively. This can lead to unstable and unsatisfying relationships marked by frequent conflicts, breakups, and feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction.


2. Unstable or Negative Sense of Self


Poor or incomplete attachment can also impact an individual’s self-perception. These individuals may struggle with low self-esteem and negative self-image. They may believe they are unlovable, unworthy, or inadequate, leading to shame, guilt, and self-blame.



How to Heal Early Attachment Trauma?


Healing from early attachment trauma is a complex, multifaceted process. It involves understanding the roots of the trauma, developing healthier coping strategies, and building secure, supportive relationships. Consider the following steps to heal from early attachment trauma.


1. Understanding Infant Memory


While adults may not consciously remember their early experiences, these experiences can profoundly impact their development and behaviour. Research suggests that traumatic experiences in early childhood can be stored in the body and unconscious mind, influencing an individual’s behaviour and relationships in ways they may not consciously understand. Understanding this can help individuals make sense of their feelings and behaviours and recognize the impact of their early experiences.


2. When Attachment Trauma Occurs


Attachment trauma can occur when a child’s primary caregiver is unavailable or unresponsive, leaving the child feeling scared, helpless, and insecure. Recognizing this can help individuals understand why they react the way they do in certain situations and why they struggle with certain aspects of relationships.


3. The Inner Working Model


According to attachment theory, individuals develop an “inner working model” or mental representation of relationships based on their early experiences with their caregivers. This model guides their expectations and behaviours in relationships throughout their lives. Understanding one’s inner working model can help individuals recognize unhealthy relationship patterns and work towards establishing healthier ones.


4. Barriers to Treatment


While seeking help is a critical step toward healing, it’s not always easy. Many individuals with attachment trauma struggle with feelings of shame, fear, and unworthiness, which can act as barriers to seeking and accepting help. Recognizing these barriers and seeking support can be an important step toward recovery.


5. Healing the “Inner Infant”


Healing from attachment trauma involves nurturing the “inner infant” or the part of oneself that carries the pain and fear of the early trauma. This may involve inner child work, mindfulness, self-compassion, and trauma-focused therapies.


6. Find a Connection that Provides Strength


Building secure, supportive relationships can provide a strong foundation for recovery. That can be relationships with friends, family, a partner, or a supportive community.


7. Consider Working with the Body


As trauma is often stored in the body, body-based therapies like somatic experiencing and sensorimotor psychotherapy can be particularly helpful. These therapies focus on bodily sensations and movements to process trauma and develop healthier coping strategies.


8. Consider Trauma-Focused Therapy


Trauma-focused therapies, such as EMDR and TF-CBT, can help individuals process traumatic memories and play a crucial role in improving their relationships and quality of life.



Understanding the Healing Process from Early Attachment Trauma


Healing from early attachment trauma is a unique and individual process. The healing process from this trauma involves various stages, such as:


1. Identifying and Naming the Feelings Associated with the Trauma


Being able to identify and name your feelings is a crucial step in the healing process. It involves recognizing the emotions that arise in response to triggers and learning to manage them effectively.


2. Recognizing Triggers and Coping Strategies


Understanding what triggers your feelings of fear, anxiety, or distress can help you develop effective coping strategies. This can involve practices like mindfulness, deep breathing, and cognitive-behavioural techniques.


3. Exploring Self-Compassion and Self-Care Practices


Practicing self-compassion involves treating yourself with kindness and understanding, particularly when you’re struggling or feeling inadequate. Self-care involves caring for your physical, emotional, and social needs, which can support your overall well-being and resilience.



Signs That You’re Healing From Attachment Trauma


While the healing process can be challenging and nonlinear, some signs can indicate you’re on the path to recovery. Here’s the list of signs that shows you are healing from early attachment trauma.

Signs That You're Healing From Attachment Trauma Infographic

  • Improved self-esteem and self-image.
  • Enhanced emotional regulation skills.
  • Improved relationships.
  • Increased self-awareness.
  • Greater resilience and coping skills.
  • Decreased symptoms of distress.





Healing from early attachment trauma is not a linear process, and no universal blueprint fits all scenarios. However, with the right understanding, acceptance, and professional help, you can navigate your way through the mists of past traumas toward healthier relationships. Thrive Downtown has a team of mental health professionals who can help you overcome your early attachment trauma. Contact us today for a free consultation.



Early Attachment Trauma FAQs



How does early attachment trauma impact adult relationships?


Early attachment trauma can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining secure, satisfying relationships in adulthood. It can make it challenging for individuals to trust others, express their needs and feelings effectively, and handle conflicts in a healthy way.


What are the triggers for attachment trauma?


Triggers for attachment trauma can vary widely from person to person. They could be anything that reminds the individual of the early traumatic experiences, such as certain people, places, situations, or feelings.


How does early attachment affect adulthood?


Early attachment experiences can significantly influence an individual’s development and behaviour in adulthood. This includes their ability to form and maintain relationships, regulate their emotions, manage stress, and maintain a positive self-image.


What are some self-care practices for individuals with attachment trauma?


Self-care practices for individuals with attachment trauma can include regular physical activity, adequate sleep, a balanced diet, mindfulness practices, regular check-ins with mental health professionals, and maintaining a supportive social network.


Is it possible to form secure attachments after experiencing trauma?


It’s possible to form secure attachments after experiencing trauma. It often involves therapy and intentional work toward understanding and healing from past trauma, building healthier relationship patterns, and improving self-esteem and emotional regulation skills.


What should I look for in a therapist specializing in attachment trauma?


Look for a therapist with specific training and experience in attachment trauma. They should be familiar with trauma-focused therapies and have a compassionate, non-judgmental approach.


How does early attachment trauma affect a child’s development?


Early attachment trauma can adversely affect a child’s development, including their emotional, social, and cognitive development. It can lead to difficulty in forming secure relationships, regulating emotions, managing stress, and maintaining a positive self-image.

Carson Kivari

Carson Kivari

Carson Kivari is the Founder and Clinic Director of Thrive Downtown, with years of experience helping individuals and couples overcome anxiety, depression, and burnout. He guides clients on a journey of self-exploration and trauma release to find purpose, connection, and safety. Take the first step towards healing and contact Carson today to schedule a session.

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