It is said that we are the result of our early experiences. This is certainly true when it comes to attachment styles. Our attachment style explains how we relate to others in close relationships, and it’s shaped by our earliest experiences. In this blog post, we will be diving into my discussion on attachment styles and how they develop in childhood from my Trauma Chat Podcast, episode 8.

We will also look at how attachment shows up in our lives and the historical context of attachment over the last 100 years. Finally, we will discuss trauma and its impact on attachment style. If you want to understand yourself better and learn how to form healthier relationships, this blog post is for you!

Photo of a woman and man watching the sunrise. This photo represents how understanding attachment and trauma can help you build healthier relationships.

What is Attachment?

Simply put, attachment refers to the relationship between a child and their primary caregivers from birth. You may have also heard attachment referred to as bonding, family bonding, or parental bonding. Attachment development typically occurs in the first six years of life. But it does continue to evolve throughout our lifespan. This means that regardless of what our attachment style is, it can eventually become a secure attachment style. We will get into what this means a bit later.

How Does Attachment Develop?

As I mentioned, attachment is greatly influenced by our early attachment with our parents or caregiver. That relationship really shapes our attachment style in early childhood. Then when we have our first romantic relationship, our attachment development kicks into gear again. It may change or evolve what our attachment looked like in early childhood. Our first romantic relationship usually influences what our attachment style is in adulthood as well. This attachment style shows up in our relationships with future romantic partners, our friends, coworkers, children, and our parents.

As you can see, our attachment is basically in everything we do as human beings. Since we are social and relational beings, how we attach (or don’t attach) with others is a major part of who we are.

History of Attachment

Attachment Wasn’t Understood

It’s important to note that child development is a newer field of understanding over the past hundred years. This means that our parents and their parents didn’t know anything about attachment. While many parents probably had a basic understanding that you should treat your child well, they didn’t understand the principles of attachment. Many parents believed that infants simply wouldn’t remember events that occurred early in their life. This partially explains why many people, especially older generations, weren’t exactly nurtured to have a secure attachment.

Parents Didn’t Have the Ability to Foster Secure Attachment

In addition to the lack of understanding about attachment, many parents simply didn’t have a great capacity to foster secure attachment. Think about the historical context of everything that has happened over the past 100 years. War, the great depression, extreme poverty, and even the great recession that happened in the early 2000s. It’s also worth noting the impact of oppression, discrimination, and unequal opportunity for people who weren’t white or heteronormative. All of those things influence attachment.

What Does This All Mean for Attachment?

This historical and cultural view of attachment can help us understand why secure attachment isn’t exactly common. Some parents didn’t have the ability to nurture a secure attachment style because of the immense challenges they were facing. And many parents couldn’t simply because they didn’t know how to. 

Fortunately, we now have a much greater understanding of what attachment is and how it develops. This knowledge can help us understand ourselves and those around us, and improve our relational skills.

What are Attachment Styles?

A person’s “attachment style” refers to the way individuals typically relate to other people. It’s the way that we commonly “attach” to those around us. There are four attachment styles: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.

Secure Attachment

People with secure attachment are typically comfortable with intimacy and closeness. They are trusting of others and often they’re able to handle conflicts in a constructive way. Those with secure attachment feel confident in relationships and they don’t worry too much about being abandoned or rejected.

In relation to a person’s childhood, secure attachment is the result of a caregiver being able to attend to and respond to their child’s emotional and physical needs. If the parent does a good enough job with that, then their child is more likely to have a secure attachment.

If you don’t have a secure attachment you may have an insecure attachment. Insecure attachment falls into two categories: insecure-anxious and insecure-avoidant. Before I get into these two attachment styles, I want to reiterate that even if you didn’t develop secure attachment in childhood you can still develop secure attachment later in life.

Anxious Attachment

Adults who have an anxious attachment style usually have trouble trusting others. They often have a low sense of self-worth. Because of that, they are worried about being abandoned by others. Simultaneously, people with an anxious attachment style typically crave closeness and intimacy.

Now wanting closeness and intimacy is normal, but craving it or feeling like you can’t get enough of it could be an indication of anxious attachment. This feeling stems from the need for reassurance that people care about and love you. If you think that you’re unlovable or not as good as other people, you’ll need that external validation from those around you.

Another component of anxious attachment is being overly sensitive or hypervigilant when it comes to your partners. This is different than being sensitive to harsh criticism or emotional abuse. That’s a healthy response to those sorts of behaviors. People with an anxious attachment style are hyper-aware of their partner’s feelings and behaviors. They’re constantly on the lookout for a sign that something is wrong because they expect that their partner is always on the edge of abandoning them.

Anxious Attachment in Childhood

Children who have anxious attachment styles are often “clingy” and in need of constant attention. They may show behaviors like uncontrollable crying, nervousness, lack of emotional regulation, and becoming extremely upset when a caregiver leaves. It’s also possible that they have issues interacting with peers and that they fear people they don’t know.

Photo of a man and woman arguing back to back. This photo represents how relationship problems can be a result of childhood trauma.

Avoidant Attachment

Now the other form of insecure attachment that I mentioned is avoidant attachment. Avoidant attachment presents as emotional distance. People with an avoidant attachment style often have trouble being intimate with others. They typically don’t like feeling vulnerable. To cope with this, those with an avoidant attachment style may keep their partner at arm’s length emotionally or physically.

Some people with avoidant attachment have trouble asking for help when they have emotional needs. Often they might look very self-reliant or have few close relationships. Though it’s not uncommon for those with an avoidant attachment style to actually feel lonely. They just don’t know how to connect with others on a deeper emotional level.

Avoidant Attachment in Childhood

Children with an avoidant attachment may seem calm when they are separated from their primary caregivers. However, when their caregivers return, they don’t want to really interact with them. Essentially, avoidant attachment looks calm on the outside but on the inside, the child still feels similar to a child with insecure attachment.

A child with an avoidant attachment style can appear to be very independent or mature for their age. Really this is because they tend to rely heavily on self-soothing techniques. Because they’ve learned that they can’t rely on others, they handle their emotions on their own. They may want to accept help, but they struggle to connect, and they’re not really sure why.

Disorganized Attachment

The final attachment style is disorganized attachment, which often is present in those who have a history of trauma. In adulthood, disorganized attachment is characterized by feeling like you can’t trust yourself or others. You might have a hard time being emotionally stable or consistent in your relationships.

Disorganized Attachment in Childhood

Disorganized attachment occurs when a caretaker is both abusive and neglectful. Or in other words, the caretaker is both “scared” and “scary”. As you can imagine, this would leave a child feeling confused and nervous.

Children need a secure base. They need a reliable parent that is safe for them. When a caregiver is “scared” themselves, then their child senses that their parent doesn’t feel safe. And if the caregiver is “scary”, for example when they scream at their child or do unpredictable things, their child also won’t feel safe. This back and forth between neglectful and abusive causes the child to develop disorganized attachment.

Detaching from Trauma

In order to be able to biologically depend on their parent for survival, children have to be able to attach to their parents. They need their parent to be safe and secure. But if their parent is not safe and secure, then what should the child do? This quandary leads to fragmentation because the child has to detach from the truth that their parent can be unsafe.

Part of them holds the knowledge that their parent is unsafe. But another part of them detaches from this truth to stay connected with their parent. Essentially, they have to detach from the traumatized parts of themselves. Those traumatic memories can be tucked away outside of the child’s conscious awareness. This can lead to problems such as flashbacks, body memories, nightmares, and emotional dysregulation. And, of course, it also leads to disorganized attachment.

Why are Attachment Styles Important?

It’s important to learn about attachment style because it can give us insight into our relationships. It can help us to understand why we might have trouble being close to others or feeling like we can’t trust anyone. Learning about attachment can also give us further clarity as to how our early traumas can continue to shape our relationships today.

Attachment and Trauma

Trauma and attachment are two closely related topics. Trauma can shape our attachment style, and our attachment style can impact how we deal with trauma in the present. By understanding both attachment and trauma, we can work on developing healthier relationships.

Can I Change My Attachment Style?

It’s true that trauma can have a lasting impact on our lives. Attachment styles are just one example of that. Though it’s also important to know that our attachment style is not set in stone. If you have an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style, you might be worried that you won’t be able to maintain healthy relationships.

You can certainly maintain a healthy relationship if you don’t have a secure attachment style. The first step is simply learning more about your attachment style through blogs like this. Understanding your attachment style will allow you to identify unhealthy thought patterns or behaviors related to attachment. However, attachment styles are able to evolve.

We can change and heal our attachment style by working through our traumas with a therapist. It may not feel like it now, but healing from trauma is possible. Working with a counselor can help.

Photo of a woman talking to a therapist representing how a trauma therapist can help you in healing from childhood trauma.

Find a Trauma Therapist Near Me!

After reading this blog you may be thinking about the ways that your life experiences or traumas have shaped you. You might be wondering how your traumatic experiences have contributed to your attachment style and the way you connect with others. Counseling is a great tool to help you understand and work through your trauma.

Working with a trauma therapist allows you to process your traumatic experiences in a safe space. You’ll be able to more clearly understand how your trauma has impacted different areas of your life. Then, you’ll be able to start healing. You don’t have to live under the weight of your experiences. If you’re considering therapy, you can find an experienced trauma therapist near you by clicking here.

Trauma Chat Podcast

When you get scheduled with a therapist, it may take a week or so before you have your first appointment. If you are waiting to see a trauma therapist and want some additional resources in the meantime, you may want to check out our Trauma Chat podcast or our Therapy Chat podcast. In our podcasts, we discuss topics such as attachment style, childhood trauma, and trauma responses. Podcasts and blogs aren’t a replacement for counseling, but they can be a great source of information while you’re looking for a therapist. It can also be helpful to learn more about trauma and PTSD treatment while you’re in counseling. Remember, healing is possible. You can overcome your trauma.

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Post Details

Publish Date

August 3, 2022

About the Author

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C is an integrative trauma therapist and owner of a group practice, the Baltimore Annapolis Center for Integrative Healing. She is also the host of Therapy Chat and Trauma Chat podcasts and the founder of the Trauma Therapist Network, a website for learning information about trauma and finding resources and help for trauma.

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