The Painful Effects of Attachment Trauma


Bonding to a parent or caregiver is a critical part of a baby’s emotional development. In fact, the absence of love and of a strong attachment to a parent can lead to mental and emotional problems later in life.1 Healthy adult relationships with friends, spouses, and even co-workers can be difficult for a person who didn’t have the stability of a positive childhood attachment experience. That’s especially true in situations of attachment trauma.

“Attachment trauma is important because it influences how we relate to ourselves, others, and the world around us. The response style of a person who is secure and trusting is often very different from the response style of individuals who have experienced trust violations, abandonment, or neglect in early childhood or at any time in life,” explains Shauna ‘Doc’ Springer, PhD, Co-founder and Chief Psychologist for Stella, which provides innovative resources for trauma victims.

Attachment trauma can have a variety of causes. But there are also resources that can help address those causes and provide support to victims of attachment trauma. We’ll take a look at what can lead to attachment trauma, the consequences of it, and ways to get help to deal with its effects.

What Is Attachment Trauma and What Causes It?

The role of bonding early in a child’s experience is a pivotal building block for health and well-being.

“The attachment bond, when safe, secure, and reliable-enough, provides the basic scaffold for developing a secure sense of self, with stable self-concept, and a sense of efficacy in managing oneself,” says psychiatrist and psychotherapist Grant H Brenner, MD. It also helps with “relating well with others and making good relationship decisions, pursuing professional goals, and generally getting satisfaction in life while weathering the difficult times,” he adds.

Trauma happens when that time of connection and bonding between a child and their parent is interrupted. The trauma can start with a painful childbirth experience. It can also be caused by a parent being abusive to their child, not showing affection, or neglecting them. Illness, death, and other difficult losses can also lead to attachment trauma. It’s important to understand attachment trauma, because although it may begin in the formative years, the effects continue into adulthood.

In adults, the loss of valued relationships can lead to attachment trauma. Going through a divorce, unexpectedly losing a sibling in a car accident, being rejected by a once-trusted confidant, or being victimized by any type of abuse can leave you dealing with attachment trauma. The loss of the bond you had, whether real or perceived, wreaks havoc on your sense of trust and security.

The Mental and Emotional Impact of Attachment Trauma

Victims of abuse or neglect often struggle with a sense of self. The trauma from this can cause feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. It can make you constantly second-guess your own emotions, making you unsure of what you feel or why.

People who deal with emotional trauma often put up walls to hide insecurities. You may be overly defensive, or always suspicious. In fact, it’s difficult to regulate your emotions, and process your feelings. Trauma can also lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.

These reactions are just some of the consequences of struggling with attachment trauma. When you’ve had a disruption to this critical bonding experience, it colors the way you view yourself and the world around you.

“Attachment trauma is a cornerstone for understanding development, including adult development. Trauma tends to shape autobiographical narrative, sense of self, patterns of relationship with others, and ways of making sense of reality which can have long-lasting effects. Attachment trauma in particular can shift how we engage in adult relationships, personal and professional,” notes Dr. Brenner.

Another long-lasting effect is feelings of unworthiness, thinking you don’t deserve love and security because you didn’t receive it. It’s also not uncommon to suffer from low self-esteem.

“Unaddressed attachment trauma absolutely plays a role in self-esteem. On the one hand, our self-esteem is based on our own evaluation of what we are worth. But if we live our lives according to a script set by others who have neglected, abandoned, damaged, or abused us, this trauma will impact our self-esteem and our identity,” says Dr. Springer.

The impact of attachment trauma is far-reaching, but there are tools that can help.

When dealing with such a sensitive topic as trauma, there’s no one-size-fits all solution. It’s key to do your research. The right therapist, and the right method, are the one that work best for you.

By LaKeisha Fleming and medically reviewed by Yolanda Renteria, LPC
Photo: Josh Willink