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Attachment Trauma in Childhood

When most people think of trauma, they may envision a violent event like a car accident or the abuse of a loved one. But trauma can occur in a variety of ways, and can be especially damaging to a young child’s developing brain and nervous system. These experiences, known as attachment trauma in childhood, can affect a person’s ability to build trust and enjoy healthy relationships into adulthood.

As babies and toddlers grow and develop, they bond with their primary caregivers. This process is vital, and it can be derailed by a variety of situations, such as neglect, domestic violence, parental mental illness, substance abuse or the death of a family member. When this bonding is disrupted, a person can experience attachment trauma that has long-lasting effects.

A person with attachment trauma has an insecure attachment pattern, which can impact their emotional regulation, self-esteem and confidence. They struggle to trust others, and often see the world as a dangerous place. People with attachment trauma often have a hard time finding stable employment, maintaining romantic relationships, and coping with stress and anxiety.

Children with an insecure attachment have a fear of abandonment and are often clingy with their caregivers. They are easily overwhelmed and tend to get stuck in a cycle of negative behaviors, such as withdrawing, acting out or seeking attention from other sources. They have a hard time accepting physical expressions of love and can become easily frustrated when their needs are not met.

Insecure attachment can lead to anxiety and depression. They may have difficulty sleeping, are often irritable and unable to focus at school or work. They can also be impulsive and have trouble with decision-making. They are prone to a wide range of behavioral problems, including bullying and defiance toward parents and teachers.

When a person is struggling with attachment trauma, they can benefit from psychotherapy, a form of talk therapy that focuses on healing the relationship between a person and their primary caregiver. Therapy can help them understand the meaning behind their behavior, learn new coping skills, and improve communication.

Relationship-based therapies such as child-parent psychotherapy (CPP) have proven effective for infants and toddlers who are struggling with attachment trauma or maltreatment. This type of psychotherapy helps a caregiver understand the root causes of their child’s behavior, while fostering an environment of emotional support and safety. In addition, caregivers are taught how to recognize and respond to a child’s emotional signals. This training helps them be more aware of the impact their own early attachment experiences can have on their parenting skills.

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