How Trauma Disrupts Attachment

Having a healthy attachment to the primary caregiver as a young infant profoundly influences the child’s overall emotional health. When the infant has a need, expresses the need and the need is met by a loving caregiver over and over again, healthy attachment develops. A break in this attachment cycle ( visit Understanding Attachment to learn more) causes the infant distress and a feeling of helplessness. The more severe and/or more chronic those breaks in the cycles of having the infant’s needs met, the more distressed the child feels, and the more stress hormones are released. These breaks, for whatever reason, exacerbate the trauma. Most literature on childhood trauma cites healthy, strong attachments as being a huge factor in a child’s ability to heal from trauma -often called resiliency to trauma.

Like a huge Catch-22, the effects of the trauma reinforce dysfunctional attachment behaviors, causing attachment problems to worsen. When the breaks in the attachment cycle are perceived by the child as threatening, the child is traumatized. A traumatized child, in turn, will develop behaviors that can interfere with their ability to attach to a primary caregiver. The child may become fiercely independent, overly clingy, angry and rageful, or withdrawn. To the caregiver, especially a new caregiver, such as an adoptive or foster mom, these behaviors make no sense. The mother will attempt to comfort the baby or child in typical ways, and her efforts will be rejected. Babies may fuss inconsolably when being held, push away as they are being carried or refuse food being fed to them.

Child development professionals now concur that children with attachment disorders are in fact traumatized children.

As a child grows, other behaviors develop that at first glance may not appear to be trauma-related. Many children who struggle with attachment are said to be “controlling” and they do indeed try to control every aspect of their life’s situation. From the child’s perspective this basic control battle is about life and death survival. Sometimes the child will have extreme reactions to certain sights, sounds, smells and situations. These are known as “trauma triggers” and can have some connection to an earlier traumatic memory. Sometimes these memories are “remembered” by the child’s thinking brain, but more often they are “state memories” or memories that reside in the child’s mid-brain and impact the way they react to the world with little or no understanding of why they react the way they do. The child’s basic world view is impacted. Traumatized children see the world as basically an unsafe, dangerous place where no one is looking out for them. They also see themselves as unworthy of love and are often filled with shame and self-loathing.

A word about Hypervigilance/Hyperarousal: One of the hallmarks of trauma is that the traumatized person will remain hyper vigilant and unable to relax, especially in situations where the trauma is triggered. While anxiety in adults may be easy to recognize, this hypervigilance can look like hyperactivity and inattentiveness in children. The child is overfocusing on the potential for a traumatic event to reoccur and can look like they’re not paying attention to what they’ve been asked to focus on. They may look lazy or distractable. Or they may appear hyperactive and unable to “pay attention” to the non-trauma-evoking messages. Countless at-risk children (such as adoptive/foster children) are diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. In many of these cases, trauma and the subsequent hypervigilance may be the real culprits. This could account for why ADHD medications aren’t working in many of these children.