Relational Trauma and The Attachment Theory

attachment relational traumas

As human beings, social interactions are not only a crucial component of our lives – they typically provide us with the most joy (and the most pain) that we will ever experience. The first relationships we form, those with our primary caregivers, are shown to have profound and lasting effects on our psychological and biological processes. As children, we are prone to psychologically adapt to our social environment. If we are nurtured and cared for, we are likely to develop into functional, emotionally stable adults. If we are neglected and abused, healthy development will be harshly compromised, and long-term psychological issues are likely to arise. Significant relational trauma has been shown to severely stunt social-emotional development, and seeing that nurture (or lack thereof) essentially becomes nature, early relational trauma of any kind can prove severely deleterious later on in life.

What Is Relational Trauma?

In many cases, the term ‘relational trauma’ refers to severe and overt forms of emotional, psychological, and physical maltreatment – such as sexual or physical abuse. However, the term may also refer to a wide range of covert maltreatment, such as abandonment, love-withdrawal, enmeshment, and parent-child role reversal. Because emotional trauma can be somewhat difficult to pinpoint or recognize, it often persists throughout childhood and adolescence. Children and young adults will adapt to negative patterns of interaction without recognizing that they are doing so, and as a direct result, the way they interact with others and the way they view themselves and the world around them is punitively obscured.

The Attachment Theory

During the 1930s, John Bowlby worked as a child psychologist in a Child Guidance Clinic in London. He treated many deeply emotionally disturbed children, leading him to consider how a child’s relationship with his or her mother affected cognitive, social, and emotional development. He discovered that when infants were separated from or neglected by their mothers, they experienced severe maladjustment later on in life. From this discovery, Bowlby began to develop his theory on attachment. He suggested that an attachment behavioral system initially involved in human beings because it greatly improves chances of survival; the developing child ensures safety and protection by fostering a close and nurturing relationship with caregivers. Bowlby also suggested that a secure attachment between a child and his or her parent did not result in unhealthy dependence, but rather improved chances of healthy functioning and autonomy.

According to attachment theory, a child who experiences fear, instability, loneliness, or pain will be biologically driven to seek comfort from his or her primary caregiver. In a secure attachment relationship, the caregiver will be attentive and responsive, supplying the child with the support he or she requires. Intense emotional states are co-regulated, and the child is thus able to overcome temporary emotional hurdles and continue engaging openly with his or her present environment. Early patterns of attachment shape neurobiological pathways, leading to healthy emotional regulation and perception of self, others, and the world. Of course, if early attachment-related experiences are negative, regulatory capacities will be compromised, and perception will be skewed.

Negative Attachment and The Model of Development

Because this system of attachment plays such a vital role in human development, it remains active in all conditions. Children who undergo relational trauma will still experience attachment, though rather than bolster healthy development, it will foster developmental complications and setbacks. In her model of development, Pia Mellody suggests that all children are born ‘spontaneous, valuable, vulnerable, imperfect, and dependent’. Children cannot choose whether or not to attach – they innately attempt to seek comfort and support from their primary caregivers. Relational trauma occurs when the child attempts to attach but cannot, because his or her primary caregiver is either incapable of or unwilling to provide safety and affection. Even if the caregiver is not acting maliciously, this lack of secure attachment will likely lead to deep-seated feelings of shame, anger, fear, and insecurity. The child will unwittingly adopt a variety of maladaptive behavioral patterns geared towards ensuring stability in future relationships (codependency, enmeshment), as well as an intrinsic sense of unworthiness. We at Next Chapter use this model of development as well as the theory of attachment to reverse detrimental and deeply rooted behavioral patterns that were first instilled in very early childhood. We believe that most behavioral and emotional issues, including substance abuse and dependency, are directly linked to traumatic experiences that occurred very early on in life.

For more information on our program of trauma and addiction recovery, please feel free to contact us today.