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Attachment & the Impact of Developmental Trauma

February 26, 2016

{I was reviewing a document I wrote for an academic purpose and I realized that some of this may be helpful for you, your friends, teachers, helpers, and extended family.  It’s definitely not written in my blog style of casual and conversational, but perhaps something in it will be just what you needed today.  The portion I’m printing below has been cut and paste from a longer document I wrote.}


Attachment theory, born in the 1950s, is one of the most researched and supported fields of psychology.  Attachment is a biological, relational, and regulatory system which means that attachment first ensures survival, and then lays the ground work for the child’s future ability to form and sustain healthy relationships, and well as develop healthy self- regulatory capacities.  Attachment is categorized as either secure or insecure.  Within the category of insecure attachment are three sub-categories, including insecure avoidant, insecure anxious-ambivalent, and insecure disorganized.

Children with secure attachment develop positive mental models about themselves, relationships, and the world- such as “I’m a good kid” or “I can trust others to be available and meet my needs.”  During early attachment research, Mary Ainsworth noted a consistent attachment cycle that existed between parent/child dyads.  The attachment cycle begins with an infant having a need, expressing the need, and then the parent meeting the need and soothing the child. Secure attachment is developed through the attachment cycle playing out hundreds of thousands of times for a child in the first years of their life.    When a parent is able to consistently and repeatedly meet this cycle in an attuned and responsive manner, the foundation is laid for secure attachment.

Secure attachment is highly correlated with positive mental health, self-esteem, relationships, emotional regulation, and even cognitive abilities.  Secure attachment is one of the best resiliency factors that a child can possess when facing Adverse Childhood Experiences. Dr. Daniel Siegel, founder of the field of Interpersonal Neurobiology, has identified these eight positive outcomes of secure attachment: body regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, fear modulation, insight, empathy, and morality (Siegel, 2015).

Insecure attachment can develop due to various circumstances.  One can be that the attachment cycle is not adequately met, either with a caregiver who is not attuned to the child’s needs and doesn’t meet them in a timely manner, or a caregiver who meets needs in an unpredictable manner.  Approximately 82% of children who have a caregiver who is abusive or neglectful develop an insecure disorganized attachment (Carlson, et. al., 1989).  Other circumstances which negatively impact attachment include Adverse Childhood Experiences (Felitti, 1998), including loss of a caregiver.

When examining attachment in children, it is important to remember that attachment is specific to relationship, not to the child.   Additionally, it is never accurate to label anyone with one specific attachment style.  All people, children and adults, have pockets of secure and insecure attachment.  Having some pockets of insecure attachment does not suggest that a parent/child dyad is not attached, not does it suggest that the parent is ‘bad’ or doing something wrong.   All parents have areas of strength and opportunities for growth.


The National Child Traumatic Stress Task Force defines complex trauma as “multiple traumatic events that occurs within the family and community systems…that are chronic and begin in early childhood.” (Cook, Blaustein, Spinnzaola, and van der Kolk, 2003).  Complex trauma has been shown to have a profound impact across seven domains, including attachment, cognition, biology, affection regulation, behavioral control, dissociation/memory integration, and self-concept.  (Cook, Blaustein, Spinnzaola, and van der Kolk, 2003).  It is clear that complex trauma does not only impact a child’s relationships; it impacts their entire self.  It is crucial that parents and professionals all recognize the importance of supporting secure parent/child relationships as this has been found to be one of the most critical factors for promoting resiliency and mental health (Siegel, 2015).

The Institute of Child Development at Texas Christian University has identified six early childhood experiences that increases a child’s risk for developing trauma related symptoms, including prenatal stress (substance exposure or other maternal stress), birth trauma, early medical trauma, abuse, neglect, and other childhood traumas such as loss of a parent, divorce, or natural disaster (Purvis, et. al., 2013).

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) (Felitti, 1998) is a groundbreaking public health research study that demonstrated a clear link between many types of childhood adversity and the onset of adult physical and mental health disorders.   Chronic adversities change the architecture of a child’s brain, altering the expression of genes that control stress hormone output, triggering an overactive inflammatory stress response for life, and predisposing a child to adult diseases.  (Nakazawa, 2015).   The initial ACES investigation included over 17,000 research participants between 1995 and 1997.  Since 1998, the ACE study has published approximately 70 additional research papers.  Some life events considered to be Adverse Childhood Experiences include the loss of a caregiver, being exposed to domestic violence, having a parent who abuses substances, or having a parent go to prison.

Attachment patterns are correlated between children and their parents at approximately 80% (Benoit, 1994).  The best predictor of a child’s attachment is his parent’s attachment state of mind.  Attachment is not genetic- it is developed through the relationship between children and their caregivers.  If we want children to develop secure attachment, we want them to be raised by parents with secure attachment or we want to support their parents in developing earned-secure attachment.

Attachment losses can have a significant and lasting impact on a child’s attachment.  A significant attachment loss shifts a child’s internal working model to things like “Sometimes parents just leave and never come back” or “I cannot trust parents to take care of me.”  These negative inner working model beliefs can have a profound impact on the way a child, who subsequently becomes an adult, navigates relationships, as well as on their sense of self-worth.  Infants, toddlers, and young children who are not yet storing explicit memories (memories that can be recalled later in life) are still storing implicit memories in the form of the inner working models.  Because of the nature of memory processing, implicit memories are very difficult to change and often remain persistent throughout a person’s life (Siegel, 2015).

An important and often over-looked aspect of attachment is how a child’s experience with attachment relationships lays the groundwork for their emotional and physical regulatory cycles.  Children with secure attachment experiences develop the capacity for self-regulation.  They manage stress well and develop positive behavioral and relationship patterns.  Children with insecure attachment experiences develop an impaired regulatory system which has a profound impact on the child’s ability to cope with and manage stress (Schore, 2003).

When children have a history of attachment disruptions or other attachment trauma, providing them with experiences of secure attachment with caregivers who have the capacity to provide secure attachment, is a crucial part of the healing process.  Minimizing future losses and trauma is also critical.


Benoit & Parker, (1994), Stability and Transmission of Attachment Across the Generations, Child Development Vol. 65 No. 5, pp. 1444-1456.

Carlson, V., et. al. (1989). Disorganized/disoriented attachment relationships in maltreated infants. Devel. Psychol. 25:525-531.

Cook, A., et. al. (2005). Complex Trauma In Children and Adolescents.  Psychiatric Annals, 35:5; May, 2005.

Felitti, V., et. al. (1998).  Relationships of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.  American Journal of Preventative Medicine, Vol. 14, Issue 4 (245-258).

Gray, D. (2012).  Nurturing Adoptions.  Creating Resilience After Neglect and Trauma.  Jessica Kingsley Publisher.

Nakazawa, D.J. (2015-07-07). Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal. Atria Books.

Purvis, K., et. al. (2013).  Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI): A Systematic Approach to Complex Developmental Trauma.  Child & Youth Services, 34:360-386.

Schore, A. (2003). Affect Regulation and the Repair of the Self.  WW Norton & Co.

Siegel, D. (2015). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. Guilford Press.





Like what you read here?  To get more trauma momma support, click here to sign up for my monthly (or less) newsletter!

Join us in Austin on April 29 & 30 for our 3rd annual retreat for struggling parents raising challenging children- EMPOWER, EMBRACE, EMERGE.

Near Albuquerque??  I’d love to meet you at the New Mexico Adoptive Parents Conference on March 12!  I’ll be presenting a workshop “Check your Engine! Cultivating Self-Regulation with Dysregulated Children” as well as the closing keynote “Embracing Ourselves, Emerging through Compassion”

Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.

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