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Attachment

We Can't Be Trauma-Informed Without Talking Attachment

Our earliest connections determine how safe we feel in the world.

Key points

  • Infancy is the most critical time in brain development.
  • Disruptions in attachment can cause lifelong mental health challenges.
  • It takes a village to help families raise kids from hard places.
  • The alleviation of one child's or one family's trauma benefits our larger society and the world.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Yount (Unsplash)
The neuropathways of attachment patterns begin in infancy and beyond.
Photo courtesy of Lisa Yount (Unsplash)

I'll never forget when our son's therapist made the comment: "I've been doing therapy for over 30 years, and I've seen attachment disorders on the rise." As an adoptive mom, I expected some degree of attachment disorder with my child but was surprised to hear that he had seen an increase in attachment disorder symptoms in children raised in their biological families as well.

"I'm seeing a fallout from kids placed in bad daycare situations," he said. "Most families need two incomes nowadays. Families are stretched. The kids are suffering."

I felt a twinge of relief, knowing that I was able to stay home to raise my kids, both of whom were adopted as toddlers. My husband's income was modest, but the small sacrifice of my career (and income) seemed minor compared to the potential fallout of an additional absent caregiver in the lives of my children. They needed consistency, nurturing, and predictability, and I knew it.

It's hard work raising children who were abandoned in infancy and who spent their earliest months and years in institutions or foster care. But I knew enough from working with women and children in the addiction community to realize the importance of staying the course, even when parenting suddenly felt like a demanding life sentence as my son continued to push me away and thwart my efforts to connect.

Trust vs. Mistrust

I understand that my son’s mistrust of the world originated in infancy—the most crucial time of emotional development[1]. His extreme orphanage neglect ignited a faulty wiring system that registered (and continues to register) me as a threat. Passive-aggressive behaviors in the form of (unintentional) resistance to learning, receiving nurture, and engaging with the world in healthy ways became problematic early on, requiring a village of specialists to help along the way. Despite his rough beginnings, he has made good progress.

I understood that I didn’t create my son’s trauma, but like a tiger responding to danger in the wild, his limbic brain remained in control. His earliest experiences were laden with the fear of abandonment and neglect. Despite my well-intentioned love and nurturing, my mere presence stirred up feelings of terror, angst, and hostility—requiring a lifetime of sensitivity to these issues and the emotional excavation of everything I had known (or thought I had known) about parenting.

Attachment and Brain Development

Terry Levy, at the Evergreen Psychotherapy Center, writes that “While the brain evolves throughout a lifetime, the relationships formed in early childhood are most important to shaping the brain’s development and behavior.” He continues by affirming that “the social world of the child during the first 45 months (nine months in the womb, three years after birth) determines how the brain and mind are formed and how well they work.”[2]

Levy further explains the role of the limbic system in the brain as “the social and emotional part of the brain governing attachment, nurturing instincts, learning, implicit memory (preverbal, unconscious), motivation, stress response, and the immune system. The circuits of the limbic brain are wired together almost entirely by attachment experiences and are altered by stress and trauma.”[3]

Early attachment experiences are encoded into the implicit (preverbal and unconscious) memory systems in the limbic brain and become mindsets and expectations that guide subsequent behavior.[4]While the impact can be lifelong—manifesting in psychological and behavioral issues—there are ways to help children rewire the brain and heal.

The Way Through

The old adage that “knowledge is power” is key to helping children and adults heal from trauma. Understanding the root cause of interpersonal problems as originating in our earliest attachment patterns can help pave the way for early intervention efforts that may mitigate the fallout from the deficits of a child’s earliest years.

It's important to think outside the box and employ long-range goals in our understanding of trauma and its impact on relationships. When our son joined our family, I had an erroneous assumption that his acceptance of love and nurture would be natural and intuitive. It was not. It wasn't until years later that I realized that his brain was formed during his experience of maternal abandonment and that his neuropathways were formed differently. It was humbling to come to the realization that he simply could not bond with me (the female, "nurturing enemy"), but he could bond with my husband. This connection would become the foundation on which my son could heal.

Taking a long-range approach and thinking outside the box hasn't been easy. My son is now a teenager, and his reliance on my husband has taken its toll on our marriage. My husband is now in the place of acting as daddy-bird with our 17-year-old kiddo, chirping the message "We believe in you" as we begin the process of hoping our fledgling will find his way.

Years of therapy and consistency have helped. We've done our part. Here's where we trust the universe and hope to begin to heal.

As a parent in the trenches with a background in mental health, I can attest that it truly does take a village to support families raising kids from hard places. This village requires commitment. It requires dedication to the goal of lessening our "trauma footprint" on society and embracing the understanding that the alleviation of one child's or one family's trauma benefits the larger society and the world. While it isn’t lost on me that resources in these areas are often scarce, I can state with knowledge, experience, and conviction that it’s imperative to invest in measures to circumvent the fallout of attachment trauma.

References

[1] McLeod, S. Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. Simply Psychology. August 2023. https://www.simplypsychology.org/erik-erikson.html

[2] Levy, T. Attachment and the Developing Brain. https://evergreenpsychotherapycenter.com/attachment-and-the-developing-… July 2021.

[3] Levy, T. Early Attachment Relationships and Their Impact on the Brain’s Wiring. https://evergreenpsychotherapycenter.com/early-attachment-relationships-and-their-impact-on-the-brains-wiring/#:~:text=Chronic%20stress%20associated%20with%20a,dysregulation%2C%20anxiety%2C%20and%20depression. April 14th, 2022

[4] Levy, T. Early Attachment Relationships and Their Impact on the Brain’s Wiring. https://evergreenpsychotherapycenter.com/early-attachment-relationships-and-their-impact-on-the-brains-wiring/#:~:text=Chronic%20stress%20associated%20with%20a,dysregulation%2C%20anxiety%2C%20and%20depression. April 14th, 2022

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