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Stand By Me: Relational Trauma

What is Attachment?

We know that a child’s early life experiences has an impact on our functioning as adults. This includes the way that we were cared for, loved, and seen. Attachment can be defined as the emotional and physical connection that we have with our caregivers. When these connections are ruptured, disorganized, or overly attended to, it can cause lasting effects.

When there is a consistent disruption of a stable connection in childhood, this can lead to relational trauma. Relational trauma is a type of trauma unlike the usual traumas we see in the media. As children we do not have the tools to take care of ourselves. The caregiver's job is to provide a safe environment with both support and independence given.

Attachment Styles

I'm sure that you have seen the description of the different attachment styles. If you haven't, attachment styles are the different styles of attunement that we received as children. There are four styles: secure, anxious, disorganized, and avoidant. The secure attachment style is the style that is aimed for. Just because you may have not have a secure style in the past or right now does not mean it can't be achieved. Not sure which style you may have? I took this quiz at and actually found it pretty accurate! Here is a little more in depth look all of the attachment styles from Michael G. Quirke, MFT:

  1. "Secure - As the word implies, this is the result of a healthy childhood. You can flexibly reach out to others for closeness and support, and at the same time, you also regulate your own feelings pretty well. You expect relationships to feel safe and to be a smooth dance between independence and dependence.

  2. Anxious-Preoccupied: Early events can leave you wanting to be close to others but thinking they aren’t consistently interested. This leaves you frequently anxious and reliant on others to regulate your feelings. You also likely suffer with fears of abandonment.

  3. Fearful-Disorganized: In this case, you might wish to be close but fear that others will reject and hurt you. At the same time that you reach out for support, your body simultaneously activates other threat responses like fight, flight, freeze or submit. Therein lies a deeply engrained conflict. People with this attachment style tend to have very unstable relationships.

  4. Dismissive-Avoidant: Relational trauma may leave you feeling distanced and detached. You are self-sufficient, you tell yourself, and you don’t need others. This leads you to be excessively self reliant and thereby you “dismiss” or “avoid” you own attachment needs. You tend to overly rely on self regulation, and avoid reaching out to others for support and emotional intimacy. Many with this style are disconnected from their own feelings, are highly intellectualized and have difficulty recognizing and naming their feelings."

Causes of Relational Trauma

It's entirely too common that a person will come to therapy describing a childhood where there basic needs were not met, where they were the ones taking care of their parents emotionally or physically, or where they were not given enough independence to believe that they could thrive independently. These are relational traumas and can effect a person's mental health, sense of self, and relationships well into adulthood. Gina Ryder at PsychCentral beautifully outlines some of the more obvious, but also sneaky causes of relational trauma. Take a look and see if you can identify patterns that were present in your own childhood.

"Overt causes of relational trauma include:

  • divorce in the family

  • loss in the family, such as death of a parent or sibling

  • postpartum issues

  • physical neglect, such as going without basic needs, like food or water

  • abuse, which could be physical, sexual, or emotional

  • caregiver(s) facing a life threatening illness

  • caregiver(s) having a substance use disorder

  • domestic violence

Covert causes of relational trauma include a caregiver (or more than one caregiver) who:

  • is physically or emotionally unavailable

  • has mental health difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or eating disorders, that may make them less available to be present for their child

  • has inherited trauma they haven’t processed yet and unknowingly pass on to their child

  • has poor boundaries and tends to treat child more like a friend

  • objectifies a child’s body

  • uses psychologically controlling tactics, such as not being affectionate, shaming the child, making the child feel guilty, or not validating a child’s feelings

  • may be controlling, which can remove a child’s power and individuality"

Securing Your Relationships

The process of healing from a maladaptive attachment isn't easy, but worth it. It's also possible to change at any point throughout our lives. Here are some tips to get started on the process towards a more secure attachment:

  • Connect with yourself - The most important connection is the one we have with ourselves. It is helpful to have healthy relationships with others, but nothing can replace a healthy relationship with ourselves. Spend time and prioritize being your own best friend. Ensure that your own mind and body are places that are caring, nurturing, and loving to yourself.

  • Trauma-informed therapy - Another helpful (maybe I'm biased) way to garner a more secure attachment style is through trauma informed therapy. An expert trauma therapist can not only help you gain insight into your own attachment style and how it's shows up in your life, but provide the attunement you may lack in your life to feel more secure. That's the healing power of therapy - just the relationship alone can provide reparenting - but also provide you skills and tools to secure attachment outside of therapy.

  • Finding connection with others - When we feel connected with others through a friendship, romantic relationship, or our family, we can feel more secure. Foster the relationships in your life that bring out your strengths and that make you feel heard, seen, and cared for equally.

  • Set boundaries with those who you don't feel secure with - This might be easier said then done, but it's a good idea to review the boundaries you may have with those in your life that make you feel anxious, avoidant, or disorganized. This is not to say these people don't have to be in your life, but maybe limit their access to your emotional wellbeing.



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