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Trauma-Informed Attachment Theory: How Childhood Experiences Impact Adult Relationships and Attachment Styles

Attachment styles can help us understand how our trauma impacts our relationships—and what we can do about it.

A close up of two people loosely holding hands to represent relationships and attachment styles

I work with many organizations that focus on mitigating the impacts of childhood trauma and ACEs; and I’ve noticed that we tend to forget that children with trauma grow into adults with trauma.

In order to create impactful and long-lasting change, we need to invest our energy to healing adults with trauma as well as children with trauma: and that often starts with us unpacking our own trauma.

Today, we’re going to explore how our experiences during adolescence have a profound impact on the patterns we repeat into adulthood—particularly in our relationships.

A mother and daughter laughing in the bathroom mirror, the mother is helping the daughter apply face cream

Attachment Theory & Trauma in Relationships

Attachment theory, pioneered by psychologists like John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, provides a framework for understanding the dynamics of our relationships. It theorizes that we form attachment styles in our early childhoods through interactions with our primary caregivers.

These attachment styles then serve as a blueprint for how we approach relationships throughout our lives. Whenever we’re stuck in a reenactment in our relationships, we can often tie it back to our attachment styles and trauma responses.

In other words, the relationships we have as children shape the relationships we have in adulthood.

What are the four styles of attachment?

The four key attachment styles are secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized.

Anxious Attachment (aka Anxious-Preoccupied)

Those who are anxiously attached tend to fear abandonment. As children, they learned that they couldn’t rely on their parents to be there for them.

Avoidant Attachment (aka Avoidant-Dismissive)

Those with an avoidant attachment style tend to struggle asking for help. As children, they learned that relying on others could result in harm.

Disorganized Attachment

Also known as the anxious-avoidant attachment style, disorganized attachment is a combination of the anxious and avoidant types. This style is linked to inconsistent behavior in a child’s caregiver(s) where they were sometimes a source of comfort and sometimes a source of fear or danger.

Secure Attachment

Those with secure attachment felt confident as children that their caregivers would return if they left, and they readily sought and received comfort from their caregivers when in distress.

In adulthood, securely attached adults feel comfortable with intimacy and vulnerability and they have generally positive views of themselves and other people.

Connecting Attachment Styles & Trauma

Using the trauma-informed lens, we can see how anxious, avoidant, and disorganized attachment styles can be the result of trauma, including but not limited to physical and emotional abuse or neglect.

One of the key factors that prevents what might be a traumatic experience from settling into the body as trauma is whether a person has someone they can talk to about what happened.

For children, this support is usually their caregivers. When caregivers are absent or ill-equipped to meet their children's’ needs, this results in childhood trauma, especially if there is no one a child can go to for support.

While it’s important to recognize how our childhoods impact our adult lives, it’s equally as important to remember a traumatic childhood isn’t a diagnosis. It is possible to heal from our trauma and to move toward secure attachment, regardless of which attachment style we lean toward today.

The silhouette of a person wearing a hoodie and looking out onto a mountain landscape, the photo is in blues and grays, representing insecure attachment styles

Signs of an Insecure Attachment Style

Generally, the attachment styles we learned in childhood stick with us into adulthood. Even when we've taken the conscious effort to grow into secure attachment, we may fall back on our insecure attachment in times of stress.

The signs of insecure attachment show up differently for people with each style, and they can even show up differently for two different people with the same style. However, having even one of the signs below can indicate unresolved trauma and insecure attachment:

  • trouble asking for help/not wanting to ask for help

  • avoiding thinking about painful situations or emotions

  • avoiding conflict in relationships

  • preoccupation with other peoples’ problems

  • playing “the victim” and feeling helpless to change a situation

  • playing “the persecutor” and blaming other people

  • playing “the rescuer” and bring self-sacrificial to help others

  • people pleasing and/or struggling to uphold boundaries or say "no"

  • taking things personally

  • struggling to think about the future, plan, or make decisions

  • feeling "stuck in the past" in some or all of your relationships

  • feeling helpless/hopeless

  • feeling disconnected, unappreciated, or unloved in some or all of your relationships

  • feeling as though you have to "put on a show" for other people, or like you can't be "yourself" around others

This isn't an all-inclusive list of the signs of insecure attachment, but it does have some of the most common ways that insecure attachment shows up in our everyday lives.

Recognizing Insecure Attachment in Your Relationships

As we navigate the complex landscape of adult friendships, understanding attachment styles can serve as a valuable compass.

Recognizing the attachment patterns of ourselves and our friends gives us insights into communication preferences, emotional needs, and potential challenges within the dynamics of our relationships.

By using a trauma-informed lens that links behaviors to attachment styles rather than someone's identity, you can approach your relationships with more compassion and understanding.

Final Thoughts: Attachment Styles and Trauma

Trauma is pervasive and universal. Even when we don't know the details of someone's past, it's always safe to assume that someone has trauma.

The behaviors we see in our friends, partners, and coworkers can somethings leave us baffled, frustrated, or hurt. However, when we approach our relationships with the question of "What happened to you?" instead of "What's wrong with you?", we make a life-changing shift that impacts us and the people in our lives.

Using attachment theory to inform how you move through the world is one example of the trauma-informed paradigm shift. How else are you shifting? Share the story of your personal development journey in the comments below!


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